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4 Nov 1999 : Column WA97

Written Answers

Thursday, 4th November 1999.

Former Ministers: Pensions and Benefits

Lord Norton of Louth asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What resources are provided from public funds for those who have held office as Ministers of the Crown, including those who have served as Prime Minister.[HL4350]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): Those who have served as Ministers of the Crown are entitled to pension benefits from the Parliamentary Contributory Pension Fund, to which contributions are made by both the Ministers themselves and by the Exchequer.

Under the terms of Section 4 of the Ministerial and other Pensions and Salaries Act 1991, Ministers are entitled to receive a severance payment of one quarter of their final annual ministerial salary when they leave office. This applies as long as the individual is under the age of 65 and is not appointed to another relevant ministerial or other paid office within three weeks of leaving office. The Prime Minister and the Lord Chancellor are not included in this scheme.

A Public Duties Cost Allowance (with a maximum value equal to that of the Office Costs Allowance in the other place) is available to former Prime Ministers who remain active in public life. The allowance may be used to reimburse the cost of maintaining an office and secretarial expenses incurred directly as a result of their having held the office of Prime Minister.

Resources are also made available as appropriate to provide any necessary security arrangements for former Ministers.

Correspondence and Written Questions on Scottish Matters

Lord Selkirk of Douglas asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether it is their policy to answer within three weeks letters on Scottish matters which are revised; and, if not, what is their policy on the speed of replies; and[HL4275]

    How many Written Questions, in both Houses of Parliament, on Scottish reserved matters have received holding replies since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament; and what percentage of the total this represents; and[HL4277]

    In relation to written replies on reserved Scottish matters tabled to both Houses of Parliament since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, what is the average length of time taken to provide a

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    substantive response to those Questions which received a holding reply from the date on which the holding reply was given; and[HL4278]

    What are the time limits for answering, in both Houses of Parliament, Written Questions on matters relating to Scotland which are reserved; and, in the period since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, what has been their rate of success in adhering to this time limit.[HL4276]

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: All letters addressed to Her Majesty's Government--including those on Scottish matters which are reserved--should be answered promptly and in line with published standards for answering correspondence. The current target for replying to correspondence--set out in the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information--is 20 working days from date of receipt, although many departments and agencies set themselves more robust targets of 15 working days, or fewer. The target in my own department is 15 working days.

The Cabinet Office publication Guidance on Handling Correpondence under Devolution sets out the government policy on this area in more detail. Copies are available in the Libraries of the House.

Information on questions on reserved Scottish matters, and on the average length of time for responses for those questions (including holding replies) is not collected in the form requested nor is it held in the Cabinet Office, or other departments, and can only be provided at disproportionate cost.

Crown Immunity

Lord Kennet asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is the present status of Crown immunity; what bodies and agencies may still claim it; whether it is to be abolished; and, if so, when.[HL4439]

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: Crown immunity is being removed as legislative opportunities arise. In recent years, Crown immunity has been removed from the NHS and from food safety and environmental legislation, so Crown bodies are subject to similar regulatory requirements to others and to statutory enforcement arrangements. In the Competition Act 1998, Crown bodies were made subject to the prohibition of anti-competitive agreements and the abuse of market power. Crown bodies must comply with the requirements of health and safety legislation, although they are excluded from the provisions for statutory enforcement, including prosecutions and penalties. Continuing immunities should not be used to shelter inadequate standards in areas where the Crown is not at present bound by existing requirements. Crown bodies are expected to comply as though these requirements applied to them.

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Letter to Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry

Lord Stoddart of Swindon asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they intend to reply to a letter sent by the Lord Stoddart of Swindon to the right honourable Stephen Byers, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, on 19 May (reminder sent 13 July); if so, when; and if not, why not.[HL4170]

The Minister for Science, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville): As the noble Lord is aware, the right honourable Stephen Byers, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, replied to his letter of the 19 May on the 21 October. May I take this opportunity to apologise to Lord Stoddart for the unacceptable delay in the reply to the said letter, which was caused by an oversight within the Department of Trade and Industry in its communication with the Office of Fair Trading.

UK Trade with the EU

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Further to the Answer by the Lord Sainsbury of Turville on 19 October (H.L. Deb., col. 943) that "our trade with the European Union constitutes slightly less than half our overall trade but, as your Lordships know, it still comprises the great bulk", whether United Kingdom trade with the European Union constitutes less than half the overall trade or the great bulk of the overall trade.[HL4313]

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: In 1998, the European Union (EU) accounted for 58 per cent of UK exports of goods to the world, and 52 per cent of goods and services. It is, therefore, correct, if inelegant, to say that it "comprises the great bulk".

Employment Relations Act 1999: Explanatory Notes

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton asked Her Majesty's Government:

    (a) What is the status of the document Explanatory Notes to the Employment Relations Act 1999 and of its explanations and comments on the Act; (b) whether the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) or the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) will be expected to comply with, or pay special attention to, its interpretations on points of law; (c) whether Ministers are among those responsible for the interpretations offered in it, and what liability, if any, the Government envisage arising from any erroneous interpretations, in particular any which are found to conflict with decisions of the courts or tribunals or with appropriate advice offered to

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    parties involved in the application of the Act or with government statements made to Parliament; and (d) what consultations, if any, those responsible for the document had, before its publication, with the CAC or with established legal publishers, the social partners or other persons interested in the Act. [HL4309]

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: The explanatory notes for the Employment Relations Act 1999 were issued on the authority of DTI Ministers to provide readers with information on the Government's understanding of the effect of that legislation; its future intentions; and the factual background to the legislation.

Explanatory notes for this or any other Act are not an exhaustive description of an Act nor in any way a substitute for it. Their purpose is to make Acts accessible to readers who are not legally qualified and who have no specialised knowledge of the matters dealt with, allowing them to grasp what an Act does and how it does it.

The notes are not legislation. They do not form part of an Act and--in their original versions accompanying Bills--are not amendable by nor endorsed by Parliament. Nor are they designed to resolve ambiguities in the legislative text nor to interpret points of law. That has always been a matter for the courts and the notes do not change that. The Government have not attempted to prescribe any particular legal status to explanatory notes. That is a matter for the courts. If the notes are successful in the purpose of helping the reader, they are likely to be read by judges and those concerned with applying the law as well as by others. Occasionally it may be that the notes are referred to in litigation, as Hansard is under the rule in Pepper v. Hart.

However, the notes do not relieve anyone of responsibility for complying with existing legislation and case law. The Government would not accept any liability should an instance arise where a conflict existed between the notes and the law and the notes rather than the law had been followed.

The notes for the Employment Relations Act 1999 were drafted by DTI officials in conjunction with departmental legal advisers. Parliamentary Counsel were consulted. The notes were not the subject of consultation with outside bodies, but comments made on the earlier versions of the notes, which accompanied the Bill, were taken into account in preparing the final version.

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