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Baroness Gardner of Parkes: How will ordinary people wishing to visit the Games get their visas? I ask this because the immigration department seems to be very slow. The case that I took up with the noble Lord some months ago, which he kindly passed on to the immigration office, looks as though it has gone into a black hole. It would be very discouraging for people if
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Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness. I did not realise that the case had gone into a black hole and I shall certainly go digging in that black hole to find out the answer. I apologise now and will get an answer on the specific point that she raised. Generally, our visa application process works within the parameters that we allow and I do not see that there should be any difference to that at all. There will be a slight addition to the load in that there are specialist volunteers for the Olympics who are not entitled to accreditation. I have had no indication from the UKBA teams that there will be a delay as a result of this, but I will look into it.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: Can my noble friend confirm that the arrangements that he has just announced for the London Olympics will also apply for the Commonwealth Games to be held in Glasgow in 2014, which by my calculation should be the fourth year of the next Labour Government?
Lord Carlile of Berriew: My Lords, further to my noble friend's question about asylum, does the noble Lord anticipate the Government using the advent of the Olympics as a means of hastening the negotiation of the deportation with assurance arrangements so that we can avoid large numbers of people applying for asylum and, in effect, being free to stay in this country whether we like it or not?
Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, I have personally been involved in deportation with assurance discussions with a number of countries. This is a real issue. It is not quite as bad as when the Soviet philharmonic orchestras used to visit here and go back as string quartets, but I think that there could be a problem and I will certainly look at whether this is an issue.
Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, can I have an assurance that competitors at musical festivals, such as the Llangollen international festival, of which I just happen to be a vice-president, will not be charged excessive fees? A fee of £67 per visa is a great hindrance to choirs with, say, 40 or 50 members. What are the regulations for this sort of competitor?
Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, for the Olympics, those 40,000 will not be charged for their accreditation cards. That was part of the agreement that was reached when one was negotiating the Olympic bid. I know that the noble Lord is very much involved in music festivals; indeed, we have been in dialogue on a couple of issues. I do not believe that the visa fee is excessive and at the moment there is no intention to change the pricing.
Lord Davies of Oldham: Listing does not guarantee that an event will be shown live on free-to-air television. Similarly, excluding an event from the list does not mean that it will necessarily be lost to free-to-air television. However, no decisions will be made by the Secretary of State on which events should be included in any list until he has reviewed the material and views generated by the Government's consultation, which ends in March.
Lord Hoyle: My Lords, in thanking my noble friend for his Answer, I declare an interest as the chairman and now president of Warrington Wolves Rugby League Club, the proud owners of the Challenge Cup. I ask him to use his influence to ensure that the event remains on free-to-air television as it is a spectacle that is enjoyed equally by people in the north and the south. They find it thrilling and exciting. I speak not only for myself and the Rugby League authorities but for all supporters of Rugby League.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am not at all surprised that my noble friend has raised this issue at this opportune time. He will know that representations are being made to the department on exactly that point. He will also recognise that the criteria involve not just the appeal of the programme to loyal fans but its national significance. I have no doubt that my noble friend is working on that case strenuously, too.
Lord Mawhinney: My Lords, I declare an interest, first as chairman of the Football League and secondly as deputy chairman of England's 2018 World Cup bid. What is the Government's estimate of how long privately owned and funded media outlets will continue to enhance British sport if they are prevented from covering some of the major events in the calendar?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Lord is well placed to know the significance of sport on television. Indeed, he knows that private companies in the past have valued these sports opportunities very highly. It is an issue of balance, but I am sure that he would concede that the argument for listed events-when they include something as significant as, for instance, the Football Association Cup final or the Ashes tests-is a reflection of the fact that this sporting nation wants access to its major sports at crucial times, which free-to-air television guarantees, whereas private television, as the noble Lord defines it, requires a subscription. A balance has to be struck on those two perspectives.
Lord Addington: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the case for the Challenge Cup final is odd in that Rugby League wants its position as free-to-air viewing reserved rather than, as is normally the case, the sporting body itself saying, "No, we will try to make as much money as we can out of this", to support its own internal programmes? Does he agree that we have something unique here and that it is not a run-of-the-mill example?
Lord Davies of Oldham: The noble Lord makes an important point that the Rugby League lobby is different in those terms and shows its commitment to its sport. He will also know that the argument on the other side is that the extra resources that can be generated from competitive bids from television companies give sports the opportunity to develop their programmes for the enhancement of youngsters learning those sports.
Lord Morris of Handsworth: My Lords, I too declare an interest, as a member of the England and Wales Cricket Board. Is the Minister satisfied that the Davies report took cognisance of the economic consequences of its recommendation? Is he aware that some sections of the game of cricket-women's cricket and cricket for people with disability-are financed almost exclusively through broadcasting rights?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I emphasise to the House that the Davies report has nothing to do with me. In his report, my namesake identified the list. As my noble friend indicated, the point with regard to the home Ashes matches is significant. The cricket authorities make good use of additional resources in enhancing the development of young people's interest in cricket and in helping to build the strength of cricket in this country. However, again I maintain that there is a balance between the excellent resources generated from cable and satellite television bids and the advantage to the nation of the big sporting events capturing its imagination.
Lord Glentoran: My Lords, the Minister has twice spoken about balance. What economic assessment have the Government made of the effect on grass-roots sport of permanent free-to-air sport on television?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, it is precisely because of that factor that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is involved in additional consultation, which will be concluded in March. Of course, the factor indicated by the noble Lord should and will be taken into account in the decisions taken.
The current cold weather began in mid-December and is the most prolonged spell of freezing conditions across the UK since December 1981. The Met Office forecasts that the current very cold conditions are likely to continue across most of the country for some days longer.
These extreme conditions continue to affect our transport and energy networks, as well as public services including schools and hospitals. I would like to thank the many hundreds of thousands of people working tirelessly across the country to keep Britain moving in these extreme conditions.
Over the past weeks, we have seen many tremendous examples of Britain's community spirit in action, with people lending vehicles, digging clear paths to allow ambulances and police vehicles through and visiting neighbours in need. We will do all we can to support and encourage people helping out in their communities.
Our key priority is to keep open the core transport networks, national and local. All main transport networks are operational, albeit with reduced services in some areas. The vast majority of the motorways and major trunk roads remain open. Network Rail and the train operating companies advise that the major rail routes are open, subject to delays and cancellations. The position is similar for air travellers. Eurostar is running a reduced service. Our advice remains that people should check routes before they travel and I thank all travellers for their forbearance at this time.
To keep our roads open, much of our attention has been to ensure that ploughs and gritters have got out to where they are needed most. The Highways Agency has had its fleet of 500 salt spreaders and snow ploughs out in force throughout this period, as have local authorities.
Last week we opened the Salt Cell, a collaborative task force involving central government, the Local Government Association, the Met Office, the devolved Administrations and Transport for London. The group advises salt suppliers on how best to distribute salt.
Last Friday, I directed the Highways Agency to manage its use of salt in response to forecasts of prolonged bad weather by reducing its daily use of salt by at least 25 per cent. It has achieved this by taking measures such as not directly spreading salt on the hard shoulder of motorways.
For local roads, the Local Government Association and the Mayor of London have agreed to reduce daily use by at least 25 per cent also, recognising the importance of mutual support to keep Britain moving safely. Local authorities are taking their own decisions as to the prioritisation of supplies in their localities. The Highways Agency has played a key role in providing
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We continue to take all possible steps to maximise the production of salt from our principal suppliers. On 29 December, the Highways Agency placed an order for significant additional salt imports. These are due to start arriving later this month.
The energy sector is experiencing high demand due to the extreme conditions. The system has been responding generally well at a time of record demand. However, ongoing supply issues in Norway have caused National Grid to issue a gas balancing alert today, as well as on Saturday, when the problems arose. The gas balancing alert is a tool that National Grid uses to make sure that there is enough gas on tap and there is no shortage of supply for domestic customers.
The Department for Work and Pensions is helping citizens in two ways this winter-with winter fuel payments, first introduced in 1997, and now standing at £250 for pensioner households, rising to £400 for the over-80s, and also cold weather payments of £25 for those in receipt of pension credit, where there are sub-zero temperatures over the course of seven consecutive days. Cold weather payments were last year increased to £25 from £8.50 per week. These payments are automatic. Everyone in Great Britain who is entitled will get them and should not worry about turning their heating up.
During times of increased demand, we all need to think responsibly about whether our health issues are a genuine priority and use NHS resources responsibly. Medical advice is available by phone through NHS Direct.
There are no reports of major problems with food supplies reaching retailers. Because the UK has a diverse supply of food from domestic and international suppliers, we are not reliant on just one source of food, which helps maintain stability of supply as well as keeping prices stable.
Last week, we relaxed the enforcement of drivers' hours regulations to ensure that the essential deliveries of rock salt and animal feed could be made. Over the weekend, we further relaxed the enforcement of the regulations to allow the delivery of fuel oil to remote areas of Scotland, de-icer to be delivered to airports and bulk milk tankers to continue making their deliveries.
Schools are making every effort to reopen after last week's closures, and this week there has been a significant improvement. The Department for Children, Schools and Families reports that virtually all exam centres are able to run their exams as scheduled, or have found alternative locations at which to hold them.
I know that the House will wish to join me in thanking the hundreds of thousands of people across the transport industries, the NHS, the education system, the Armed Forces, local authorities and other public services for helping all our communities come through this severe weather. However, the forecasts are for a further period of snow and sub-zero overnight temperatures and we must take further steps to keep Britain moving
In July last year, the UK Roads Liaison Group published a report into the lessons learnt from the
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The key recommendation was that local highway authorities should keep at least six days of salt stocks, and that over and above that the Highways Agency should hold an additional strategic supply to underpin national resilience. To this end, the Highways Agency came into this winter period with a 13-day supply of salt, subject of course to replenishment.
The report also made recommendations for my department to convene a Salt Cell task force to prioritise supplies in the event of extreme conditions. This we have done. Salt Cell has enabled us to prioritise salt distribution to where it is most needed, and I am grateful for the co-operation of the Local Government Association, the Mayor of London and the devolved Administrations. The Salt Cell next meets tomorrow morning.
Given the prolongation of the very cold weather, further measures are likely to be required over the next 48 hours to keep networks open. These are likely to include further steps to conserve salt, to ensure that the Highways Agency and local authorities can manage during the continuing severe weather. The Local Government Association and the Government are in constant contact and we will continue to take the necessary operational decisions to keep networks open as far as possible.
We are experiencing the most severe weather conditions for 29 years, in common with much of northern Europe. We need to continue pulling together for the common good, as we have done over the past weeks.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I thank the Secretary of State for his Statement. He very nearly had the advantage over me since we did not receive it until 2.30 pm, so it has been a bit of a scramble to come up with a timely response. We recognise that this has been a very difficult time for many people across the country. London is beginning to recover, as the Secretary of State said, but many others parts are going to take somewhat more time to get back to normal even if there is not more snow, which is not at all certain yet.
The recent weather has disrupted many communities across the United Kingdom and, specifically, put children in jeopardy of not being able to take their examinations. I am glad to hear from the Secretary of State that most centres have opened. Have any centres not opened and are some children therefore at risk of not being able to take their exams starting today? If so, what will be done for them?
The conditions pertaining in the past couple of weeks have brought out the best in communities, as the noble Lord said, and I dare say that very few people have been left to deal with the conditions alone. I know that local authorities, voluntary services, the Army and neighbours have been working flat out to ensure that support has been provided where necessary. As we know, there have been a number of tragic accidents during the bad weather.
The main criticisms have arisen latterly and been centred on the draining of salt and grit stocks. I understand that most of the main roads and A-roads have now been cleared and are fully open apart from the hard shoulders. However, not only are many B-roads and side roads leading to private houses and villages still extremely treacherous, but some areas are still cut off. Can the Secretary of State tell us whether pulling back the salt supposed to go to Germany will mean that there is enough stock to keep the main roads and A-roads open and to start clearing the B-roads and side lanes, or will we start relying on the importation of other salt? As I understood the Secretary of State, that is not likely to arise in the very near future.
Looking to the future, can the Secretary of State say whether the Government will have discussions with salt and grit producers as well as local authorities? How can adequate stocks be ensured to cover the types of conditions that we have experienced this year? There was a 13-day supply but, in reality, that has not been sufficient. We already know that a new depot for salt has been provided near Heathrow Airport. Can the Secretary of State say whether he will be looking at other storage areas so that bigger stocks can be maintained in the future and, perhaps, distributed more widely across the country?
Is it the intention that the co-ordinating group, Salt Cell-such a wonderful name-will now be the main controller of access to salt supplies? If so, how will this be carried out from now on? I fully understand that local authorities and the Mayor of London are involved in this, but how long will Salt Cell stay in existence? Will it need to reduce even further the salt allowances? What are the total salt stocks now held in the United Kingdom and how long is it expected that they will last?
The Secretary of State has touched on the food supply. The large supermarkets have largely done very well, as they have transport to ensure that they can access the roads and reach all their stores, but does the Secretary of State have any indication of how the smaller shops have done? They have not benefited from the same advantages as the larger supermarkets and often have to use their own private delivery vehicles to collect stocks from elsewhere.
Reports that councils have been asked to reduce by 25 per cent the amount of salt that they use raises a major concern about their ability to keep the roads open. I know that the councils have endorsed the 25 per cent reduction, but will they have to reduce the amount further to ensure that stocks do not run out?
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