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UK Call for Action on HIV/AIDS

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): The Government is publishing today "World AIDS Day, the UK's Call for Action on HIV/AIDS". A copy is being placed in the Library of the House.

The call for action is the first step in increasing the UK Government's effort to tackle HIV/AIDS and global poverty eradication. It signals our intention to work for a deeper, more sustained and better coordinated international response involving high-level political leadership, pressing for more resources to be made available, and working together more effectively with other donors. We will make HIV/AIDS—with Africa—a centrepiece for our Presidencies of the G8 in 2005 and of the EU in the second half of 2005.

We are calling on the international community to work better together to achieve real progress towards the international targets for HIV/AIDS, in particular:

This is a challenge we must all rise to, both here and internationally; governments, parliaments, NGOs, the private sector and the public. We are inviting comments from interested bodies and individuals on the Call for Action and these can be sent to:


CPS Autumn Performance Report

The Solicitor-General (Ms Harriet Harman): The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) autumn performance report has today been published and laid before Parliament.

Copies have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

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Social Fund Commissioner

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Andrew Smith): I am pleased to announce that Sir Richard Tilt has agreed to serve as Social Fund Commissioner for Great Britain and Northern Ireland for a further period of three years from 1 December 2003.

Housing Benefit Subsidy Reform

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Chris Pond): I am pleased to report to the House the outcome of our review of how we fund local authorities for the cost of paying housing benefit and council tax benefit. This forms part of our overall programme of housing benefit reform.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire, reported to the House on 19 November, Official Report, columns 787–89, that we had agreed with local government that it would be sensible to rationalise the funding of housing and council tax benefit subsidy. He went on to say that in implementing that transfer of responsibility we had ensured that all properly made claims will be fully funded.

The outcome of the subsidy review, and the associated transfers of funding, is that the Department for Work and Pensions will from April 2004 be responsible for funding local authorities for the payments of housing benefit and council tax benefit they make, replacing a complex set of arrangements whereby funding came from various different sources.

The Local Government Act 2003 provides for the funding of rent rebates to be taken out of the housing revenue account. As a result, we will transfer responsibility for payment of rent rebate subsidy from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and National Assembly for Wales to the Department for Work and Pensions from 2004–05. This Department is already responsible for rent rebate subsidy in Scotland.

The Department will also take responsibility from April 2004 for those residual elements of rent allowance and council tax benefit subsidy currently paid to local authorities by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Executive.

Bringing all these disparate funding streams together has provided the opportunity for a full review of the subsidy system. The aims of the review were to achieve greater simplification and rationalisation, reduce burdens on local authorities, achieve fairer incentives for performance, and achieve a cost-neutral streamlined system.

As a result, I am pleased to report to the House that, for all payments of housing benefit and council tax benefit across Great Britain, l00 per cent. subsidy will be paid for all correctly paid benefit, and the subsidy rate for properly backdated claims will increase from 50 per cent. to 100 per cent.

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In addition, we will introduce a new performance-related way of funding local authorities for specified overpayments, linked to an authority's achievements against thresholds set by DWP. Local authorities will also be paid a contribution towards the cost of discretionary local schemes in respect of war pensions disregards.

A transitional protection scheme will also apply, designed to cushion the impact on local authorities of implementing the subsidy reform package.

Finally, we are planning to produce a new subsidy claim form combining all subsidy claims.

We are confident that these reforms will bring welcome rationalisation of the highly complex arrangements inherited by this Government.


British Energy

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Ms Patricia Hewitt): On 18 September 2003, Official Report, column 62WS, I informed the House that British Energy had made a further drawing on the credit facility following its repayment of all outstanding amounts in March. On 14 October 2003, Official Report, column 11WS, I informed the House that the company had formally agreed with creditors the terms of its proposed restructuring.

British Energy has subsequently asked for the maximum amount available under the facility to be increased from £200 million to £275 million. I am advised by the company that the principal reasons for this request are the costs of unplanned outages at Sizewell B and Heysham 1 and the impact of current volatility in wholesale electricity prices (increasing both the required levels of trading collateral and the cost of the unplanned outages) which have had an adverse impact on the company's liquidity.

We and our advisers have considered British Energy's request carefully. This is the first opportunity I have had to inform the House that, in the light of that consideration, I have confirmed to the company that I will increase the maximum amount available under the facility to the amount requested, subject to the condition that the increase will be limited to the period prior to the expected receipt of the proceeds from the sale of the company's interest in Amergen, or 22 February 2004, if earlier, whereafter it will be reduced to £200 million.

The increase in the facility is within the rescue aid ceiling approved by the European Commission last year, although as a matter of courtesy my officials are informing the Commission. The stringent controls governing drawings on the facility by British Energy remain in place, and the company's obligations under the credit facility agreement continue to be secured by charges over the British Energy Group's assets. We continue to expect any drawings on the facility to be repaid in full, including interest, as soon as the company is in a position to do so.

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As I have previously informed the House, if the Government are not satisfied that British Energy will be viable in all reasonable foreseeable conditions, or if there is a material adverse change in British Energy's position, the Government have reserved the right to withdraw its support for the restructuring. The Government remain ready for administration if any of the restructuring conditions are not met.


Departmental Report 2003

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): The Department for Constitutional Affairs published its Autumn Performance Report for 2003 today. Copies of the Report have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.


Sickness Absence (Civil Service)

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Douglas Alexander): The report "Analysis of Sickness Absence in the Civil Service 2002" prepared for the Cabinet Office by Aon Ltd. shows that the headline figure for the average level of sickness absence across the civil service in 2002 was 9.8 days per staff year. The report contains a comprehensive analysis of the 2002 figures by department/agency.

Departments have established Service Delivery Agreements, which contain their individual targets for reducing sickness absence. Overall, the Civil Service has a target to reduce sickness absence by 30 per cent. by 2003 against the 1998 baseline. The Cabinet Office is continuing to work with other departments and agencies as they take forward their plans to reduce sickness absence and meet their individual targets.

I have placed copies of the Aon report in the Libraries of both Houses.

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