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Central Office of Information

Ms Perham: To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office what plans she has for a review of the Central Office of Information. [151195]

Mr. Ian McCartney: The last comprehensive review of the Central Office of Information (COI) was carried out in 1996-97. I have decided the next review of this agency should be completed early in 2001-02 and should be started as soon as possible. It will be conducted by Cabinet Office in close consultation with the chief executive and staff of the COI, under the general direction of a steering group.

The COI is responsible for procuring communications for Government Departments and advising on media relations in the regions. This quinquennial review will follow Cabinet Office guidelines, which require the examination of prior options for the delivery of COI's services taking into account the performance of the agency and the views of its customers, suppliers and staff. It will assess the added value of COI, its role in relation to other Departments and arrangements for funding.

The standard options are: continued agency status, privatisation, abolition, merger, contracting out and market testing. Each option will be considered on its merits and the preferred option will be the one that offers best value for money.

Civil Service (Sickness Absence)

Mrs. Fitzsimons: To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office what the overall level of sickness absence in the civil service was in 1999. [151194]

Mr. Stringer: The report "Analysis of Sickness Absence in the Civil Service 1999", prepared for my Department by Biomathematics and Statistics Scotland (BioSS), shows that by applying the same methodology as in previous years the average level of sickness absence was 10.1 days per staff year. Calculated on the basis of absence per person, the figure for the civil service was 8.5 days. The report contains a comprehensive analysis of the 1999 figures.

The figure of 10.1 days sickness absence per staff year represents an increase over the equivalent figure of 9.8 days set out in the report for 1998. However, as I explained in the answer I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) on 11 May 2000, Official Report, column 433W, a more accurate comparator for 1998 is the figure of 10.3 days which emerged after Departments own audits of their sickness absence systems had revealed an element of under-recording. On that basis, the figures show that there has been a small decrease in sickness absence per staff year in 1999 as compared with 1998.

Departments have now published service delivery agreements which contain their individual targets for reducing sickness absence. Overall, the civil service has been targeted to reduce sickness absence by 20 per cent. for 2001 and by 30 per cent. for 2003 against the 1998

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baseline. My Department is continuing to work with other Departments and agencies as they take forward their plans to reduce sickness absence.

I have placed copies of the BioSS report in the Libraries of the House.

TRADE AND INDUSTRY

Consumer Protection

11. Mr. Dobbin: To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what steps his Department has taken to increase consumer protection. [149012]

Dr. Howells: Taking forward our consumer White Paper proposals we have already increased consumer protection, particularly in areas such as distance selling and e-commerce. We are taking forward further measures now, including "stop now" orders and legislation for the full pint of beer.

Mr. Cash: To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if he will list the levels of spending on consumer protection per head of population in (a) Staffordshire and (b) each other county of England (i) in the current year and (ii) in each of the last three years. [150013]

Dr. Howells: I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave him on 9 February 2001, Official Report, columns 701-02W.

Earthquake (Gujarat)

12. Mr. Gardiner: To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what discussions he has had with the UK construction industry about making a trade visit to Gujarat to investigate how British companies may participate in the rebuilding programme there. [149013]

Mr. Caborn: There is still an emergency in Gujarat. The immediate priority is to ensure that the needs of the survivors for food, shelter and medical assistance are met. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has established an emergency assistance allocation of £10 million. Future planning for reconstruction of the affected area is essential and can begin once the requirements have been fully assessed. At this stage, it would be premature for the Government to promote commercial visits by UK construction companies, but we are keeping the situation under review, including through our small commercial team based in Ahmedabad, and are in close touch with the Indian authorities about their future requirements.

Confidential Business Information

13. Mr. Grieve: To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what representations he has received concerning the disclosure of confidential business information to other countries. [149014]

Dr. Howells: I have received representations from the Confederation of British Industry on this subject.

Universal Bank

14. Mr. Stephen O'Brien: To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what recent discussions he has held with the Post Office concerning the universal bank. [149015]

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Mr. Alan Johnson: I regularly meet with the Post Office to discuss a range of issues.

Manufacturing

15. Mr. Brady: To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if he will make a statement on the competitiveness of British manufacturing. [149016]

Mr. Alan Johnson: Manufacturing industry makes a vital contribution to the economy. We are helping manufacturing industries to be more competitive by creating a stable macroeconomic climate and by pursuing policies which help firms to innovate, to develop the skills of their work force and to grow.

Company Directors' Liabilities

16. Mr. Jim Murphy: To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if he will introduce legislation to make company directors personally liable if they continue to trade while they are aware that their company is unable to honour contracts. [149017]

Dr. Howells: No. There are already provisions in the Insolvency Act 1986 under which directors of companies in insolvent liquidation may be ordered to contribute personally to the company's assets. This may arise, for example, where the company's business has been carried on with intent to defraud creditors or where the directors have carried on business when they knew or ought to have known that there was no prospect of the company avoiding liquidation.

BAE Systems

18. Mr. Borrow: To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what discussions have taken place between his Department and BAE Systems concerning the restructuring of the company. [149019]

Mr. Alan Johnson: My Department maintains a regular dialogue with BAE Systems on a wide range of issues. Following BAE Systems financial announcement to the stock exchange, I met with the chief executive of the company on 23 January.

Miners' Compensation

19. Mr. Win Griffiths: To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if he will make a statement on the progress being made in settling miners' claims for respiratory disease compensation. [149020]

Mr. Hain: I refer my hon. Friend to the answer I gave earlier today to my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Cummings), Official Report, column 446W. In Wales alone, we paid out £1 million in mining compensation last week. In Bridgend alone, we have already paid out over £5.5 million.

Earlier this week, I attended a meeting of the Welsh sub-group of the national monitoring group. The sub-group is looking at ways of speeding up the process and the payment of compensation specifically in Wales.

25. Mr. Ronnie Campbell: To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry how many people have benefited from the compensation scheme for former mineworkers. [149029]

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Mr. Hain: To date, some 43,100 claimants have received full and interim settlements in relation to claims for vibration-related diseases. In addition, a further 30,700 claimants have received full and interim settlements in relation to claims for respiratory disease.

In total to date, the Department has paid out £332.5 million in coalmining compensation, and continues to pay out around £1 million a day.

Exports (China)

20. Mr. Tynan: To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what steps he is taking to encourage UK exports to China. [149021]

Mr. Caborn: The Government, through Trade Partners UK, recently announced for 2001-02 the largest programme of supported activity ever for British companies in the China market. This will consist of 17 trade missions, 30 trade fair groups and eight sector- specific seminar initiatives during the year. This increased activity is in addition to the regular exchanges of ministerial visits to and from China of which my own visit earlier this month and that of the Deputy Prime Minister last October formed part. The Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce visited China last month.

Our activity in China is complemented by awareness- raising activity in the UK. Trade Partners UK, in close co-operation with the China-Britain Business Council (our official trade advisory group on China), is engaged in a two-year programme of events around the country to draw the attention of UK companies to business opportunities in China. These events are held in close co-operation with local partners such as trade associations and chambers of commerce.

UK exports to China rose by 40 per cent. in 1999 over 1998 and by a further 22 per cent. in the first 11 months of 2000. I hope that the continued efforts I have described will improve on this performance still further.


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