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INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT

LNM Holdings

Mr. Whittingdale: To ask the Secretary of State for International Development what the Government's policy is on support for a further application to the EBRD by LNM Holdings for support for the takeover of Sidex Steel. [38845]

Hilary Benn: The EBRD exists to help restructure the economies of former communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe. We support all responsible projects that serve this purpose.

The EBRD Board has not been approached with a specific proposal for a further loan to Ispat-Sidex. If a proposal is received we will consider it on its merits.

Mr. Whittingdale: To ask the Secretary of State for International Development what discussions took place between her Department and other departments regarding the Government's support for the loan application to the EBRD by LNM Holdings. [38846]

Hilary Benn: As is routine, DFID officials invited comments from other interested departments in preparing briefing. There were no discussions.

Mr. Whittingdale: To ask the Secretary of State for International Development if she will set out the reasons for the Government's support for the loan application to the EBRD by LNM Holdings. [38847]

Hilary Benn: The EBRD exists to help restructure the economies of former communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe. We support all responsible projects that serve this purpose.

EBRD's loan to Ispat-Sidex is providing important support for Romania's economic reform and progress towards EC accession. The World Bank identified the privatisation of the company as a key requirement for economic reform in Romania.

External Contracts

Pete Wishart: To ask the Secretary of State for International Development which non-accounting and non-information technology external organisations have won new contracts with (a) her Department and (b) executive agencies in each of the past five years. [38738]

Hilary Benn: The information requested is not held centrally and could be provided only at disproportionate cost.

Pete Wishart: To ask the Secretary of State for International Development if she will list the 30 largest contracts awarded by her Department from (a) May 1997 to April 1998, (b) May 1998 to April 1999, (c) May 1999 to April 2000, (d) May 2000 to April 2001 and (e) May 2001 to the latest date, indicating in each case the value of the contracts and the companies with which the contracts were placed. [38740]

Hilary Benn: The information has been placed in the House of Commons Library.

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Sudan

Dr. Tonge: To ask the Secretary of State for International Development what assessment she has made of the impact of the attack on a food aid distribution site in the village of Bien, Western Upper Nile region of Southern Sudan, on the distribution of food aid in that region. [38695]

Hilary Benn: The attack should not affect distribution of food aid in the region. The parties to the conflict in Sudan have agreed that they will not target humanitarian operations and they are, in any case, obliged under the Geneva Conventions not to target civilians. Something clearly went wrong in Bien on 20 February, and we have demanded an explanation from the Government of Sudan. In the meantime we expect that the World Food Programme will take extra care not to attempt to distribute food near areas where fighting is ongoing.

Burkina Faso

Mrs. Caroline Spelman: To ask the Secretary of State for International Development, what action she is taking to improve human rights in Burkina Faso. [34652]

Mr. MacShane: I have been asked to reply.

We have no resident representation in Burkina Faso, but our Embassy in Abidjan maintains regular contact with government, opposition and NGO representatives on human rights issues and raises our concerns with the government about the human rights situation. The UN Expert Panel Report on Liberia, published in October 2001, contained evidence that Burkina Faso was involved in arms shipments to Liberia in breach of UN sanctions. We have made clear to the Government of Burkina Faso that it should cease undermining UN sanctions by providing support for the regime of Charles Taylor in Liberia.

HOUSE OF COMMONS

Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards

David Winnick: To ask the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) representing the House of Commons Commission, how many complaints are under investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. [38502]

Mr. Kirkwood: This is a matter for the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Committee on Standards and Privileges.

WORK AND PENSIONS

Long-term Sick Leave

Dr. Tonge: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions what guidelines he has published regarding the treatment of employees returning to work after long-term sick leave. [26916]

Mr. Hutton: I have been asked to reply.

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We do not publish guidelines for all employers regarding the treatment of employees returning after long-term sick leave.

However, current policy is to encourage rehabilitation and/or redeployment of staff who have been long-term sick, and to initiate action to rehabilitate them back to work as early as possible. To this end, we are working with the Department for Work and Pensions and the Health and Safety Executive on job retention and rehabilitation pilots to test different health and employment strategies to help people with long-term sickness or disability to remain in their jobs.

We have commissioned guidance for health and social services on promoting employment opportunities for people with mental health problems to meet the requirement of Standard One of the National Service Framework for mental health.

As far as health and social services employees are concerned, guidance on treatment of staff returning from long-term sickness is part of XThe Management of Health, Safety and Welfare Issues for NHS Staff" issued under the cover of HSC(98) 064 and also in XManaging Sickness Absence in the NHS" published through the Strategic HR Intelligence Networks in July 2000 and re-issued in November 2001.

Benefit Fraud Inspectorate

Vernon Coaker: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions when he will publish the inspection report of the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate in respect of Torbay Borough Council. [40020]

Malcolm Wicks: The Benefit Fraud Inspectorate report was published today in respect of Torbay Borough Council and copies of the report have been placed in the Library.

The report identifies both strengths and weaknesses in the benefits services at Torbay. The Council is commended for good customer service. There are three offices that claimants can visit, telephone calls to the office are answered promptly and Torbay is currently revising its claim form in line with the BFI Model Claim Form.

Inspectors found that backlogs of work were not being addressed and the time taken to process claims was very poor with only 45 per cent. being cleared within the 14-day target. These backlogs were also reducing the ability of the council to ensure that renewal claims were being assessed without a break in payment.

The report finds that changes in circumstances which could lead to overpayment of benefit were not given sufficient priority by the benefits section. An experimental scheme for the sharing of information between the council, the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency on changes of clients' circumstances was identified as an excellent initiative.

Inspectors considered there were weaknesses in all stages of dealing with overpayments and the report makes recommendations on tackling this issue. Since 1997 the debt owed to the council has increased by nearly 1 million.

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The council's clear progress in developing a counter-fraud strategy, fully supported by members, was also recognised. Its process of verifying of claims for benefit was found to be up to the required standard. The report concludes that the fraud section would benefit from additional resources to build on the effective work that has already been undertaken.

The report makes recommendations to help the council address weaknesses and to improve the administration of Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit, as well as counter-fraud activities.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is now considering the report and will be asking the council for its proposals in response to the findings and recommendations of the BFI.

Vernon Coaker: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions when he will publish the inspection report of the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate in respect of the London Borough of Southwark. [40021]

Malcolm Wicks: The Benefit Fraud Inspectorate report was published today in respect of the London Borough of Southwark and copies of the report have been placed in the Library.

This follow-up inspection and report shows that the council has responded very positively to the findings of the first BFI report of June 1999 and that many recommendations have been implemented in full. Southwark also have ongoing projects to address many of the remaining recommendations. Inspectors found significant improvements in the quality of anti-fraud work and a reduction in the previous weaknesses in benefits administration.

The report commends the work done to improve the verification of claims; on the process of making payments on account; and on procedural guidance for fraud and overpayment staff.

At the time of the second inspection some problems remained to be addressed. These included the use of more than one type of claim form. Since the inspection, however, the council has introduced a new single form based on the BFI Model Claim Form.

Inspectors found that there had been an improvement in the clearance time for claims. In 1999 only 20 per cent. of claims were cleared within the 14-day target. At the second inspection this was found to have improved to 52 per cent. Southwark should do more to ensure that all information is available when claims are first received.

The report also found that the service to customers needed to be improved, in particular long delays for telephone callers. Southwark had recognised this poor level of service and has introduced a new telephone system.

The large backlog of work, which in 1999 stood at 19,000 claims, had been reduced but at the time of the second inspection the council estimated that a backlog of 5,000 claims was outstanding. This is believed to have fallen further but the council did not have a formal plan to clear the remaining arrears.

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The report notes that a comprehensive approach was being taken to training. It also recognises that the council has improved the liaison between benefits and fraud as well as with the Housing Department.

Inspectors found that progress against BFI's recommendations in relation to overpayments of benefit had been slow. Further recommendations to improve effectiveness are made in this report.

Significant improvement is noted in the quality of Southwark's fraud investigations. Preparation, record keeping and general file maintenance was found to be of a good standard and this was supported by a high standard of staff training. The 1999 BFI recommendation that the council review its anti-fraud strategy had been successfully implemented.

The London Borough of Southwark is an excellent example of an authority responding positively and effectively to weaknesses identified by the BFI and thus providing a more secure and accurate benefits service to its community.

The report makes recommendations to help the council address the remaining weaknesses and to further improve the administration of Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit, as well as counter-fraud activities.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is now considering the report and will be asking the council for its proposals in response to the findings and recommendations of the BFI.


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