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Regional Airports

10. Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): What steps he is taking to reduce aircraft noise at regional airports. [145874]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty): Our preference is that local solutions should be devised for local problems wherever possible. The White Paper—"The Future of Air Transport"—sets out the basic framework within which local controls should operate, and as soon as parliamentary time permits, we will legislate to strengthen the powers of airport operators to combat noise.

Mr. Reed : I welcome my hon. Friend's answer. I am sure that he is aware that night-time noise at East Midlands airport is a major concern for a large number of my constituents. This is a complex issue, and much of the work being done by the Loughborough research centre at the university shows that the number of people awakened by aircraft noise at night is not as high as we might suspect. However, a large number of my constituents are concerned about this. Will my hon. Friend set out in greater detail what stringent noise controls are to be introduced to ensure that recent improvements are built on, so that the many people who feel strongly about this issue are reassured about the future growth of the airport?

Mr. McNulty: My hon. Friend will know that a fairly stringent package of noise constraint measures already exists. At this stage, in the light of the publication of the White Paper, it is entirely up to East Midlands airport

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to come forward with proposals on how it expects to grow in the context of that package. I repeat that we want to secure a local solution wherever possible. In addition, bullet point 4 of paragraph 3.11 of the White Paper states that we will consider national designation

In the first instance, however, it is up to East Midlands airport to respond to what we have said in the White Paper.

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware of the situation at Coventry airport? There is currently no regular passenger service from there, but Thompsonfly has now announced that it intends to launch a budget airline operation from there in March. This has been done without any local consultation or consent, yet the service will rely heavily on regular night flying. This will represent a considerable environmental onslaught on many of my constituents. What powers does the Department have to help us to deal with this situation?

Mr. McNulty: In the first instance, we would seek a local solution as any airport develops. In the last resort, however, if we feel that local solutions are not working, we can designate them nationally and take a far more stringent and legislatively focused reaction to noise and other environmental issues. That is a last resort, however, and we urge people to secure a solution locally in the first instance.

Roads (Colchester)

11. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): When he expects work will start on the junction of the A12 Colchester northern bypass and the northern approach road. [145875]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Kim Howells): The Highways Agency approved the developer's scheme for a new junction in July 2003. The planning applications are still being considered by the Colchester borough council.

Bob Russell : I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. May I urge him to prevail on the Highways Agency to work with the national health service, which will be the principal beneficiary of the junction through the release of land to enable development to take place on a former hospital site and adjoining land? The borough council is the second major beneficiary, because of the employment and housing prospects. Third but not least is the new stadium for Colchester United football club, which is dependent on this junction. I urge the Minister and his colleagues to work with the Highways Agency and the NHS to get the junction approved sooner rather than later.

Dr. Howells: Yes, indeed, I would be very glad to do that. I trust that the hon. Gentleman will tell the council to get a move on—especially given that the Liberals are the largest party on it.

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The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Employment Regulation

20. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): When he next expects to meet the chairman of the Better Regulation Task Force to discuss employment regulation. [145856]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Douglas Alexander): I have regular meetings with the chairman of the Better Regulation Task Force to discuss all aspects of the better regulation agenda.

Mr. Bellingham : When the Minister next meets the chairman of the Better Regulation Task Force, will he discuss with him the UK's individual opt-out from the working time directive? Does he agree with the CBI and the Forum of Private Business, which have recently stated that the opt-out is vital for the UK's competitiveness? Or does he agree with his Socialist colleagues in the European Parliament and Commissioner Diamantopoulou, who both want to scrap the individual opt-out as soon as possible? On whose side is he?

Mr. Alexander: I certainly agree that the working time directive opt-out is important, not just for the United Kingdom but for several member states. The recent European Commission communication does not say that the opt-out should go; it identifies some abuses, and asks how those can be addressed. On the point of view of the CBI, however, I would certainly agree with its director-general in his concluding interview of the year, in which he stated:

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab): Is it not important that when we look at removing burdens, we do not equate that with removing worker protection, because many Conservative Members equate the two?

Mr. Alexander: I find myself in full agreement with my hon. Friend. This Government make no apology for paid holidays, time off to attend to family matters, and, of course, the national minimum wage and the working time directive.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): The Minister will be aware that the TUC has today spoken of the massive hidden unemployment in Britain and has called on the Government to get a grip. Is not the reason for that that the Government are moving people from unemployment on to sickness benefits, thereby hiding the true extent of unemployment? Is not the background to that that the Government have so laden businesses with extra regulation that they are not producing the extra private sector jobs that are necessary?

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Mr. Alexander: I hardly know where to begin in answering that question. First, on the point of taking lessons from the Opposition on employment, they will of course be aware that there are historically high levels of employment in this country at this stage. Secondly, it is of course a matter of record that we have both low inflation and high employment at this stage. In relation to moving people off unemployment and on to disability benefit, again, the last people to lecture the Government are the Conservatives.

UN Technology Summit

21. Mr. David Stewart (Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the recent UN technology summit in Geneva on the digital divide. [145857]

24. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne & Sheppey) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the recent UN technology summit on the digital divide. [145860]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Douglas Alexander): My hon. Friend the Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services represented the Government at a recent world summit on the information society in Geneva. The summit developed a plan of action to ensure that the benefits of information and communication technologies flow to all in society.

Mr. Stewart: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is crucial to use technology to benefit billions of people in the developing world? There should not have to be a choice between pentiums and penicillin; we should be thinking about how to use the power of the internet to benefit the poor and the dispossessed.

Mr. Alexander: I entirely agree. The real challenge is to ensure that new technologies do not exacerbate historical divides, and that is as true in the United Kingdom as it is in the world as a whole. I am proud of this Government's record of tackling the digital divide, not just in my hon. Friend's constituency but through international initiatives such as the summits attended by the Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services.

Mr. Wyatt: My hon. Friend may not know that I won a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association bursary to examine the digital divide, and travelled to Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia. I concluded that what was needed to tackle the digital divide was a solar powered computer, which could be made in Africa for under £100. Will my hon. Friend use his best endeavours to persuade the Commonwealth Development Corporation and the Government to run a competition for that purpose?

Mr. Alexander: I know of my hon. Friend's longstanding commitment to this issue. I will certainly think about it, and I should be happy to correspond with him.

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Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): Does the Minister agree that the questions "Who runs the internet?" and "How?", which are on the United Nations summit agenda, are increasingly important as the internet becomes an essential part of all our lives? To assist in that debate, will he undertake to publish as clear a statement as possible about the United Kingdom Government's policy in relation to the UN, the International Telecommunication Union and all the other bodies involved in deciding how the internet is run?

Mr. Alexander: As the hon. Gentleman will know, a huge amount of work is being done not just domestically but internationally through a range of organisations. I shall try to ensure that the e-envoy writes to him about his observations.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): I congratulate British Telecom on lowering trigger levels, which has led to an expansion of broadband throughout the UK; but is the Minister aware that according to the International Telecommunication Union, based in Geneva, take-up has fallen in Britain in relation to that in other countries? We have in fact dropped from fifth to 18th place. What role can the Government play to encourage those with computers whose areas provide broadband to transfer to it from dial-up?

Mr. Alexander: I certainly think there is a role for enlightened Members of Parliament, who can speak in public debates about the benefits that can accrue to individual constituents from broadband, but I also think we should retain a sense of scale and proportion. Price is no longer a barrier in the UK—broadband prices have fallen to competitive levels in international terms—and there has been an exponential growth in the broadband market in recent years: 80 per cent. of the UK population now has access to the mass-market service. I particularly welcomed BT's announcement in November that it would make a further tranche of exchanges possible.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Do the Government accept that there is still a significant digital divide between rich and poor parts of the country? Many poor rural and former mining constituencies, in particular, still have no access to digital terrestrial television. When will the Government ensure that freeview is available throughout the country?

Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend has raised two important points. The first was about digital television, in which we are one of the world leaders. We continue to make progress in that regard. The second concerned digital inclusion. We are not resting on our laurels following our significant success with broadband; we are looking more deeply at the barriers in communities such as my hon. Friend's that prevent people from adopting the internet. One barrier is caused by income levels, a second by age, and there are also cultural barriers. That is why I was so pleased with our "Get Started" campaign last year, which involved harnessing the 6,000 UK online centres in the country to tackle the digital divide of which my hon. Friend speaks.

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