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Mr. Alexander: The Government have already set out in great detail its position on the future of the Structural and Cohesion Funds. We put forward reform proposals in a consultation document of 2003 and confirmed the Government's approach in two written statements to Parliament on 17 September and 11 December 2003.
In short, the Government is proposing that the funds should in future be focused on the poorest EU member states. If our proposals are accepted, we have guaranteed to increase domestic spending on regional policy in the UK.
Norman Lamb: To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry with regard to the recent statement by the National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines on Avient, how many (a) meetings, (b) telephone calls and (c) other types of communication took place between (i) the UK National Contact Point and (ii) other UK Government officials and Avient's representatives; on what dates each such communication took place; and whether Avient was allowed to comment on the statement before it was made public. 
Mr. Alexander: Dialogue with the company is covered by the confidentiality provisions of the OECD Guidelines. Avient did see the statement in draft form before it was published and submitted some factual comments, a number of which were accepted.
Nigel Griffiths: The latest official figures based on VAT registrations show 690 businesses being registered for VAT in Coventry in 2003, which is a 16 per cent. increase on the year before. Data for 2004 will be available in autumn 2005.
Lembit Öpik: To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what assessment he has made of the benefit of maintaining an airworthy example of Concorde for research and development purposes; and if he will make a statement. 
Dr. Pugh: To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what recent discussions Ofgem has had with energy suppliers on the (a) accuracy, (b) comprehensibility and (c) timeliness of their billing procedures. 
Mr. Mike O'Brien: My Department has regular discussions with the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (Ofgem) about a range of consumer issues, including billing. My officials are working with the industry, Ofgem and Energywatch on establishing industry- wide standards that address billing problems.
Mr. Mike O'Brien:
Neither. OFGEM nor Energywatch routinely collects this information. The rules governing meter-readings are the responsibility of OFGEM. Gas and electricity suppliers are obliged to ensure that customers' meters are physically read and inspected once every two years, although suppliers will seek to read meters more frequently. Customers may
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provide their own meter readings instead of accepting an estimated bill. The supplier must accept that reading or arrange to read the meter itself.
Mr. Hayes: To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry pursuant to her answer of 15 December 2004, Official Report, column 1124W, on the EU constitution, whether such a legal basis exists within the European Communities treaties. 
Mr. Alexander: Article III-122 of the proposed constitutional treaty would provide a legal basis for European laws defining the principles and conditions enabling services of general economic interest to fulfil their missions, without prejudice to the competence of member states, in compliance with the constitution, to provide, to commission and to fund such services. There is presently EC competence to legislate on services of general economic interest within the current European community treaty, for example, in Articles 71 and 80(2) (transport), 95 (internal market approximation measures) and 156 (trans-European networks). A measure under Article III-122 could deal with the principles and conditions referred to above across a range of services of general economic interest; to do this under the current European community treaty would require assembling sectoral legal bases or restricting the measure to approximation provisions. Any new law made under Article III-122 would be adopted on the basis of qualified majority voting and co-decision with the European Parliament. Article III-122 explicitly maintains the competence of member states in the key areas of providing, commissioning and funding services of general economic interest.
Mr. Hayes: To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry pursuant to her Answer of 15 December 2004, Official Report, column 1124W, on the EU Constitution, what the definition is of services of general economic interest; and if she will make a statement on the effect of the provisions of the EU Constitutional Treaty on the competence of (a) member states and (b) the European Commission in respect of such services. 
Mr. Alexander: There is neither a UK- nor EU- level legal definition of services of general economic interest (SGEIs), although the term services of general economic interest" can be found in Articles 16 and 86 of the EC Treaty. However, the European Commission states in its White Paper on Services of General Interest (COM (2004) 374 final) that there is broad agreement that the term SGEIs refers to services of an economic nature which the member states or the Community subject to specific public service obligations by virtue of a general interest criterion". In ECJ case C-l79/90, the court said that SGEIs were services which exhibited a general economic interest with special characteristics compared with those offered by other economic activities".
The EC Treaty presently gives the European Commission competence to bring forward proposals for EC legislation on SGEIs under sectoral legal bases, for example Articles 71 and 80(2) (transport) or 156 (trans-european networks), or under Article 95 (internal market approximation measures). Such proposals could
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define the principles and conditions enabling SGEIs to fulfil their missions. A Commission proposal for legislation on SGEIs would have to be compliant with the EC Treaty's provisions, such as internal market requirements, and could not infringe on member states' competence to provide, to commission and to fund these services.
The Constitutional Treaty would give the Commission an additional legal basis under which the Commission could bring forward a proposal for legislation on SGEIs at a horizontal level. However, a commission proposal on SGEIs under this legal base would also have to be compliant with the EC Treaty's provision, such as internal market requirements, and Article III-122 explicitly maintains the competence of member states in the key areas of providing, commissioning and funding services of general economic interest.
Mr. Brady: To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what constraints apply to the requirement to promote scientific and technological advance as set out in Article 13(3) of the proposed EU Constitution. 
Ms Hewitt: The detailed provisions relating to this objective are contained in Articles III-248255 of the Treaty. These largely reflect the existing EC competence in this area, with the addition of an explicit reference to space policy. The Article's set out the European Union's aim to achieve a European Research Area, improve the EU's competitiveness in science and technology and ensure EU policies are properly supported by research. They also outline a list of activities to support these aims. As with the rest of the Treaty, any action in this area is also subject to the application of the principles of proportionality and subsidiarity. In addition, any action would be subject to the constraints of the EU budget.
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