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Mr. Kirkwood: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on how many occasions he has used his statutory powers to direct improved standards of performance following persistent failures to deliver acceptable benefit services; and in which local authority areas those powers have been exercised in the last three years. 
Malcolm Wicks: Powers under the Social Security Administration Act 1992 were used to give directions to Northampton borough council in August 2000. In addition, powers under the Local Government Act 1999 were used to give directions in the London borough of Hackney in October 2001.
Mr. Kirkwood: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions what projects will be undertaken by the Employment Advisory Panel; what its budget is; how many support staff it will have; to whom it will report; and when. 
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Mr. Nicholas Brown: The National Employment Panel is an employer-led body which provides independent advice to Ministers on the design, delivery and performance of the UK Government's labour market policies and programmes. Its remit encompasses all the new deals and other welfare-to-work activities delivered by the Department for Work and Pensions, Jobcentre Plus and partner organisations at the national and local levels.
Projects will include a review to examine how effectively welfare-to-work programmes are addressing the needs of the most disadvantaged across the new deal programmes; a new skills sub-group to advise on links between welfare-to-work initiatives and work force development; and work to promote equal access to employment for ethnic minorities through a standing Minority Ethnic Advisory Group.
The National Employment Panel reports on a regular basis to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The skills sub-group will report to the Minister responsible for adult skills, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey).
Mr. Clappison: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions how much unpaid benefit is due in areas where Jobcentre Plus staff are undertaking strike action; and what his Department's estimate is of the amount of benefit that will be owed to claimants if strike action continues for (a) one week, (b) two weeks, (c) a month and (d) more than a month. 
Mr. Kirkwood: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions if he will make a statement on the principles which underlie the Performance Framework; in what ways it differs from the system of Best Value; and whether it will be piloted in local authority areas. 
Malcolm Wicks: We are committed to a performance framework for the administration of Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit (HB/CTB), aimed at driving up standards of administration and counter-fraud activity in all types of local authority. The proposed performance framework will include: national standards which make clear what local authorities are expected to deliver; measurement and inspection, so we know whether local authorities are delivering; and consideration of subsidy incentives that reward improved performance.
As a first step, we are defining national performance standards which build on and go beyond the measures established by Best Value but do not replace them. The standards are based on Benefit Fraud Inspectorate findings, Audit Commission observations and reports, National Audit Office reports and academic research.
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They define an effective and secure HB/CTB serviceaddressing strategic management; customer service; speed, accuracy and security in the processing of claims; work with landlords; internal security; counter fraud; and overpayments.
The standards have already been tested in a pilot exercise over the summer in 14 local authorities. We are formally consulting the local authority associations on performance standards as part of the performance framework, and a copy of the consultation paper has been placed in the Library.
Mr. Kirkwood: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions what lessons he has drawn from the ONE pilots about the administration of housing benefit and council tax benefit; and what new guidance to local authorities is being proposed. 
Malcolm Wicks: The ONE evaluation did not focus on the administration of Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit. This would have been impractical as there are wide variations in practices among local authorities in ONE pilot and control areas. However, research from the ONE pilots did show improvements to customer service arising from working in close partnership with local authorities. These partnerships will be a key requirement of Jobcentre Plus, and we will be discussing with local authorities how we can jointly guide and support our staff to deliver a cohesive, responsive service to our customers.
Mr. Kirkwood: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (1) what representations he has received from local government ombudsmen in England, Wales and Scotland about the administrative complexity of the housing benefit and council tax benefit systems; 
Malcolm Wicks: In the last year, the Department has received two reports from the Local Government Ombudsman in England. One concerned Housing Benefit claim form NHB1 which is produced by the Department; the other referred to an apparent ambiguity in the Department's guidance to local authorities on operating the Verification Framework. No representations have been received in respect of Wales or Scotland.
Ministers and officials regularly meet with stakeholders in the Housing Benefit scheme and other interested parties to discuss issues of interest or concern. Such a meeting between one of our officials and one of the three Local Government Ombudsmen for England took place in April this year.
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Malcolm Wicks: The Appeals Service took over responsibility for hearing Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit appeals on 2 July 2001. By the end of September, local authorities had submitted 1,484 appeals to our Appeals Service.
Many local authorities have welcomed the introduction of tribunals. However, as the number of appeals which have passed through the new system is still low it is too early to reach any firm conclusion on the impact of the transition from review boards.
(3) what plans he has about increasing earnings disregards for housing benefit. 
Malcolm Wicks: We keep all matters relating to benefit under review. Our proposals in respect of Housing Benefit were set out in our policy statement "Quality and Choice: A decent home for allThe way forward for housing" (December 2000).
Malcolm Wicks: The reformed Housing Benefit extended payment scheme was introduced on 9 April 2001 and it is too early to assess the effectiveness of the new scheme. However, work in progress includes interviews with clients who have received extended payments since April 2001 and with staff responsible for administering and promoting the reformed scheme.
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Our response to consultation on the Housing Green Paper"Quality and Choice: A decent home for allThe way forward for housing" (December 2000)explained that we would look further at the scope for simplifying the different protection schemes which restrict Housing Benefit in the private rented sector. We have commissioned a research project to inform this work, which is now starting its fieldwork stage.
Mr. Kirkwood: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions what assessment he has made of the effect of the introduction of the housing benefit verification framework on the increase in formal complaints of maladministration. 
Malcolm Wicks: Formal complaints about maladministration of the Housing Benefit scheme are made to the Local Government Ombudsman. Information from the Local Government Ombudsman on the number of complaints where the Verification Framework has been cited as a contributory factor is not available.
We will ensure that the Housing Benefit scheme supports our strategy to transform the services we provide through the development of Jobcentre Plus and the Pension Service. For those of working age, we intend to streamline the claims process to enable people to claim Housing Benefit at the same time as other benefits, without having to give the same information twice.
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