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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 130: debated on Monday 28 March 1988

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Energy

Electricity Privatisation

1.

To ask the Secretary of State for Energy when he next expects to meet the chairman of the Electricity Consumers' Council to discuss the proposed privatisation of the electricity supply industry.

4.

To ask the Secretary of State for Energy when he next expects to meet the chairman of the Electricity Consumers' Council; and what subjects he proposes to discuss.

I meet the chairman of the Electricity Consumers' Council, John Hatch, from time to time to discuss various matters relating to the privatisation of the electricity supply industry.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Has not the Electricity Consumers' Council welcomed the proposals on privatisation, particularly those protecting consumers' rights?

My hon. Friend is right. The Electricity Consumers' Council has welcomed a number of aspects of the privatisation proposals, in particular the proposal for customers' rights, which will give customers the right to compensation if the boards fail to perform to an agreed standard.

In view of the increase in electricity prices in April, will the Secretary of State bear in mind the crucial needs of the paper, chemical and metallurgical industries, which have to compete in international markets?

Yes. As my hon. Friend knows, there is a problem under our present law about making arrangements for heavy industrial users. The industry is under a statutory obligation not to show undue preference to any customer, but we recognise the need to help the heavy industrial user, and the qualifying industrial consumers schemes and other measures that have been adopted give substantial help to the heavy user.

Will the Secretary of State explain why, now that a proportion of electricity to be generated must, by law, be nuclear, thus denying market forces, he has opened up to investors from America, where they cannot get nuclear power stations built because of market forces, the right to invest in this country? What consumer right is there in that arrangement?

We have reserved to the distribution companies the obligation to buy a proportion of their electricity from non-fossil fuel supplies, but we have not specified from where. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is referring to the proposed speech of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy, which he will be making in about an hour's time in America. In that speech he will make it clear that he expects the overwhelming proportion of investment in the British electricity industry to be made by British companies.

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that up to 12 power stations are now redundant in Britain? What are his plans for those redundant stations under privatisation? Does he know that some local authorities, such as the one in my area, wish to purchase and develop those redundant power stations? What is the future of such plants?

The hon. Gentleman is confirming what the Government have said: that many people, other than the CEGB, wish to be involved in the generation of electricity, and we believe that that competition will provide good hope for consumers in the future.

I notice that the hon. Gentleman is shaking his head, as if to ask me whether the redundant sites will be available for other development. That will be a matter for the CEGB, but there is much interest in buying redundant power stations and remodelling them to meet the highest standards. We hope that the private sector will come along and do some of that.

When my right hon. Friend meets the chairman of the Electricity Consumers' Council, will he also discuss with him the rates of interest charged by regional electricity boards to their customers who want to buy cookers and similar appliances? Is he aware that the Midlands electricity board charges its customers 35 per cent. interest? Is that not horrendously high, and does it not cause hardship to pensioners and others who perhaps do not read the small print? Does it not compare badly with the rates charged by banks, building societies, credit card companies and reputable stores?

I am sure that the chairman of the East Midlands board will have noted my hon. Friend's remarks. If not, I shall certainly make sure that they are brought to his attention.

When the Secretary of State meets the chairman of the board—and such a meeting is urgent—I hope that he will discuss the 15 per cent. increase that is to be imposed on prices. In the judgment of the Electricty Consumers' Council that increase is unjustified and represents a tax on the consumer. Is he aware that that view is consistent with the view of the CBI, which says that it is unsound in business terms and will cost investment in jobs? Can the Secretary of State tell the House what group, if any, agrees with this imposition of a 15 per cent. increase? Will he review his decision and recognise that in reality the price increase is an energy privatisation tax, burdening the poor for the benefit of the better off?

I have already explained to the hon. Gentleman why I think he is wrong, and I have also explained to the CBI why I think that it is wrong in the arguments that it has put forward. The price rises are totally justifiable and necessary. The hon. Gentleman was not in the Labour Government of the time, but I can tell him that, even after these increases, there will be a fall in electricty prices in real terms, whereas there was an increase of more than 30 per cent. under the Labour Government.

Ec Energy Policy

2.

To ask the Secretary of State for Energy whether he is satisfied with progress towards the development of a European Community energy policy; and if he will make a statement.

Yes, Sir. The prospects for attaining the Community's 1995 energy objectives are under review and Commission proposals on completion of the energy market by 1992 are expected shortly.

Does my hon. Friend agree that progress has been disappointly slow so far? Do the Government intend to take any initiatives to try to speed things up?

I know that my hon. Friend likes to see fast progress in Europe. Certainly the Government take the initiative to make sure that such progress is made. My hon. Friend will appreciate that the supply of energy in the member states is different and, therefore, it is not all that easy to make progress as fast as my hon. Friend would like.

Does the Minister agree that he is contradicting himself in advocating some sort of common European policy when the Government are operating market forces? How does he relate the two?

No, I do not agree, because, as I said in my original answer, we are working towards 1992, when there will be transparency pricing, which is market policy.

Will the Community energy policy be anything like the common agricultural policy? For example, will those who wish to import coal have to deposit heavy levies, or, like generating companies which wish to use coal in the Community, will they be able to buy that coal from the cheapest source at the cheapest possible price?

No, Sir. It will not be precisely the same, for the reasons that I gave in my second answer, namely, that the supply of fossil fuels in this country is different from the supply in other member states.

Is the Minister satisfied that, in discussions about European energy policy, full cognisance has been taken of the need to allocate orders, for example, to the fabrication yards connected with the development of North sea oil? Is he aware of the concern among workers at Ardersier about the need for the allocation of early opportunities to develop platforms for the North sea?

I know that the hon. Lady is most concerned about fabrication yards and, as she knows, I visited the one to which she referred. As she will have read, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has announced an 11th round. We continue to make progress in the North sea in exploration and development, and that is for the medium and longer-term good of those fabrication yards.

Electricity Privatisation

3.

To ask the Secretary of State for Energy what is his timetable for the privatisation of the electricity supply industry.

The Government intend to introduce legislation to privatise the electricity supply industry as early as possible. I expect that this will be in the next Session of Parliament.

Has the Minister calculated the possible number of redundancies in the British coal industry as a result of privatisation of the electricity industry owing to the import of cheap, subsidised foreign coal, or does he simply not care about those redundancies?

I have explained before to the hon. Gentleman that our proposals mean that the industry will need about 75 million tonnes of coal a year and that the Government have funded the most extensive investment programme in the coal industry of any Government. We have done that because we believe that, with modern machinery and modern working methods, the British coal industry can capture a very substantial part of those 75 million tonnes.

Will my right hon. Friend, in concert with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services, make it plain to pensioners and others that, despite the increase in electricity tariffs being higher than the rate of inflation, the combined effect of that and social security legislation will leave them better off?

What account is the Secretary of State taking in his privatisation planning of the fact that the CEGB has been financing the fast reactor programme to the extent of 30 per cent., and that there is great anxiety about the withdrawal of that support and whether the Government intend to continue the fast reactor programme?

I know of the hon. Gentleman's deep concern about this matter, as he and I first met and discussed it at Dounreay. No decisions have yet been taken. The CEGB has to decide whether to continue with this funding. These matters are for discussion, but I recognise that they should be resolved as soon as possible and that his constituents should be kept fully informed.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that there are safeguards over the operation of the local distribution networks so that privatised area boards cannot exert monoply control to prevent small local generators from delivering electricity to local industrial consumers?

Yes. We are anxious that the small generators should have an opportunity to get into the system. We believe that under our proposals that will be possible, whereas under the present arrangements it has proved difficult.

At what point in the timetable does the Secretary of State expect to be able to advise the House and the country of the price at which the electricity supply industry will be sold? Would he care to suggest whether an industry with a net asset value of £55 billion will be sold for less than 40 per cent. of its worth?

I am afraid that I do not recognise the figures that the hon. Gentleman has just used. I have never heard anyone suggest that the net assets of the organisation are worth £55 billion. I am constantly being told by Labour Members that I am seeking too high a price for the industry, so it is a relief to be told now that the Government are thinking of selling it too cheaply. We intend to get a fair price for the industry, and that will become clear as time goes on.

Open And Coke Fires

5.

To ask the Secretary of State for Energy how many households are estimated to have open coal or coke fires; and if he will make a statement.

I understand from British Coal that an estimated 2·9 million households are using coal or solid smokeless fuels on open fires.

How does that figure compare with the previous known figure? Has there been a decline, or an increase? Labour Members call for cheaper fuel for poorer people, so will such people be able to burn imported cheap fuel on their open fires rather than more expensive home-produced fuel?

The available figure shows a slight decrease on the previous year, but that is hardly surprising given the mild winter.

As to my hon. Friend's second point, if British Coal produces coal competitively, more households will be likely to buy.

Is the Minister aware that many coal fires are going out because—[Laughter.] I thought that that was rather good. This is happening because smokeless zones have been introduced. Therefore, people have been left with only one fire, so they cannot properly heat their homes. Could British Coal offer grants to such people when an area is made smokeless, so that they can afford to put in central heating, or will he ask the Secretary of State for the Environment to allow local authorities to give such grants?

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the polite way in which he posed that question. There will be agreement on both sides of the House that the benefits of smokeless zones are substantial.

With regard to the hon. Gentleman's proposition, British Coal's time is already taken up in seeking to increase productivity. That is the most important aim and ambition of its production.

Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the death of coal as a heating product is due to the fact that local authorities do not build chimney breasts into houses? There has been a saving from clean-air zones, but does my hon. Friend agree that part of the price that the mining industry has had to pay is that fewer people burn coal and now use other forms of energy?

I agree with my hon. Friend that there are no doubt many reasons why households decide not to use coal and use instead oil, gas or electricity. I should have thought that the primary reason is cost. That is why it is crucial that British Coal and its labour force should seek ways to improve productivity.

Combined Heat And Power

6.

To ask the Secretary of State for Energy what further considerations the Government are giving; to the promotion of combined heat and power systems.

The Energy Efficiency Office will continue to promote combined heat and power technology. The privatisation of the electricity supply industry will open new business opportunities for all independent generators, including combined heat and power operators.

The Government appear to want to rely on the private sector for any development of combined heat and power. Does the Minister accept that if large areas, such as our cities, are to benefit from combined heat and power, substantial Government support and funding will be necessary? Does he further accept that if he introduces combined heat and power into our cities that would be a gigantic step towards the more effective use and conservation of energy for the future?

I accept that combined heat and power can be a great asset in a major city. I have seen examples of it in Sheffield and Leicester. However, I cannot agree with the hon. Lady that Government finance should be available. It is far better that market forces should prevail.

Will my hon. Friend acknowledge the contribution that combined heat and power can make in our cities, not only to the production of cheaper electricity and heating to overcome fuel poverty, but to the urban renewal programme? Will he speak to his noble Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who is supposed to be co-ordinating the Government programme on this, and ensure that there is an input into those programmes?

I agree with my hon. Friend that the contribution that is made, particularly in the two examples that I have seen in Leicester and Sheffield, is a great and good contribution. I shall ensure that my noble Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry sees those examples.

I join the Minister in looking forward to more combined heat and power generation. One of the ways in which that may take place is through the reopening of smaller coal-fired power stations. Following the Government's rejection of the EEC's offer to reduce sulphur and nitrogen emissions in the air and the resulting acid rain, it is possible that the opening of combined heat and power stations will increase sulphur emissions. How will the proposed privatisation affect that?

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well what the Government said about emissions. As I have already said in answer to previous questions, the potential for combined heat and power in certain major cities in this country, and perhaps elsewhere, can be great, but it will be subject to market conditions.

Central Electricity Generating Board

7.

To ask the Secretary of State for Energy when he last met the chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board; and what subjects were discussed.

I meet the chairman of the CEGB regularly to discuss various matters relating to the privatisation of the electricity supply industry.

When the Secretary of State meets the chairman of the CEGB, does he have the same impression as many others, that the chairman has forgotten more about the electricity industry than the Minister will ever know, and does he agree, therefore, that his comments should be taken seriously? Will the Secretary of State respond to the statement by Graham Hadley, the secretary of the CEGB, supported by the chairman of the CEGB, that the separation of the grid from generation will cost the taxpayer up to £1 billion, or 10 per cent., on electricity charges, and will increase the threat of blackouts? What is in that for the consumer, and what makes the Minister think that he knows better than the CEGB?

I believe that if the hon. Gentleman cared to ring Mr. Graham Hadley he would now discover that he no longer maintains that it would cost £1 billion. Mr. Hadley's figure, which was absolutely impossible to understand, was based on the assumption that the Government would propose the creation of five vertically integrated power boards. We have not. It is agreed between the CEGB and our technical experts that although there may be a cost as a result of our proposals, it can be more than matched by the savings that will result. The hon. Gentleman's information is grossly out of date.

When my right hon. Friend next meets the chairman of the CEGB, will he explain how welcome and well-engineered the privatisation proposals are? Will he also explain how the introduction of competition will be welcome to those who supply the CEGB with equipment, as it will enable them to put more competitive designs forward, which will in turn enable them once more to export to the world?

I should be happy to put those points to Lord Marshall, and at the same time I would remind him that the Electricity Council, the 12 area boards and the Electricity Consumers' Council totally support our proposals. I draw that to the attention of the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid).

Has the Secretary of State had any discussions with the chairman of the CEGB about improving the transmission system in England and Wales to make it possible for consumers in those areas to take advantage of the substantial availability of generating capacity in Scotland?

Yes, I have discussed strengthening the interconnect. It may interest the hon. Gentleman to know that there are plans to spend approximately £7 billion on strengthening the transmission system in England and Wales, including strengthening the Scottish interconnect.

Will my right hon. Friend ask Lord Marshall what he is doing to counter the recent alarmist programme on BBC "Panorama", which linked the magnetic field around high-tension cables with cancer? If my right hon. Friend disagrees with the findings of that programme, may I ask what is his Department doing to put the record straight?

I believe that the "Panorama" programme was essentially scaremongering. To date I believe that there has been one authority for this thesis, and he has said that the findings of his inquiry are suggestive rather than conclusive. The CEGB is spending £500,000 investigating that serious allegation, but it is confident that it will find that the link is extremely tenuous.

Has the Secretary of State discussed with the chairman the speech that is to be made by his Minister in Miami? Apparently the Minister is begging American capital to come to purchase the British electricity supply industry, thus removing the controls on foreign ownership. Will the Secretary of State tell us whether his promise to the House for tougher regulations to protect the consumer in a privatised electricity industry is consistent with the promise in the speech today to American capital that the regulatory controls will be less restrictive than they are in America? The increasing profits will no doubt be paid for by the consumer.

I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that my hon. Friend's speech will not be delivered for another hour. When it is, he will find that it conclusively answers the points that he has raised. My hon. Friend's speech will make it clear that in America — it would be beyond dispute if the hon. Gentleman knew anything about it — it is accepted that the regulatory system is so restrictive that it is inhibiting the development of the electricity supply industry and putting the consumers at risk. We have said — and my hon. Friend has my total support — that although we will have a tough regulatory system, we will not have one that is so tough and mindless that it puts the customers' interests at risk.

Electricity Generating Stations

8.

To ask the Secretary of State for Energy when he next plans to meet the chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board in order to discuss the ordering programme for electricity generating stations.

It is for the CEGB to decide when to order new power stations. My hon. Friend will be aware that the CEGB has applied for consent for a nuclear plant at Hinkley Point and two coal-fired stations at Fawley and West Burton.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as there will be a three or four-year delay before the generating side is privatised, it is important that we keep the ordering programme for nuclear and coal-fired power stations moving, especially in the light of the early closure of the Magnox nuclear stations?

I believe that it is important that we maintain a steady flow of orders for the electricity supply industry, because we have not had an order for a power station now for eight years and the supply industry has had tremendous problems. As a result of our proposals more people will come forward with proposals to build power stations. That should result in an acceleration rather than a slowing down of orders for the industry.

Does the Secretary of State accept that we found his answer to a previous question in relation to the strengthening of the transmission links between England and Scotland very interesting? Has he discussed the purchase of power from Scottish power stations with the chairman of British Coal so that we may receive a statement and some clarification about the future of coal-fired power stations in Scotland? There is a great deal of uncertainty over their future as a result of the attitude taken by the South of Scotland Electricity Board.

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, negotiations between British Coal and the SSEB are under way at the moment. I have made it clear that I want to see those negotiations succeed. I would like to see Scottish pits kept open and Scottish electricity derived from Scottish coal. There is no doubt about where I and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland stand on this matter. With regard to the interconnect, I believe that England offers a good export market for Scottish electricity. I hope that the SSEB will take advantage of its opportunities south of the border.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the timing of the power stations depends very much on the planning process? Has he noticed that Liberal-controlled Somerset county council has allocated £500,000 to tight the planning aspects and the whole concept of nuclear power on the Hinkley C site? As the rates have been increased by 12 per cent. to fund that, does my right hon. Friend agree that the ratepayers are having to pay for the anti-nuclear prejudices of the Somerset branch of the Social Liberal Democratic Alliance?

It is perfectly proper for the Somerset council to express its views and to ensure that its point of view is put over. We do not want to inhibit that. However, I hope that the council will concentrate on doing that rather than on making party political points about the nuclear power industry. In so far as the council is spending that money to promote political arguments rather than planning arguments, that must be deplored.

British Coal

10.

To ask the Secretary of State for Energy when he last met the chairman of British Coal; and what matters were discussed.

11.

To ask the Secretary of State for Energy when he next intends to meet the chairman of British Coal to discuss the future of the industry in the light of his proposals to privatise the electricity industry.

I meet the chairman of the British Coal Corporation regularly to discuss all aspects of the industry.

Has the Secretary of State discussed with the chairman of British Coal the plight of Leicestershire's highly skilled coal miners, whose pits are being closed one by one? Is he aware that the opening of the pit at Asfordby is not enough to provide jobs, particularly on the basis on which they are to be allocated? Is he aware that more mines should be opened in the Vale of Belvoir to provide low-cost coal and jobs and because the skilled and excellent band of miners led by Jack Jones deserve the Government's support? They are not getting nearly enough of that support.

I remind the hon. and learned Gentleman that the Government have invested more in the coal industry than any predecessor Government. We have invested a total of nearly £9 billion since 1979. As he points out, substantial investment is being made in Asfordby. In contrast to the position when the Labour party was in office, miners now have a very generous redundancy scheme and no miner has been made compulsorily redundant. They can have either a generous redundancy scheme or another job. That is the case in Leicestershire.

In the Secretary of State's discussions with the chairman of British Coal, has he talked about the future of coal imports into the United Kingdom and the possible effect that the exchange rate might have upon the cost of these imports? Has he expressed a view to him about whether the exchange rate policy should be that of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or that of the Prime Minister?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his ingenuity, but I hope that he will not object if I concentrate on the energy part of his supplementary question. I have discussed with the chairman of the CEGB the amount of coal-fired capacity that he has. If British Coal continues to improve its productivity, and if miners adopt modern methods to accompany the modern machinery that has been installed, I believe that British Coal can have a bright future as a supplier of choice to the electricity supply industry.

When my right hon. Friend next meets the chairman of British Coal, will he draw to his attention the views expressed to me by some of my constituents that British Coal applies double standards when offering redundancy?

A number of my constituents have been refused redundancy this month, while a gentleman in Yorkshire, who is alleged to have created 51 wildcat stoppages and cost the board £14 million., has been given generous redundancy. Is there no loyalty today?

If my hon. Friend writes to me about these specific matters, I shall take them up with the chairman of British Coal.

Does my right hon. Friend think that sometimes those who purport to represent the coal industry expend rather too much energy on trying to protect their jobs regardless of the cost, when they should be seeking ways of keeping customers happy? Does he agree that that is the best way to secure real jobs?

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right in saying that the best guarantee of maintaining jobs in the industry is by concentrating on ensuring that coal is supplied to the Coal Board's customers at competitive prices.

Is the Secretary of State aware that 1,094 men left the coal industry in south Wales on Friday, and that 694 of them are in my constituency? These are men who opted for redundancy. Only 130 decided to stay in the industry. This is because the majority no longer have any faith in the promises made by those who run the industry.

Will the Secretary of State pay tribute to those who have worked for so long in the industry and who, through no fault of their own, are now out of a job? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the redundancies have pushed male unemployment in my constituency to 34 per cent., which is unacceptable? Will he make additional moneys available to British Coal Enterprise Ltd?

We are examining the performance of British Coal Enterprise Ltd., and funds are being made available to it on a continuing basis. We deplore pit closures, but very often pits close for good reasons. Pits become worked out, as it were, and geological faults occur. The hon. Lady has confirmed that anyone who works in the industry has the choice of staying in the industry or taking extremely generous redundancy terms.

Electricity Privatisation

12.

To ask the Secretary of State for Energy what representations he has received from alternative energy interests about the White Paper on electricity privatisation.

Our proposal for a specified minimum proportion of non-fossil-fuelled generating capacity has been well received by those involved in the development of alternative energy sources. We hope that this will encourage new ideas in generation.

May I congratulate my hon. Friend on his commitment to non-fossil fuels, which is in accordance with the White Paper? What role does he see for renewable energy sources following privatisation?

There could be a good possibility that there will be a role for them. My hon. Friend will appreciate that that will be subject to further research and development taking place so that renewable energy sources can become competitive. The research and development programme is proceeding. This was demonstrated by an announcement by the CEGB and another by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State last week.

13.

To ask the Secretary of State for Energy if, pursuant to his statement to the House on 7 March, Official Report, column 53, he will place in the Library the technical and scientific evidence upon which he based his conclusion that the grid control will have the same ability to deal with emergencies in electricity supply under the proposed privatisation as it does under the present arrangements.

No, Sir. This is an operational matter. The full range of powers to deal with emergencies will be available to those controlling the national grid under the proposed arrangements, as under the present ones. This will be built into the contract arrangements and the operating agreements.

Is the Secretary of State aware that a number of his hon. Friends, as well as a number of mine, went to CEGB Southwark, where we heard at length from Mr. Edgar McCarthy, the controller, about the Sundon incident 20 May 1986, when, if, within two minutes, post-fault urgent action had not been taken by those who had complete command of the grid London and the home counties would have been absolutely blacked out by system voltage collapse? Can the right hon. Gentleman assure Mr. McCarthy and others, on technical grounds, that their fears are groundless?

Yes. There will be no change in either the assets or the operation of the grid. What will change will be the ownership of the generating stations. The only basis for the assertion made to the hon. Gentleman is that under private ownership generating plants will not respond to orders from the national grid. As I have explained to him, it will be built into their contracts that in an emergency the national grid will have the right to override any other agreements. Therefore, the same assets will be available to the grid controllers, who will be able to give the same instructions in an emergency as in 1986.

The Arts

Enterprise Allowance Scheme

49.

To ask the Minister for the Arts to what extent the enterprise allowance scheme has affected those involved in the arts.

At 30 September 1987 some 7,500 people in the arts—authors, artists, film and television producers—were in receipt of enterprise allowances. There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that a substantial number of arts people who receive allowances go on to become self-supporting.

Those figures seem most encouraging, but can my right hon. Friend tell the House what proportion of all people they represent, and what proportion of those who have benefited have become self-sufficient?

I think that it is good news that an estimated 7 per cent. of all those who received the allowances are from the artistic world and wish to set up their own businesses, of one kind or another, in that world. Although no figures are available relating specifically to the arts, it is clear that some 77 per cent. of all those who receive the allowances are still self-supporting, on a self-employed basis, six months after the allowances have ceased.

I am sure that the arts have an enormous part to play in this regard. Does my right hon. Friend agree, however, that setting up a new business in the arts is a matter not only of commercial viability but of artistic quality? Where do people go for advice on that when they are setting up their business? Is such advice provided by his Office, or by the Small Firms Service?

As my hon. Friend has said, business viability must be taken into account by the assessors at the Department of Employment. But, on a question of artistic merit, it is perfectly possible to go to bodies such as the British Film Institute or the regional arts associations to seek further advice.

Does my right hon. Friend understand that, whereas the enterprise allowance scheme may not be the most effective way of helping the Horniman museum in south London, everything must be done to ensure that that museum has a continued existence as a nationally supported museum?

Yes. I acknowledge my right hon. Friend's point about the importance of the Horniman museum. It has been in existence for a very long time and provides an important service. This is a matter principally for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science, but I am in contact with him about it.

Arts Council Funding (Liverpool)

50.

To ask the Minister for the Arts when he last met the chairman of the Playhouse theatre and the Everyman theatre, Liverpool, to discuss their level of Arts Council funding.

I have not met the chairmen of these theatres to discuss Arts Council funding.

The tragic abolition of the Merseyside county council created a very tenuous future for the theatres on Merseyside. Does the Minister agree that the Merseyside cultural heritage is important, not only for the people on Merseyside, but for a national, and indeed international, catchment area? Should not its continuity be ensured by regular Government assistance and certainty of security? If the Government can ensure the future of the Tate gallery on Merseyside, why not the Playhouse theatre and the Everyman theatre?

I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree that the range of performing arts and heritage facilities in the Liverpool and Merseyside area is very remarkable. I feel that Liverpool and Merseyside should do more to get that across to the nation if they want to attract more tourists. The theatres to which he referred—the Playhouse and Everyman — have been very successful. A substantial proportion of the resources are raised by box-office means and through the private sector, but I am very glad that the Arts Council has agreed to maintain its support pending a study of funding arrangements in the Liverpool area and in acknowledgement that the city authority has come in with an extra £200,000.

I commend the Liverpool Playhouse to the Minister, especially its production of "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists", which will be on at the Theatre Royal, Stratford in my constituency in Newham from 14 April to 14 May. In view of the funding problems faced by the Theatre Royal, would the Minister care to accept an invitation from me to see this production of "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists" and, if he comes, I shall buy him a curry in Stratford immediately afterwards?

That is one of the most generous and surprising offers that I have ever had and, to use Government jargon, I shall carefully consider the invitation. I have visited the Playhouse in Liverpool, which is an admirable theatre. I am keen on promoting touring around this country, not just from London to outside London but around the regions. That is very important.

Photographs (Schools)

51.

To ask the Minister for the Arts how many (a) visits and (b) residencies of photographers in schools were financed by the Arts Council in the last year for which statistics are available.

Detailed information on this subject is not held centrally. The information that is available shows that at least 151 visits and eight residencies of photographers in schools were financed by the Arts Council and the regional arts associations in 1986–87.

:I think the Minister agrees that these visits and residencies should be encouraged. We are all pleased at his continuing contribution to and encouragement of photography but does he agree that even more can be done? Can he find more money within his budget to give to the Arts Council so that there can be more visits and residencies? If he cannot, will he look for a bit of creative accountancy and find out whether there can be some burseries from his Department to encourage more photographers to carry out these exercises?

I do not under-estimate the importance of photography, in which the public have a growing interest. The hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that the Arts Council and the regional arts associations have a limited sum of money and various priorities to determine, and it must be up to them to decide how to disburse that money. I am glad to learn that some regional authorities are promoting a closer interest between photography and education; for example, the North-West arts association held a seminar on that matter last week.

Theatre Funding (Leicester)

52.

To ask the Minister for the Arts whether he will discuss with the Arts Council the level of funding for the theatre in Leicester.

I regret the Minister's lack of plans. Will he pay tribute to the work of the Haymarket theatre in Leicester and to its resilience, especially in supporting and encouraging new writing, and its successful efforts towards meeting its deficits through its plays, which are sent on to the West End stage? Will the right hon. Gentleman provide some assurance of long-term adequate funding for this tremendously useful and excellent theatre?

I, too, should like to acknowledge the Haymarket theatre's enterprise. I am glad that the Arts Council, the city council and the county council are undertaking constructive negotiations on its long-term future and funding. It is only right that we should look to theatres to raise resources from the private sector as well. I am looking for more self-reliance by arts organisations.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should look to those who claim constantly that there is widespread support for the arts in Leicester and elsewhere and that those who want and support the arts should pay for them? Does my right hon. Friend not think it high time that the hard-pressed taxpayer was relieved of this constant burden of the arts and that those who claim that the arts have widespread support were asked to pay a greater contribution more directly?

I have introduced the concept of incentive funding so that taxpayers' money can be used to reward those who are capable of becoming more self-reliant. That is at the heart of our policies.

Premium Book Subscription Service

53.

To ask the Minister for the Arts what evidence he has of a desire by library authorities to introduce a premium book subscription service for newly published books.

One library authority recently drew up proposals to set up a complementary premium lending service for newly published novels and biographies, but did not proceed because it was advised that to do so would be in breach of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. I have also received letters from members of the public saying that they would like libraries to provide subscription services. My Green Paper therefore suggests that library authorities should have discretionary powers, to set up these services.

Is the Minister aware that when this harebrained scheme was introduced in New Zealand, 66 per cent. of the income was taken up in administration costs, and when it was introduced in Kiel in Germany it was dropped quickly because loans of children's books fell by 40 per cent.? Are we really to have new books for the rich, and old, dog-eared books for the poor, with each book having to meet a test discount rate and a real rate of return?

That is a nonsensical way to consider the Green Paper. The objectives of the Green Paper are to seek ways to enable local authorities to raise extra resources, not just through the public sector, but in harness with the private sector, so that they can raise extra resources to improve the library services for customers. That proposal was one of several designed to achieve just that.

My right hon. Friend knows my concern about the closure of many public libraries in London because of alleged lack of resources, particularly in Kingswood in my constituency. Will not the premium subscription lending service generate resouces to improve library services generally?

Yes, indeed. That is one reason why we introduced for consideration that suggestion, among others. Other suggestions, including the paying of charges for certain specialist services in one field or another, are all designed to increase resources and improve facilities to customers.

Since the Green Paper is a consultative document, no doubt the Minister is taking a keen interest in the public responses to his proposals. Has he seen last week's copy of the Library Association "Record", which describes his Green Paper as

"an impenetrable forest of negatives … A dog's breakfast …. patronising … badly written … confusing … and weak on logic."
Should not the Minister save himself further embarrassment by withdrawing his ridiculous proposals now?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is not interested in new ways of finding extra resources. It is regrettable that he adopts that attitide. The views of the chief executive of the Library Association have been positive, constructive and helpful. I look for such an attitude of mind, but I do not expect it from the Opposition.

Civil Service

Government Management

71.

To ask the Minister for the Civil Service what representations he has received about the implications for the implementation of the White Paper "Improving Management in Government: The Next Steps," of the recent leak of a letter from Mr. Paul Gray to Mr. Tom Jeffrey about educational testing; and if he will make a statement.

I have received no representations about the matter.

Was it proper for Mr. Ingham's office, a Civil Service office, to give authority for the leak? Will there be a leak inquiry, and if not, why not?

Mr. Ingham must be very flattered by the amount of attention that he receives from the hon. Gentleman. The position remains quite clear. The Prime Minister stated on 14 March that it is not the usual practice to give information on such matters.

Will the Minister say why millions of pounds of public money are being spent in bringing management and computer consultants into various Government Departments to do jobs that could be done perfectly well by civil servants?

If bringing in consultants is designed to improve the management of the Civil Service and get better value for money for taxpayers, that is the right thing to do.

Examinations

72.

To ask the Minister for the Civil Service whether he has any plans to alter the present entry or promotion exams in the Civil Service.

No, Sir. Selection for entry to and promotion in the Civil Service is on merit. I expect that to continue and shall encourage it. Procedures are, however, altered as the skills and qualities civil servants need change.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will he tell me why, on the examination forms for entry and promotion, the ethnic origin of candidates has to be stated? Are there two standards, one for those who are indigenous, and one for immigrants? Will he also tell me why, in the Ministry of Defence, there are at present vacancies for 535 clerical officers, while in the north of England there is a desperate shortage of work? What will he do to redress the balance?

The question about the Ministry of Defence is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Let me make it absolutely plain that the Government are equality of opportunity employers. We recruit people into the Civil Service and promote them only on the basis of equality of opportunity. The reason for obtaining information from recruits about their ethnic origin is to ensure, as best we conceivably can, that a policy of promotion on merit and equality of opportunity is properly run and devised by the Government.

I wonder whether in future, when civil servants have examinations to pass, they will also have a paper before them on how to leak without getting caught. If they need any advice on that, could the Minister suggest that it should be preceded by a seminar headed by Bernard Ingham and the Prime Minister to help them out?

I am glad to say that the Civil Service does not adhere to the standards that the hon. Gentleman seems to want.

Civil Service Reform

73.

To ask the Minister for the Civil Service what are the implications for the Office of Arts and Libraries of the proposed reforms of the Civil Service.

Like all other Government Departments, the Office of Arts and Libraries will be considering how to apply the recommendations of the "Next Steps" report to its own operations, though most of the functions which it funds are carried out by non-departmental public bodies.

Knowing the meticulous care that my right hon. Friend brings to his Ministry, will he tell the House whether he has yet had discussions with his other half, the Minister for the Arts, and what was the outcome?

I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts has a mind of his own. He is quite difficult to get alongside, but I will try.

In the light of the opportunities now offered by the reform of the Civil Service, may I enlist the support of the Minister in pressing for a Cabinet post for the arts in recognition of their importance in the United Kingdom?

I think that we are going a little beyond the Civil Service questions. However, I am flattered by the hon. and learned Gentleman's suggestion.

Agencies

74.

To ask the Minister for the Civil Service when he expects to meet the Civil Service trade unions to discuss the proposals for agencies for the Civil Service.

I have no plans to meet the Civil Service unions at present but the head of the Home Civil Service has made it clear that he is open to consultations.

Is the Minister aware that one of the largest Civil Service regional centres is in Nottingham, in my constituency of Nottingham, North, where the Government buildings at Chalfont drive have the Land Registry, the district valuers, the Property Services Agency, the Wages Inspectorate and the Ordnance Survey section? Will he, or one of his colleagues, meet the trade unions representatives on that large site and reassure them that by this time next year they will not be added to the list of Nottingham's 14,000 unemployed?

I am glad that there are such a large number of civil servants in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and area. In fact, four out of five of all civil servants are well outside the London region. That policy is one that the Government are encouraging. Meetings with the unions are for the Departments concerned.

Does the Minister recognise the widespread anxiety among civil servants about the effect that the agencies will have on nationally negotiated wage rates? What can he say to the House today to reassure those civil servants, many of whom are long-standing civil servants who have made career decisions over many years, that their position will not be eroded by the Government's policies?

There is no doubt about the importance of the agencies and the wide welcome that they have received from many people in the Civil Service. They will devolve more responsibility on to the shoulders of managers and that is more likely to lead to a better use of Government and taxpayers' resources. On the matter of terms and conditions of service, they remain civil servants within the agencies. It is a matter for negotiation between the Departments concerned and the agency being set up as to the exact terms and conditions of service. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the unions concerned will be fully consulted if there are any proposals for changes in terms and conditions.

75.

To ask the Minister for the Civil Service if he is yet in a position to give the definitive list of those organisations which will be the first to be formed into agencies, as part of the implementation of the recommendations of the recent efficiency unit report, "Improving Management in Government: The Next Steps".

An initial list of possibilities was published on 18 February. These and other candidates will be considered on their merits.

I welcome the report and the Prime Minister's statement that the Government intend to implement the establishment of agencies. As the proposal has been widely welcomed, both outside and inside the Civil Service, will my right hon. Friend seriously consider keeping up the momentum and encouraging the establishment of agencies as a topmost priority?

Yes, of course I will. The project manager, Mr. Kemp, is now fully settled in the Department and we are working on drawing up the first list for implementation as soon as possible with the Departments concerned. As my hon. Friend knows, there is an initial list of 12, and we shall make an announcement as soon as we have one to make.

Is the Minister interested in efficiency a bit nearer home? Did he notice that earlier this Question Time a messenger arrived, bewigged from the Lords, and handed a bundle of documents done up in red tape to the Serjeant at Arms, who handed the bundle to the Attendant who normally marks up the times of debates, who handed it to the Doorkeeper, who brought it round via the No Lobby to behind the Chair and handed it to our Clerk? Surely there is a more efficient method for bringing messages from the Lords and carrying them the last 25 yards to our Clerk.

I have to answer for the Civil Service and not for procedures in this House, which are a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. But the more that can be done to get rid of red tape, the better.

Ex-Civil Servants (Employment)

77.

To ask the Minister for the Civil Service how many former civil servants have taken up employment with companies in a contractual relationship with Her Majesty's Government in the last five years.

I am glad to report that the system for dealing with these cases continues to work well. Comprehensive information is not available centrally. However, applications which have been referred by Departments to the Cabinet Office in accordance with the business appointment rules show that, between 1983 and 1987, 519 civil servants have sought approval to join companies with which they had had contractual contact.

Is the Minister not aware of the concern that exists about the number of people leaving the Civil Service to do precisely what he has just described? It seems that in the Ministry of Defence a large number of contracts are resulting in the British taxpayer being ripped off by private contractors. Would it not be better for the Ministry to prohibit civil servants from going to work for any organisation that has had any contractual relationship with the Government for a period of at least 10 years?

If I may say so, the hon. Gentleman takes a very limited view, although not necessarily a very surprising one. Just as business men have a contribution to make in periods of secondment to the Civil Service, so civil servants have a contribution to make to the outside world. All that matters is that they should take up jobs that do not conflict with their previous appointment. That is why adequate procedures have been provided to deal with the matter, through the Diamond committee.