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Mr. Bercow: To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer when the basket of items used to calculate inflation was last reviewed; and what changes were made. [40941]

Ruth Kelly: The information requested falls within the responsibility of the National Statistician. I have asked him to reply.

Letter from John Pullinger to Mr. John Bercow, dated 7 March 2002:

Open Market Annuity Options

Mr. Boswell: To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer what plans he has to publicise open market annuity options to savers and financial advisers. [40890]

Ruth Kelly: The FSA already draw the attention of annuitants to the advantages of the open market option in their explanatory material for those buying a pension annuity.

In addition, the FSA has consulted recently on proposals that firms should be obliged to tell their personal pensions customers, at an appropriate time before their retirement, that their annuities can be bought from a different provider firm. This proposal is designed to ensure that consumers are made aware of their right to shop around to get the best annuity deal on offer to suit their circumstances.

The FSA's consultation process (which started in August 2001) recently closed. The FSA plans to publish the results of the exercise, with its decisions on next steps, shortly.

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The Association of British Insurers (ABI) issued, also in August 2001, a "Statement of Good Practice for Pension Maturities".

The ABI standards give further detail about how in practice provider firms offering pension saving and income products should communicate with their customers. The guidelines should ensure that customers are more aware of the choices available to them when they begin their retirement, and are thus able to make more educated choices.

The Modernising Annuities consultation paper published by the Inland Revenue and Department for Work and Pensions in February 2002 also explains how exercising the open market option can help pensioners get better value from their pension savings. It discusses how those benefits might be more widely understood, and whether there are any further steps that might be taken to encourage people to use the open market option. The Government are keen that those with an interest think creatively about this and other ways that the annuities market might be made to work better, and would encourage those with views to submit responses to the consultation.

Contributions Agency

Mr. Laurence Robertson: To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer (1) what assessment he has made of the availability of staff at the Contributions Agency to people calling by telephone; and if he will make a statement. [41280]

Dawn Primarolo: I refer the hon. Member to page 112 of the Inland Revenue's annual report for the year ending 31 March 2001, which was presented to Parliament by the Paymaster General in December 2001.

Mr. Laurence Robertson: To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer what assessment he has made of the accuracy and consistency of information provided by the Contributions Agency; and if he will make a statement. [41279]

Dawn Primarolo: I refer the hon. Member to pages 111 and 112 of the Inland Revenue's annual report for the year ending 31 March 2001, which was presented to Parliament by the Paymaster General in December 2001.

Spirits Frauds

Mr. Lidington: To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer what studies he has commissioned into the experience of other countries in using tax stamps to deter and prevent spirits frauds. [40860]

Mr. Boateng: HM Customs and Excise are considering a wide range of issues as part of their on-going consultation on the costs, benefits and practicalities of introducing a tax stamps system, including the experience of other countries.

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Reserve Forces

Mr. Martlew: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he plans a further call-out of members of the reserve forces; and if he will make a statement. [41787]

Dr. Moonie: In order to sustain military operations against terrorism, up to 49 members of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force will be called out compulsorily next month under the call-out order made on 11 October 2001 and Section 54 of the Reserve Forces Act 1996. The majority of those called out will undertake aircraft movements duties at the air transport main operating bases in the UK.

In addition, a new call-out order has been made under Section 56 of the Reserve Forces Act 1996 to enable reservists to continue to be called out to support operations in Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This took effect from 2 March 2002, the date the previous order expired. Only reservists who volunteer will be called out under this order.

We continue to call out members of the reserve forces to support operations in the Balkans and the no-fly zones in the region of Iraq; overall they make a very valuable contribution to our operational requirements.

HMS Fearless

Mr. Bailey: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what his plans are for HMS Fearless; and if he will make a statement. [41862]

Mr. Ingram: After over 36 years, HMS Fearless, the last steam-driven surface ship in the Royal Navy, will be withdrawn from service upon her return from a successful deployment on operations in support of the campaign against international terrorism later this month.

Her replacement HMS Albion will commence sea trials later in the year, before entering service in January 2003. HMS Albion and her sister ship HMS Bulwark, which on current plans will enter service towards the end of 2003, will be significantly more capable than their predecessors HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid.

The new vessels represent a major step forward in the modernisation of our amphibious shipping called for the strategic defence review. They will be equipped with vastly more sophisticated command, control and communication systems. They will also be able to deploy embarked forces much more quickly—by air and sea—and will use landing craft with 20 per cent. more landing capability and a Ro-Ro type configuration for rapid embarkation of vehicles.

Plans for the disposal of HMS Fearless are currently under review.

Chemical/Biological Weapons

Mr. Cousins: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how much expenditure he has incurred in the (a) dismantling, (b) management and (c) verification of (i) chemical and (ii) biological weapons in the states of the former Soviet Union since 1996. [40574]

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Mr. Hoon: As part of Spending Review 2000, the Government decided to make available up to £12 million over the three years 2001–02 to 2003–04 for assistance to Russia with chemical weapon demilitarisation and biological non-proliferation projects. We have given priority to assistance with chemical weapons destruction, where we plan to support the provision of infrastructure which is needed for the construction and operation of the major chemical weapons destruction facility at Shchuch'ye. An essential pre-requisite to allow this work to proceed was negotiation of a legally-binding agreement with the Russian Federation. Following extensive negotiations, I signed the agreement in London on 20 December on behalf of the Government. Dr. Pak, Director-General of the Russian Munitions Agency, signed on behalf of the Russian Federation. We hope to conclude negotiations shortly on the necessary Implementation Arrangement which will allow our first project to proceed in the near future, subject to agreement of contract. Our first project will be to provide a water supply for the destruction facility, which will also benefit the local population. As a result of the need first to complete these sets of negotiations, it has not yet been possible to start implementation of assistance projects. Expenditure of some £250K has been incurred to date on setting up the assistance programme.

Verification of the destruction of chemical weapons in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention is the responsibility of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in the Hague. There are no agreed provisions for the verification of biological weapons.

The Ministry of Defence monitors the biological and chemical weapons capabilities of all relevant states. The costs of such monitoring in relation to the states of the former Soviet Union can not be separately identified.

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