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18 Apr 1996 : Column WA79

Written Answers

Thursday, 18th April 1996.

Action Centre for Europe

Lord Pearson of Rannoch asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether the Action Centre for Europe (ACE) bases its activities at the United Kingdom offices of the European Parliament in London; and if so, whether they consider that to be an appropriate use for the building in question.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey): The uses to which the European Parliament's offices in London are put are a matter for the European Parliament.

Landmines

Lord Judd asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have studied the letter in the New York Times of Wednesday 3rd April 1996 signed by General Schwarzkopf and 14 other senior United States army officers calling for a permanent and total international ban on the production, stockpiling, sale and use of anti-personnel landmines; and if so, what is their response to this initiative.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: We have studied the letter. We believe that the most realistic and practical way of reducing the dangers to civilians is through broad international agreement on strengthened controls on anti-personnel landmines. We shall continue to pursue this actively, notably at the forthcoming UN Weaponry Convention Review Conference (Geneva, 22nd April-3rd May).

British Buses and European Legislation

Lord Pearson of Rannoch asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Which European legislation could have an effect on (a) the London double-decker bus and (b) the British midi-bus; and what is the latest position with regard to such legislation.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen): European legislation aimed at achieving a single market for vehicle manufacturers may influence the design of future buses in the UK as vehicle standards are established for the European Union.

We are expecting a draft bus and coach directive from the Commission later this year. The Government will defend the interests of British bus manufacturers and operators in any negotiations.

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Child Support Agency: Staffing

Lord Bancroft asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Further to the third report of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (Investigation of Complaints against the Child Support Agency), whether they will list the precise steps they are taking to remedy the current understaffing of the agency mentioned in paragraph 10 of that report.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish): The administration of the Child Support Agency is a matter for the Chief Executive, Miss Ann Chant. She will write to the noble Lord.

Letter to Lord Bancroft from the Chief Executive of the Child Support Agency, Miss Ann Chant, dated 18th April 1996.

I am replying to your parliamentary Question in which you expressed concern that the Special Report of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration implied that the Child Support Agency is understaffed.

Paragraph 10 of that report says that there might be planned reductions from the current level of staffing. In fact, the number of staff employed by the agency has steadily increased for each of its three years of existence, as was always envisaged. At 31/3/94, the agency employed 4,685 staff. At 31/3/95, the agency employed 5,695 staff. At 31/1/96, the agency employed 6,299.

I wrote in paragraph (e) of my response to the report:


    "The Agency Running Cost allocation for 1996/97 has increased over its 1995/96 level, and we could afford to recruit further staff in 1996/97. However, we exist in a climate where there is continuous change within the civil service and as part of the Departmental Change Programme we will identify aspects of our work where we can achieve efficiencies by implementing simplification and improvement throughout our entire organisation, but in reducing administrative costs it is our clear intent to maintain high standards of service to our clients."

I confirmed to the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration on 27/3/96 that we have already begun to recruit additional staff for 1996/97.

In view of the above, you will see that it is not possible to answer your Question in the form that you requested, but I hope that what I have said is reassuring.

Child Support Agency: Notification of Income Support Reinstatement

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will give further consideration to the suggestion made by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration in paragraph 11 of Appendix 2 (pp 55-56, Case No. 99/95) of his third report (Investigation of Complaints against the Child

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    Support Agency) that an automatic procedure be established whereby the Benefits Agency would notify the relevant housing department when a termination of income support has ceased to apply.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: The administration of income support is a matter for Mr. Peter Mathison, the Chief Executive of the Benefits Agency. He will write to the noble Earl.

Letter to Earl Russell from the Change Management Director of the Benefit Agency, (Ms Ursula Brennan), dated 17th April 1996.

As Peter Mathison is on leave at the moment, I have been asked to reply to your recent parliamentary Questions asking whether Her Majesty's Government will give further consideration to the suggestion made by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (PCA) in paragraph 11 of Appendix 2 (pp 55-56, case No. 99/95) of his third report (Investigation of Complaints against the Child Support Agency) that an automatic procedure be established whereby the Benefits Agency (BA) would notify the relevant housing department when a termination of income support has ceased to apply.

When an income support (IS) award is terminated, the IS Computer System (ISCS), where appropriate, automatically produces a notification of the cessation of the award for issue to the housing department of the local authority (LA). If the decision to disallow IS is revised and the IS award is reinstated, the LA must be advised clerically, as this process has not been automated.

Automation of this process is being considered and the Information Technology Services Agency have been asked to cost an enhancement to the ISCS. However any enhancements to the computer system have to be prioritised. A bulletin was issued to all appropriate staff in January 1996, reminding them of the clerical action to take in these cases.

I hope you find this reply helpful.

Common Fisheries Policy

Lord Rankeillour asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What progress is being made in securing improvements in the common fisheries policy and the management of fisheries in the UK.

Lord Lucas: Structural Measures for the Fishing Industry

The main underlying problem for fishermen is the poor state of fish stocks and the size of the fishing fleets. Tackling the problem of over-capacity must remain a top priority in fisheries policy, since our fleet cannot have a viable long-term future unless it is properly structured in relation to the available fishing opportunities.

That is why we increased the decommissioning programme by £28 million last year and have recently launched a consultation exercise seeking industry views

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on how our decommissioning arrangements might be improved. The closing date for comments is 12th April and we aim to have changes in place in time to start the 1996 round soon.

If our fleet reductions are to work, they need to be part of an EU-wide policy; and we shall be joining constructively in the discussions and negotiations in the Fisheries Council on the future arrangements for bringing the European fleet as a whole better into line with fishing opportunities. We have already started discussions by holding seven meetings in different parts of the UK to enable the European Commission to meet our industry and to hear at first hand the views of our fishermen.

The need to adapt applies equally to ports and on-shore facilities and to the processing industry. We have therefore announced that we are going ahead with grant support schemes under the EC's Financial Instrument for Fisheries Guidance. This is in addition to the continuing national harbour grants scheme and existing vessel safety measures.

The UK will also benefit by up to £36 million of aid under the PESCA initiative, targeted specially at the needs of fishery dependent areas. Again there will be supporting national, regional and local assistance.

Fisheries Management

On the management of fisheries the Government have made clear their determination to deal with the problem of quota hoppers. These vessels, although registered in the UK, are effectively owned abroad yet fish against UK quotas and yield little or no benefit to our fishing communities.

Quota hoppers now account for 20 per cent. of the tonnage of our offshore fleet and take about 10 per cent. of our whitefish quota, most of which is landed abroad. This cannot go on and we must be able to ensure that our fishing communities and related industries derive real benefit from the national quotas allocated under the CFP. As announced in March, we are raising this issue in the IGC and, if needed, treaty changes will be sought. We have already secured the Commission's agreement that it will study with us the scope for taking practical and effective steps to regulate quota hopping within the existing framework of Community law.

The system of quota management is often criticised by fishermen. This is not surprising when quotas have to be set at low levels in response to falling fish stocks. The industry has been invited to make its own suggestions for improvements to the system we apply in the UK. At the annual review meeting in November the industry agreed that no significant changes should be made for 1996. However, the Government remain open to any constructive ideas which are likely to be acceptable to the industry as a whole.

As part of our quota management policy we have made clear our commitment to seeking ways to reduce the adverse effect on the Northern Irish industry of Hague Preference in the Irish Sea.

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Fisheries Conservation and Science

UK fishermen have laid great emphasis on the importance they attach to effective technical conservation measures. This is absolutely right and, in order to address the problems of fisheries conservation, including discards and industrial fishing, we set up a Fisheries Conservation Group consisting of fishermen, scientists and other government experts to look at all the options for new technical measures to help conserve stocks. This will ensure that the UK industry has every opportunity to have the maximum influence on the new Community measures which, at our request, are to be agreed by the end of the year.

We need to increase our understanding of the impact of industrial fisheries on other stocks and on the wider marine eco-system. At the April Fisheries Council we shall therefore be calling for a collaborative research effort in this important area and pressing the European Commission to propose the introduction of a precautionary TAC (total allowable catch) for the large sandeel fishery.

A further area which clearly needs serious attention by the fishing industry and fisheries scientists is the understanding of fisheries science and the use by the scientists of the best advice from commercial fishermen. We have set out on a number of occasions the importance of fisheries science in policy decisions, including in the speech of my right honourable friend, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food at the University of East Anglia last November explaining the key role which science must play in policy making. We have now initiated a series of regular contacts between industry representatives and our scientists in order to increase fishermen's understanding of the work done by the scientists and to give the industry the opportunity to question the scientists and contribute their own expertise. This will be followed up by meetings between the industry and our scientists in advance of formulating our input into the international scientific advice on the state of the various stocks. We hope that these contacts will result in future in better informed decisions and a better understanding of how we reach decisions on fisheries management.

Community Arrangements

At a community level there is scope for improving the role of the fishing industry in decision making and

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in getting a clearer regional influence so that those most directly affected by decisions are heard more clearly. We have already put this idea to the Commission and the initial reaction was very encouraging. We shall be taking this up further at the April Fisheries Council, when we shall propose the introduction of regional consultative committees to bring together fishermen and officials from the member states active in a particular fishery to discuss issues relevant to that fishery. These committees would cover areas such as the North Sea and English Channel and could consider any issue of regional relevance, such as the most suitable technical conservation measures and the state of fish stocks.

On the longer term arrangements for the CFP, we are open to constructive suggestions from the UK industry in particular in relation to the 2002 review. On one important point--the 6 and 12-mile limits--we have already made it clear that they are not negotiable. The Commissioner has herself acknowledged the desirability of having a clear statement about the future and we shall be seeking to build on this.

Fish Marketing

Turning to fish marketing we have encouraged the industry to respond constructively to changing needs, in particular by making better use of the system of producers' organisations. Producers' organisations have already evolved in response to changing conditions in the industry. In the light of those changes, and the recommendations of the recent Sea Fish Industry Authority Task Force Report, we are launching a consultation on the role and function of fish producers' organisations. We will also be seeking views on how various changes to EU legislation on recognition and supervision of producers' organisations should be implemented in the UK.

The importance of the fish market is also reflected in the agreement of Ministers to an increased levy rate for the Sea Fish Industry Authority which will provide funds for their promotional work and open the way for a significant contribution from EU aid.

Conclusion

These are not easy times for the fishing industry. The Government recognise that it is facing a number of difficult issues both on the operation of the CFP and because of the decline in fish stocks. That is why we are taking initiatives across the whole range of fisheries policy in the way set out above.



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