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Written Ministerial Statements

Wednesday 22 January 2003


Northern Ireland Boundary Commission

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Paul Murphy): I am pleased to announce that Mrs Joan Ruddock, OBE has been re-appointed as a member of the Northern Ireland Parliamentary Boundary Commission. Her warrant of appointment will run until 31 December 2006.

Mr Richard Mackenzie, CB is the other Commission member. His warrant of appointment will run until 29 October 2006.

Foot and Mouth

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Ian Pearson): I am publishing today the response to the PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC) review of the 2001 outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) in Northern Ireland.

The publication will provide details of the Government's response to the review which was published 26 July 2002. Most of the recommendations have been accepted and have either been, or will be implemented. The response highlights a number of areas where work continues to ensure that we are better prepared to respond to a similar animal disease outbreak in the future.

Further Information

A copy of the response has been placed in the House Library. Copies will be sent to stakeholders. Consultation will take place on the revised contingency planning arrangements for dealing with epizootic disease and other initiatives being taken forward in response to the 2001 outbreak of FMD.


Benefit Fraud Inspection (Oxford City Council)

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): The Benefit Fraud Inspectorate (BFI) inspection report on Oxford city council was published today and copies of the report have been placed in the Library.

The BFI published its first inspection report on Oxford city council in August 1999. The Department monitored Oxford's progress after the inspection but when the council failed to make progress, the BFI carried out a further inspection.

This follow-up report finds a substantial improvement in counter-fraud work, but serious weaknesses in housing benefits administration.

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The council installed a new housing benefit IT system and a document image processing system at the same time as implementing the verification framework. The conflicting priorities were poorly managed. Measures to bring the work under control included unlawfully allowing claims to overrun the maximum benefit period of 60 weeks.

This report finds a substantial backlog of work and that performance had deteriorated since the first inspection in many areas, including claims processing and verification. The council also failed to ensure that all relevant claims were referred to the Rent Service, and the incorrect DWP subsidy was being claimed in respect of many homeless persons. A new overpayments recovery system proved inadequate and had to be replaced after a year, causing serious delays and rising debts.

The council has implemented all BFI's recommendations from the first inspection for counter-fraud work, which has improved substantially. However, prosecution of some fraudsters was impeded by the council's policy of allowing claims to overrun.

A new head of revenues and benefits had just been appointed at the time of the BFI follow-up inspection, and a restructuring of management and staff was under way. The poor performance in housing benefit administration had been recognised by the council and plans were progressing to address the problems, although it was too early for BFI to judge their effectiveness.

In 2000–01, Oxford city council administered approximately £39.4 million in housing benefits. This is approximately 33.8 per cent. of its total gross revenue expenditure.

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.

I am now considering the report and will be asking the council for its proposals in response to the findings and recommendations of the BFI.

Disability Rights

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Andrew Smith): Later this year I plan to publish a draft disability Bill with the intention that it should undergo pre-legislative scrutiny, before being taken forward as part of the Government's legislative programme later this Parliament. This will be a further and very major step to ensure we meet our manifesto commitment on extending rights and opportunities for disabled people.

The draft Bill will include new measures proposed by the Disability Rights Task Force building on the legislation that we have already introduced such as our establishment of the Disability Rights Commission and our new protection for disabled pupils and students. It will also make progress beyond our other plans for extending civil rights protection for disabled people. These include the introduction in 2004 of the Disability Discrimination Act's final duties on service providers to make reasonable adjustments for disabled customers

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and the laying of regulations later this session to implement the disability provisions of the article 13 employment directive which will significantly extend employment protection for disabled people.

The new measures in the draft Bill will include proposals that we outlined in our document "Towards Inclusion", such as changes to the DDA affecting the public sector, transport and premises, some widening of the definition of disability and more. The Government also intends to cover membership of larger private clubs in the DDA and will consult widely on how and when the practical changes involved would take effect. I will make further announcements in due course.

All these legislative improvements together represent the most significant and far-reaching package of legislative change to protect disabled people against discrimination ever seen in this country.


Space Strategy

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Ms Patricia Hewitt): The draft United Kingdom Space Strategy "Space for science, enterprise and environment" is being published today. It sets out proposals to enhance the UK's standing in space exploration, to promote the use of space in government and commerce, and to develop innovative space systems. The public is invited to comment on the draft by 30 April. Copies of the strategy and guidance on how to respond are available on the website of the British National Space Centre www.bnsc.gov.uk. Copies have also been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

Overseas Trade Fairs and Seminars Programme

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Ms Patricia Hewitt): I am placing details of a £20 million British Trade International programme of support for UK company participation in supported groups at overseas trade fairs and seminars in the Library of the House. Sponsor organisations that bid for support to organise groups are being informed.

These overseas trade fair and seminar activities continue to be central to trade development work worldwide. British Trade International is conscious of sponsor organisations' need for flexibility in the way in which the funding is allocated. The operation of the programme during the 2003–04 financial year will continue to take account of this need for flexibility, within the overall budget provision, and the need for efficient administration.


Atomic Weapons Establishment

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): I have decided that, following detailed negotiations, and as allowed for in the announcement of the existing ten-year contract for the management and operation of the Atomic Weapons Establishment with AWE Management Limited, the

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contract should be extended to 25 years, and that the contractor should, where necessary, have access to private capital. The extended contract will continue to give overriding priority to safety and security. The resultant long term partnering arrangement will allow the optimisation of investment in capital projects and will result in improved facilities, environmental improvements and efficiency gains.

Aldermaston and Burghfield will continue as nuclear licensed sites, subject to independent regulation by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate and the Environment Agency. The Ministry of Defence compliance officer will also retain the authority and responsibility to cancel the contract and to instruct the contractor to cease operations if there is a serious breach of MOD's requirements.

All existing and completed new assets will be owned by the Government. The total value of the contract will be £5.3 billion.

The AWE workforce and their trade unions will be given details today by AWE Management Limited.


Right to Buy

The First Secretary of State (Mr. John Prescott): The Government fully supports the aspiration of the great majority to own their home (there are now nearly 1 million more homeowners than there were in 1997) and we continue to provide a range of schemes to assist still more people into home ownership.

The Government is fully committed to the principle of the right to buy, which has enabled 1.5 million tenants to own their house or flat, and has helped create stable, mixed communities, but the scheme must be kept up to date to reflect the current housing market. Right to buy has changed little since it was introduced in 1980, and the Government is particularly concerned about exploitation of the rules, and about the way the scheme is now working in areas of high demand for housing.

Right to buy imposes a substantial long-term burden on the public purse (last year's sales will, in due course, result in a long run cost of some £850m) so it is vital that it meets its objectives effectively. The Government has therefore decided to act to tackle abuses and to reduce the scheme's adverse impact on the availability of affordable housing, in both urban and rural areas.

I therefore intend to reduce the maximum discounts available to tenants in 42 areas that are under the greatest housing market pressure, as evidenced by a high incidence of homelessness and high house prices, and where there is also evidence of abuse of the scheme. The areas concerned, mainly urban and all in the south and east of England, are listed below. The maximum discount will be cut to £16,000, the same as the maximum discount available to assured tenants of housing associations under the right to acquire scheme.

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We have today written to all the local authorities concerned, and to any housing associations in those areas to whom the social housing stock has been transferred, consulting them on our intentions. A copy of this letter has been placed in the Library of the House. It provides each local authority with the opportunity to provide reasons why the change should not be made in their area. I will consider carefully all representations received.

An order introducing the changes will be laid before Parliament next month, and will come into effect in March. Any tenant who has applied for the right to buy before the date on which the order comes into effect will be entitled to the current, higher, maximum rates of discount where they qualify for these.

The Government is also determined to ensure that more local people in rural areas can afford a home. The previous administration introduced constraints on the right to buy in some designated rural areas, all national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, by restricting the resale of homes purchased under the scheme. The Government is now taking immediate steps to increase the scope of those restrictions on resale. We are removing the requirement for the area in question to have 3 per cent or more of stock as second homes and will be prepared to designate areas that include towns with up to 3,000 inhabitants (rather than the current limit of 2,000). We are writing to all local authorities and post-transfer housing associations to inform them that we are relaxing the criteria. A copy of this letter has been placed in the Library of the House. We expect more local authorities will take the opportunity this change now provides to protect the stock of affordable housing stock across much of rural England.

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The Government will assess carefully the impact of the changes before determining the need for further modernisation of the right to buy.

LondonSouth EastEastSouth West
1. Barnet1. ChilternWatfordChristchurch
2. Bexley2. Epsom & Ewell
3. Brent3. Hart
4. Bromley4. Oxford
5. Camden5. Reading
6. City of London6. Reigate & Banstead
7. Croydon7. Spelthorne
8. Ealing8. Tonbridge & Malling
9. Enfield9. Vale of White Horse
10. Hackney10. West Berkshire
11. Hammersmith & Fulham
12. Haringey
13. Harrow
14. Hillingdon
15. Hounslow
16. Islington
17. Kensington & Chelsea
18. Kingston upon Thames
19. Lambeth
20. Lewisham
21. Merton
22. Newham
23. Redbridge
24. Richmond upon Thames
25. Southwark
26. Sutton
27. Tower Hamlets
28. Waltham Forest
29. Wandsworth
30. Westminster