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27 May 1999 : Column WA99

Written Answers

Thursday, 27th May 1999.

BSE Inquiry

Lord Tomlinson asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What progress has been made on the BSE Inquiry.[HL2685]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue): The BSE Inquiry was originally intended to report on 31 December 1998. At the request of the inquiry, the Government announced on 9 March 1998 that the original terms of reference would be revised to allow the inquiry until 30 June 1999 to report. The inquiry has now requested a further extension and, following discussions with the committee about the time needed to complete their task, the Government have agreed that the report shall be delivered by 31 March 2000.

Withholding Tax

Lord Stoddart of Swindon asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Further to the Written Answer by the Lord McIntosh of Haringey on 17 May (WA 1), whether they will now make it clear that they will not agree to any European Union proposals for a withholding tax which risks serious damage to United Kingdom financial markets as distinct from European Union financial markets.[HL2633]

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: The Government will not agree to any Directive which would risk serious damage to the financial services industry in the City of London. We have already made it clear on a number of occasions that the draft Directive is not acceptable in its present form.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Further to the Written Answer by the Lord McIntosh of Haringey on 17 May (WA 1)--

    (a) whether parliamentary scrutiny arrangements can prevent them from agreeing to any proposal by the European Council for a withholding tax;

    (b) whether, following such an agreement, there would be a breach of European Community law if the necessary tax legislation was not enacted in the United Kingdom; and

    (c) whether such a breach would undermine both Parliament's control of supply and the constitutional principle that one Parliament cannot bind its successors.[HL2634]

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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: There are long-standing government undertakings to both Houses of Parliament that they will not normally vote in favour of (or in some cases abstain from voting on) proposals in the Council of Ministers which are still subject to the established parliamentary scrutiny arrangements. The undertakings are embodied in a 30 October 1980 Resolution of the House of Commons (updated on 24 October 1990).

A failure to give effect to an obligation to transpose the provisions of an EC Directive would be a breach of our obligations under the EC Treaty, and would render the United Kingdom liable to infraction proceedings under Article 226 (ex-Article 169).

The European Communities Act 1972 provides for effect to be given in our domestic law to obligations of the United Kingdom under EC law, including, where necessary, for those obligations to override inconsistent provisions of our domestic law.

Financial Service Industry

Lord Kennet asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is the value to the United Kingdom of the financial service industry; what is the economic character of that value; why is VAT not levied on the industry; and, if it were levied at the average rate, what would be the return to the Exchequer.[HL2645]

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: The annual value to the United Kingdom of the financial service industry is variable. Annual figures are available in table 4.1.1 of the publication United Kingdom National Accounts 1998. For comparison purposes, annual figures for the whole are available in table 2.1 of the same publication.

Under European law, a range of financial services are specifically exempt from VAT. The United Kingdom is required to give effect to this exemption in domestic legislation.

The estimated revenue increase from removing the VAT exemption for financial services and taxing them at the standard rate of VAT is £100 million, as published in table C of HM Customs and Excise 1997-98 annual report.

Post Offices: Automation Programme

Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether at the end of each month they will place a report in the Library of the House giving details of the post offices automated under the ICL Pathway Project.[HL2583]

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Simon of Highbury): The detailed programme for the rollout of the ICL Pathway project to all post offices in the network is an operational matter for the Post Office and ICL Pathway.

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Manmade Objects in Earth Orbit

Lord Kennet asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is their estimate of the number of useless objects currently in orbit around the earth; how many present risks to useful objects; and what steps are being taken to retrieve them to reduce garbage in space.[HL2644]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville): The population of catalogued manmade objects in orbit around the earth is approaching 10,000. This number represents objects greater in size than about 30cm in low earth orbit (LEO) and greater than about 1 metre in geosynchronous earth orbit (GEO). Of these catalogued objects, only about 350 are active satellites. In addition, there are estimated to be over 300,000 objects in orbit that are greater than 1cm and a correspondingly larger number of even smaller objects. Natural debris predominates at sizes less than 1mm, man-made debris at all other sizes.

All objects in earth orbit present some element of risk to active space systems. The extent of the risk depends on the orbit.

The UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) is working towards agreement on the steps to be taken to mitigate the growth and impact of space debris. A report will be submitted to the UN General Assembly in Autumn 1999. Recommended activity includes removing space objects from orbit at the end of their lives, making safe objects remaining in space and other measures to help control the rate of growth of space debris.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has also recently produced a Space Debris Mitigation Handbook which will be presented to industry in early June.

Large Vessels: Construction Capacity

Lord Ironside asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How many shipbuilding yards capable of building and fitting out large vessels of 40,000 tonnes or more are currently operational in the United Kingdom; and who are registered owners in each case.[HL2245]

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Tonnage is only one factor in determining a yard's capabilities; others include the overall dimensions of the vessel and any specialist design or manufacturing capabilities that may be needed.

My department estimates that two yards are currently capable of building vessels of that size: these are Harland & Wolff in Belfast and Marconi Marine at Barrow. Their registered owners are Harland and Wolff Holdings plc, Queens Island, Belfast BT3 9DU and Marconi Marine (VSEL) Ltd, Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria LA14 1AF respectively.

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Further, my department's assessment is that there are other yards which might also be capable of building these vessels with some modification to their existing facilities.

Palace of Westminster: Millennium Celebration

Lord Hayhoe asked the Chairman of Committees:

    Whether any arrangements are being made for celebrations within the Palace of Westminster on 31 December 1999 to 1 January 2000.[HL2616]

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Boston of Faversham): The House of Commons has agreed that the public areas of the Commons should be closed that night. In the House of Lords, there will be a celebration, sponsored by the Millennium Commission, in the Royal Gallery. Events in the Lord Chancellor's Apartment are a matter for the Lord Chancellor. Elsewhere, no events are planned in the House of Lords that night.

Parliamentary Website: Foreign Language Guides

Lord Hoyle asked the Chairman of Committees:

    Whether consideration will be given to amending the Palace of Westminster website to indicate that it is possible to have a guide in a foreign language if visitors require one.[HL2560]

The Chairman of Committees: Yes.

Human Rights: Joint Committee

Lord Lester of Herne Hill asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Further to the Written Answer by the Baroness Jay of Paddington on 20 May (WA 56), what are their reasons for delaying asking both Houses to approve Motions to appoint a joint committee on human rights; and[HL2650]

    Whether they consider that the proposed joint committee on human rights should be able to enquire into ministerial statements of compatibility made under Section 19 of the Human Right Act 1998; and[HL2666]

    Whether they consider that the proposed joint committee on human rights should be empowered to consider amendments tabled during the passage of a bill which might render the bill incompatible with Convention rights; and[HL2667]

    Whether they consider that the proposed joint committee on human rights should be able to scrutinise the compatibility of secondary legislation with convention rights.[HL2668]

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington): The joint committee will be appointed in the context of the Human Rights Act 1998, which will come fully into force on 2 October 2000. It is intended

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to set up that committee before the Human Rights Act 1998 comes fully into force so that it will have time to prepare its work. The terms of reference for the joint committee have yet to be finalised and proposed to both Houses. However, it is envisaged that they will include the conduct of inquiries into general human rights issues in the United Kingdom, the scrutiny of remedial orders, the examination of draft legislation where there is doubt about compatibility with the incorporated convention rights and the issue of whether there is a need for a human rights commission to monitor the operation of the Human Rights Act.

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