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Lord McNally: My Lords, I do not want to delay the House. Indeed, I am sure that the House is grateful for the full explanation of the two instruments. The only question I ask is why the Government or Companies House do not put microfiche out of its misery. Here, an old technology has become more and more expensive and is being run parallel to a new technology which is becoming cheaper. We are assured that we are within a few years of us all having Internet access. Instead of having this "dance of the seven veils", would it not be better to announce a finite cut-off from when microfiche will no longer be available? From what the Minister says, I doubt whether there would be many complaints about that.

The Earl of Northesk: My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord McNally, I thank the Minister for his full explanation of the regulations. In a nutshell, they allow for a 30 per cent increase in the fees charged by Companies House for its microfiche-based information services. That said, I am bound to say that we on these Benches have a few slight reservations about the proposal. I therefore hope that the House will bear with me while I articulate one or two matters of concern.

As the Minister explained, the increased fees are predicated upon an analysis that demand for microfiche has declined substantially from when levels were last changed two years ago and that Companies House is increasingly offering more up-to-date

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electronic services to its customers. Such arguments are perhaps persuasive. In terms--and the Minister made the point--they gel with the Government's stated desire to make the UK the best and safest place for e-commerce in the world. All good and well.

But while acknowledging the requirement that, where practicable, Companies House should avoid cross-subsidy of its activities, does the Minister accept that, to an extent, these proposals could have the effect of creating a form of digital divide? Why is it that the burdens of the declining demand for microfiche services should be imposed upon those who are obliged to continue to use them simply because they are small and do not have the sophisticated technology of larger operations?

I note that the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs in another place suggested that part of the reason for the increase in fees was to,

    "fund future improvements and developments",

at Companies House, particularly in terms of investment in information technology. That is fair enough. Effective strategies in this area should result in significant reductions in terms of both manpower and cost. Can the Minister therefore explain the 10 per cent or so increase in staffing levels at Companies House since 1996-97? Can he give us an idea as to future projections of staffing levels at Companies House? Perhaps more significantly in this context, can the Minister tell the House how many Companies House documents are filed electronically and what percentage that represents of the total? Is it fully on track with the,

    "target for all business to be capable of being transacted electronically by 2005";

or is the comment of the chief executive in his annual report statement that electronic filing,

    "remains as yet little used",

a more accurate assessment of the situation? I am sure that the Minister will clarify those points and I look forward to his response.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their interesting comments, which can be taken together. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, asked why we do not put microfiche out of its misery immediately. The answer is that pricing where one has a falling demand and where one loads the fixed overheads on to the unit costs sharply pushes up the rate. It also gives every incentive, as it should, for people to move to the electronic alternative, which is cheaper and more effective. That is exactly the kind of pricing strategy one should have because it gives people a good incentive to move to a cheaper version but does so over a period of time.

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That means that people have plenty of time to make alternative arrangements and move away from the older technology. That is why the measure does not contribute to a digital divide. This is the way in which the technology will go. It is cheaper for businesses to use and they should be moving rapidly in that direction.

As regards staffing levels, there is a huge expansion in the work of the registry office and it is rapidlyincreasing. The correct way to examine its efficiency is in terms of the unit cost of its operations. There is a 3 per cent annual reduction in that which it has been meeting. That is a satisfactory situation. In fact, there is a 40 per cent increase in its workload, which shows that it is doing a good job in improving its performance.

Finally, perhaps I may draw particular attention to Companies House's commitment to developing services which are efficient, economical and of high quality. The agency puts a good deal of effort into trying to establish the needs of its customers and uses such consultation and interaction with its customers as a basis for driving forward its evolving service offer. It aims to use the possibilities afforded by modern technology to create an environment for easier access for companies and individuals, whether they are delivering or obtaining information. It is that dedicated focus on customers which has led to Companies House being one of the few public sector organisations to be awarded the "Chartermark" on three consecutive occasions. It has also allowed Companies House to garner three significant awards in the wider business community for its on-line information service, Companies House Direct, in the course of the year 2000. I commend these regulations to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Open-Ended Investment Companies (Investment Companies with Variable Capital) (Fees) (Amendment) Regulations 2000

9.35 p.m.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I spoke to both sets of regulations at the same time. I beg to move.

Moved, That the regulations laid before the House on 19th December be approved [3rd Report from the Joint Committee].--(Lord Sainsbury of Turville.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

        House adjourned at twenty-five minutes before ten o'clock.

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