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Energy Costs

Mr. Bercow: To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Skills if she will make a statement on energy costs incurred by her Department in each of the last 10 years. [42438]

Mr. Ivan Lewis: I refer the hon. Member to the answer given by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Rural Affairs on 19 March 2002, Official Report, column 268W.

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John Mann: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions what the literacy levels are of long- term unemployed people in (a) coalfield areas and (b) England. [41821]

Mr. Nicholas Brown: Statistics relating to the literacy levels of the long-term unemployed in England are not available. However, we estimate that around one third of unemployed people have literacy and/or numeracy skills below Level 1 (the level expected of an 11-year-old) in England) 1 .

No separate information is available for literacy levels among long-term unemployed people in coalfield areas, although we do have information on overall literacy levels in these areas.

We are committed to improving the literacy and numeracy of unemployed people so they have the skills they need to find and stay in work. In September 2001 we began piloting alternative ways of encouraging people claiming jobseeker's allowance to take up offers of help with their literacy and numeracy skills. One of these pilots is in my hon. Friend's constituency.

Empty Properties

Mr. Bercow: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions what the total area in square feet of all empty properties owned by (a) his Department, (b) his agencies and (c) other public bodies for which he has had responsibility was in each year since May 1997. [37809]

Mr. Nicholas Brown: The Department for Work and Pensions was formed in June 2001 from the former Department for Social Security and parts of the Department for Education and Employment.

Statistics relating to empty properties owned by the new Department are not yet available for the current financial year (2001–02).

Health and Safety (Computers)

Dr. Cable: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions how many employees in his Department who regularly use computers have taken up the provision of a free eye test; and how this service is advertised to (a) current and (b) new staff. [36691]

Mr. Nicholas Brown: Currently different arrangements for testing eye health apply to staff employed in the former Department of Social Security and those employed in the Employment Service.

In May 2001 the Department of Social Security contracted with a company of ophthalmic opticians to provide staff with free eye tests at intervals of not less than two years. Between 1 May 2001 and 31 January 2002 (which is the latest month for which statistics are available) a total of 13,888 staff had their eyes tested under this contract. We estimate that by the end of the first year of the contract, on 30 April 2002, around 18,500 staff would have benefited from the service.

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The availability of free eye tests in the former Department of Social Security is publicised on the Department's "Intranet" computer system and was brought to the attention of staff through a circular which was distributed widely. New staff are provided with information about the service as part of the standard induction programme. In addition, local managers are required to nominate an eye care liaison officer whose responsibility is to publicise the availability of the service, using posters and leaflets, prior to an optician visiting an office of the Department.

The Employment Service (which was up to July 2001 part of the former Department for Education and Employment) does not have a contract with an external eye care specialist. Instead staff are able to arrange their own eye tests with an optician of their choice and to have the cost reimbursed. Between 1 April 2001 and 31 January 2002 a total of 2,030 staff had their eyes tested at the Agency's expense.

The Employment Service provides new staff with a "Workstation Guide" leaflet and a video entitled "In Your Own Interests" is shown to all staff. Both of these highlight the provision of eye tests. In addition, eye tests are covered in the Health and Safety Guide which is available on the Employment Service's computerised communication system. Work station assessment forms are also completed by staff at six monthly intervals or following a work station change. These too highlight the provision of eye tests.

We intend to gradually extend the provisions of the former Department of Social Security's contract to all staff in the Department for Work and Pensions from April 2002. This will mean that in future all staff should have the opportunity to have their eyes tested free of charge in their places of work.

Parental Leave Directive

Mr. Bercow: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions what estimate he has made of the (a) financial costs and (b) benefits to his Department of the parental leave directive. [42473]

Mr. Nicholas Brown: Parental leave is unpaid and therefore incurs no direct financial cost. We do not keep records of the opportunity or indirect cost of staff taking parental leave. Information obtained from our payroll systems shows that during the period 1 March 2001 to 28 February 2001, staff in DWP took a total of 2,075 days parental leave.

We cannot quantify the specific benefits to the Department provided by the parental leave directive because it is only one part of a wide range of family- friendly policies provided by the Department. Benefits to the Department include increased labour supply, reduced turnover and a higher commitment from staff while enabling them to achieve a better balance between their home and working lives.

Automated Credit Transfer

Brian Cotter: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions how many benefits claimants have moved to a system of automated credit transfer in each year since the service has been available. [43343]

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Malcolm Wicks: Information on the number of customers moving to automated credit transfer (ACT) each year since ACT became a method of payment is not available in the precise format requested. However, we do collect information on the number of benefit recipients being paid by ACT and this is given in the table.

As the table shows, the number of customers paid by ACT increased by 800,000 in 2001. This shows that the status quo is not an option, because people are already voting with their feet.

Number of benefit recipients receiving their benefit by ACT

(30) Includes industrial injuries disablement benefit from June 1996

(31) Includes invalid care allowance from June 1998

(32) Includes guardian's allowance from June 2000

Information is available from 1993 on the number of customers being paid by ACT with the exception of customers in receipt of jobseeker's allowance (for which data is not available). The table reflects the number of benefit recipients being paid by ACT. The figures include customers receiving payment by ACT for the first time as well as those moving from paper based methods of payment to ACT.

Universal Bank

Brian Cotter: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions what funding the Government have secured from the main lending banks in order to finance the Universal Bank project. [43345]

Malcolm Wicks: The main UK high street banks and the Nationwide Building Society have together agreed to contribute a total of £180 million over five years towards the costs of the new Post Office Card Account. They have also agreed to make their basic bank accounts accessible through post offices.

Brian Cotter: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (1) how many discussions he has had with the Post Office on the Universal bank; [43338]

Malcolm Wicks: Officials from the Department, together with Inland Revenue and Northern Ireland social security agency officials, meet with the Post Office on a regular basis. Contracts have now been signed between these Departments and the Post Office for the provision of the new post office card account.

Council Tax (Mentally Impaired People)

Mr. Drew: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions if he will extend the arrangement for a non-dependent deduction, relating to those who are severely mentally impaired, to council tax. [41782]

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Malcolm Wicks [holding answer 11 March 2002]: Regulations already provide that deductions are not made from a person's council tax benefit where a non- dependant member of the household is severely mentally impaired as defined in schedule 1 of the Local Government Finance Act 1992.

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