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Post Office (Benefits Access)

Bob Spink: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions what safeguards will be put in place to protect the interests of post office customers who open bank accounts in order to access their benefits, pensions and child benefits. [78584]

Malcolm Wicks: We understand that some customers will be concerned about the forthcoming changes. We have designed the new system with their needs in mind. For example, pensioners have told us that two of the most important things for them were to still be able to collect their money from the post office and also to be able to continue to collect it weekly. Both of these options will be available.

Our information campaign will take customers through the changes, including getting their money from their account at the post office. Customers will be supplied with information which clearly sets out their account options and enables them to decide which account best meets their needs and circumstances. Customers do not need to take any action until they receive a letter about the change.

Social Fund Loans

Mrs. Calton: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (1) what measures are being taken to require social fund staff to ensure that applicants are properly advised on the type of payment most helpful to them; [79177]

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Malcolm Wicks: We share the social fund commissioner's view that people should receive good quality advice. Although existing procedures are already designed to provide high standards of service delivery, the Department is currently examining what improvements are possible in this area.

The Department continues to work to improve the training and guidance it gives its staff, including non social fund staff who have contact with customers. Any instance where an office gives wrong information will be investigated and the Independent Review Service has now agreed to provide the Department with details of any such cases that it becomes aware of.

We recognise that bereavement is very distressing and training and guidance for staff reinforces the message of sensitivity when dealing with claims for funeral payments and the need to provide accurate advice and information to customers.

Workplace Inspections

Mr. Carmichael: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions for what reason the number of inspections of workplaces by the Health and Safety Executive reduced in the last five years. [78448]

Mr. Nicholas Brown: The reduction in numbers of preventive inspections from 116,652 in 1996–97 to 75,237 in 2001–02 is a reflection of the increase in both the quantity and complexity of HSE's reactive work in carrying out investigations. The numbers of investigations has increased from 27,889 in 1996–97 to 37,855 in 2001–02, a rise of 35 per cent.

A balanced programme of inspections and investigations is necessary to secure improvements in workplace health and safety.

Benefits

Mr. Webb: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions if he will undertake simulation modelling of the distributional impact of his policies taking account of predicted levels and patterns of non take-up of entitlement to benefits; and if he will make a statement. [74840]

Malcolm Wicks: The distributional impact of policies is assessed by the Department, when it is appropriate and robust to do so, by using simulation modelling based on the Family Resources Survey. The process of making these estimates involves making assumptions regarding the level of take-up of entitlement to income-related benefits. The precise nature of these estimates

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and assumptions depends upon the context being modelled; we do not explicitly predict patterns of take-up.

Communications Data

Harry Cohen: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions how many officers in his Department and officers authorised by him he estimates will be permitted to seek access to communications data as defined in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000; how many times his Department or such officials sought access to such data from communications providers including Internet service providers under the Data Protection Act 1998 in the last year; and if he will make a statement. [74478]

Malcolm Wicks: The Department is currently making use of powers under the Social Security Fraud Act 2001 which allow authorised officers to require information, including communications data, from the financial, utility and educational sectors to find evidence of fraud. Powers like these will help us continue our crackdown on fraud and make sure that the right benefits go to the right people.

These powers were commenced on 30 April 2002 and 114 officers have so far been authorised by my right hon. Friend. This is in line with our commitment made during passage of the legislation that there would be no more than 300 authorised officers in the department at any one time. In addition, 66 local authority officers have been authorised by their chief executives or chief finance officers.

Information is not held centrally on the number of requests made for data under the Data Protection Act 1998, and could be provided only at disproportionate cost.

Social Fund

Mr. Willetts: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions whether he plans to adopt the recommendation in his Department's Research Report 172, Social Fund use amongst older people, to establish a separate Social Fund for minimum income guarantee claimants as part of the new Pension Service. [74731]

Mr. McCartney: The Government are committed to improving the service currently provided to today's and future pensioners. The Pension Service has replaced the Benefits Agency services for pensioners from 1 April 2002, and is working to introduce an improved service tailored to the needs of pensioners. The Pension Service has been developed as a customer-focused organisation after researching what customers need and expect from the Government in relation to pensions business.

The Pension Service will play a crucial role in both tackling pensioner poverty and encouraging saving by providing a dedicated service for today's pensioners, using modern technology whether they deal with us by telephone or through the internet, by post or face-to-face. It will also improve the service to future pensioners, by providing accurate information to help them make decisions about saving for their retirement. The Pension Service is committed to making access to benefits and services for pensioners, including the Social Fund, as simple and straightforward as possible.

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DWP Research Report No. 172 'Social Fund use amongst older people' raised some interesting and important issues. We are giving careful consideration to these issues and how best to address them.

Child Support Agency

Mr. Wray: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions how much funding has been given to the Child Support Agency in each year since 1997. [74417]

Malcolm Wicks: The running costs for the Child Support Agency are as follows:

Year to 31 March# million
1996–97213.4
1997–98213.7
1998–99208.4
1999–2000227.1
2000—01209.3
2001—02226.2
2002—03211.9

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER

Activity-led Funding Sub-group for Education

Mr. Stunell: To ask the Deputy Prime Minister when he will publish the report of the Activity-led Funding Sub-group for Education. [79333]

Mr. Miliband: I have been asked to reply.

A paper on the work of the Activity Led Funding sub group was discussed by the Education Funding Strategy Group on 9 September 2002. It is available on the DfES website at www.dfes.gov.uk/efsg/papers.cfm.

Arson

Mr. Pickles: To ask the Deputy Prime Minister how many incidents of arson there were, broken down by (a) fire brigade area and (b) local authority in England and Wales in each year since January 1997. [79674]

Mr. Leslie: The table shows the number of malicious fires attended by local authority fire brigades in England and Wales between 1997 and 2000. 2000 is the latest year for which data are available.

Malicious fires by local authority fire brigades 1997–2000

Number(12)
Brigade1997199819992000(13)
England and Wales72,93275,54191,07298,005
England67,68269,73584,14691,171
England (non met counties)34,29236,01843,29047,735
Avon1,5141,6572,2182,666
Bedfordshire8247809971,273
Berkshire8007671,0171,152
Buckinghamshire9269841,1381,263
Cambridgeshire8909531,1881,294
Cheshire1,1291,1491,2291,332
Cleveland1,3531,3381,8432,045
Cornwall347393332426
Cumbria557537663654
Derbyshire9491,0021,2441,225
Devon959948992947
Dorset643521684799
Durham 1,1511,2371,3221,306
East Sussex8578741,1161,346
Essex1,1281,1981,6572,284
Gloucestershire527544553639
Hampshire1,2051,3771,4271,365
Hereford and Worcester610549692706
Hertfordshire8487841,0911,275
Humberside1,5281,7982,0311,886
Isle of Wight87687884
Kent1,8652,1482,6643,070
Lancashire1,9682,1172,5322,534
Leicestershire1,3451,4691,6711,664
Lincolnshire551692771742
Norfolk8508598581,106
North Yorkshire552568655739
Northamptonshire9299911,1951,366
Northumberland528471584570
Nottinghamshire1,6611,7862,4632,624
Oxfordshire645772787960
Shropshire518579564694
Somerset448471579646
Staffordshire1,1691,2871,4501,542
Suffolk386381461600
Surrey570609724881
Warwickshire535506664721
West Sussex582588734794
Wiltshire358266422515
Isles of Scilly0000
England (met counties) 33,39033,71740,85643,436
Greater Manchester7,2717,2318,4678,887
Merseyside(14) 3,5623,6914,7555,348
South Yorkshire2,4152,6603,0813,014
Tyne and Wear3,1523,1733,4663,326
West Midlands5,9005,4806,7626,970
West Yorkshire4,7025,1205,8026,472
Greater London6,3886,3628,5239,419
Wales5,2505,8066,9266,834
North Wales6357589301,058
Mid and West Wales1,5231,7212,1231,959
South Wales3,0923,3273,8733,817

(12) Includes Xlate" call and heat and smoke damage incidents.

(13) Provisional.

(14) Includes estimates for a small number of incidents not recorded during industrial action (Merseyside July 2001 ).


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