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Mr. Andrew Smith: The regional offices of Ofgem were transferred to the Gas and Electricity Consumer Council (now known as energywatch) in November 2000 under the provisions of the Utilities Act 2000 and are now the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.
Mr. Don Foster: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland how many press releases were issued by his Department in the financial years (a) 1996-97, (b) 1997-98, (c) 1998-99 and (d) 1999-2000; how many have been issued in the current financial year; and what his estimate is of the total number for the current financial year. 
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Power was devolved to the Executive for the first time on 2 December 1999. It was suspended as of midnight on 11 February 2000, at which point the NIO resumed responsibility for the Department and their press releases once again.
Power was then restored to the Executive on 30 May 2000. Questions relating to the number of their press releases during the periods of devolved power should be referred to the Northern Ireland Executive press office.
It is difficult to estimate the number of press releases for the whole of the financial year 2000-01 as this depends on the political and security situation. However, an analysis of the year so far suggests a figure in the region of 255.
Mr. Ben Chapman: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will make a statement on the methods of recourse benefit claimants have if they wish to challenge (a) factual material and (b) medical matters in a visiting practitioner's report. 
Mr. Bayley: Any claimant who is unhappy with any aspect of a decision made on a claim for benefit can ask for the decision to be reconsidered. If they are still dissatisfied with the decision, for whatever reason, they can appeal. Their appeal would be dealt with by an independent appeal tribunal. At both stages, the claimant can submit further evidence in support of their claim or appeal, if they wish to do so.
Mr. Ben Chapman: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will make a statement on the criteria used by decision makers at the Benefits Agency when their examining medical practitioner's report is at odds with reports submitted by a claimant's GP. 
All evidence needs to be weighed carefully in the light of the circumstances of the case, in general medical evidence should be treated as any other evidence. If the evidence is contradictory the decision maker should try to resolve the discrepancy, decide the point on balance of probability, or follow case law guidance.
All doctors who assess benefit claims receive training in disability assessment medicine. This includes benefit specific training, training in professional standards and customer care, and up to five days a year of update training on relevant clinical topics. The training programme and its content are agreed by the chief medical adviser to the Department of Social Security. All training reflects the consensus of informed medical opinion.
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Doctors who have undergone training have a number of assessments supervised by experienced full time medical services doctors, and have to reach a satisfactory standard before being approved by the chief medical adviser, on behalf of the Secretary of State, to carry out unsupervised assessments. No doctor may carry out unsupervised assessments without formal approval.
All doctors have the quality standards of their reports audited by experienced medical services doctors, according to protocols and quality standards which have been agreed by the Department. Each individual doctor is informed of the outcome of audit, and advice is given, if appropriate, on ways of improving quality standards. Advice can be informal, or may include retraining if this is needed. The audit process and outcomes are validated by the chief medical adviser.
Mr. Ben Chapman: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will make a statement on the training given to medical practitioners (a) before and (b) after they are employed to assess benefit claims. 
Newly recruited doctors are trained by medical services in disability assessment medicine, including benefit specific training and training in professional standards and customer care. Doctors are tested on their assimilation of training by multiple choice examination, and, if the outcome is satisfactory, they carry out a number of assessments under the supervision of an experienced medical services doctor, and have to reach a satisfactory standard before being approved by the chief medical adviser to the Department of Social Security, on behalf of the Secretary of State, to carry out unsupervised assessments.
After initial training, all doctors receive up to five days a year of update training on specific aspects of customer care, on good practice, and on a wide range of clinical topics relevant to disability assessment medicine.
Mr. Laurence Robertson: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what directions he gives to benefits agencies about the provision of Disabled Living Allowance to people suffering from Prader-Willi syndrome; and if he will make a statement. 
Because of its rarity, no specific guidance has been issued within the Benefits Agency on the needs of children with Prader-Willi syndrome, but decision makers have access to advice from doctors, where needed, on specific medical conditions. In addition, decision makers are given advice on the likely impact of a range of disabling conditions and symptoms. This includes most of the symptoms of Prader-Willi syndrome, for example,
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Mr. Borrow: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what representations he has received concerning the introduction of Housing Benefit Regulation 7(h) on 25 January 1999; and if he will give local authorities some discretion where the provisions of the regulation cause genuine hardship. 
Angela Eagle: The intention of the provision was to halt the abuse where an owner-occupier transfers ownership of his or her home without money changing hands, or for less than the market price, and rents it back. Housing Benefit is still available to anyone who can prove that he or she was forced to transfer or sell because, for example, of impending repossession for mortgage arrears.
We are aware of some cases where people sold their properties on a commercial basis some time ago and are now renting them. There is no evidence to suggest that these transactions took place to enable the seller to take advantage of the Housing Benefit scheme. We have therefore decided to bring forward amending regulations which will enable an ex-owner to claim Housing Benefit provided five years have elapsed since he or she ceased to own the property. We have completed consultation on these regulations and they will come into force this spring.
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