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Access to Work Scheme

Malcolm Bruce: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions what training in deaf-blind awareness staff assessing deaf-blind applicants for the Access to Work scheme have had; and if he will publish the guidelines under which Access to Work advisers work. [140514]

Maria Eagle: Access to Work staff can commission the services of specialist assessors, who have the necessary qualifications and proven experience to provide a thorough assessment of applicants needs.

We will shortly be consulting organisations of and for the deaf-blind, about developing open learning material for Jobcentre Plus staff on the employment of deaf-blind people.

In common with other Jobcentre Plus guidance for staff, Access to Work guidance is produced in electronic form for staff to access and read on-line through the Department's intranet. Leaflets describing the Access to Work programme are available for individuals and employers. Relevant extracts from the guidance can be made available to individuals or organisations in response to specific inquiries.

Art Acquisition

Norman Baker: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions how much his Department has spent on the acquisition of works of art in each year since 1997, broken down by amounts spent on (a) paintings and (b) sculpture; what the single most expensive piece of art purchased by his Department since 1997 has been; how much it cost; and what the total revenue raised by his Department through sales of works of art has been since 1997. [142359]

Maria Eagle: The Department for Work and Pensions has not acquired any works of art since 1997 or raised any revenue through sales of works of art in the same period.

Benefit Payment Arrangements

Mr. Drew: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions if he will make a statement on the evidence he used to derive the statement that the Post Office Card

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Account costs public funds at least 30 times more than direct payments into a bank account for clients of Job Centre Plus; and if he will publish the evidence. [144395]

Mr. Pond: I refer my hon. Friend to the written answer I gave my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Clark) on 15 December 2003, Official Report, column 685–86W.

The actual costs remain Commercial in Confidence. Information that is held on a commercial in confidence basis is withheld in line with the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information, part 2, paragraph 13.

Mr. Drew: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (1) what discussions he has had with (a) the Department for Trade and Industry and (b) the Royal Mail on the advice that he is offering to Job Centre Plus clients about moving to direct payments; [144396]

Mr. Pond: All Department for Work and Pensions information on Direct Payment account options is based on the Government policy in this area which was set out by my hon. Friend the former Minister of State for the Department for Trade and Industry on 17 December 2001, Official Report, column 119–120W.

Jobcentre Plus staff have recently been reminded of the need to ensure that new customers are paid by Direct Payment (including the Post office card account) from the outset of their claim. This advice was intended to equip staff with the factual information they need to provide to customers in order for customers themselves to choose the account which best meets their needs and circumstances. The Post Office card account will not be the best option for them as it cannot receive payments of wages. Post Office Ltd. have also had the opportunity to comment on DWP information material for our customers, including leaflets.

Customers are being provided with all the information they need on all of their account options, including those accounts, which can be used at Post Office branches. It will be up to the customers themselves to decide which type of account they wish to have their money paid into.

The Department has a published Public Service Agreement (PSA) target that, by 2005, 85 per cent. of customers will have their benefits paid by Direct Payment. There are no targets for the number of customers paid directly into a standard current account, basic bank account and Post Office card account.

John Barrett: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions who is eligible for the direct payment exceptions service. [142837]

Mr. Pond: We have always recognised that there will be a small number of people who we cannot pay directly into an account. Our plan is to design an exceptions method of payment to properly meet the needs of

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customers in these circumstances. It is anticipated that it will be a cheque-based solution. Payment outlets will include Post Office branches. We are in the process of discussing the design of the exceptions method of payment with the representative bodies most directly affected.


Mr. Chope: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions when the hon. Member for Christchurch will receive a response to his letter of 31 October relating to the disability living allowance claim of Mr. Harvey. [145000]

Maria Eagle: I regret we have no record of having received the hon. Member's letter. If he would forward a copy I will arrange for it to be considered urgently.

Council Tax

Mr. Gordon Marsden: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions what research his Department has collated about the impact of council tax on older peoples' incomes. [142231]

Mr. Pond: The Department holds information about the impact of council tax on older peoples' incomes from a variety of sources.

The Family Resources Survey is a large-scale annual survey of private households run by the department which collects detailed information about income and about certain expenses, including council tax.

Regularly published information from this survey includes estimates of pensioners1 net incomes after the deduction of taxes, including council tax payments. The Pensioners' Income Series 2001–02 shows that between 1996–97 and 2001–02 the average net income of pensioners before the deduction of housing costs increased by 17 per cent. in real terms, while after housing costs it increased by 23 per cent.

Data from administrative sources shows the number of pensioners receiving council tax benefit. In 2002, 2.4 million families over 60 received council tax benefit.

The Department also publishes estimates of the level of take-up of council tax benefit, in the annual publication income related benefits: Estimates of take-up.

The Department further estimates that with the introduction of pension credit almost 1.9 million pensioner households will be eligible for more help, or help for the first time, with council tax or rent payments.

The Department also carries out calculations to establish the level of income at which pensioners are eligible for help with their council tax. From October 2003, a single person over 65 with no entitlement to disability benefits and an income of £116 could be eligible for maximum council tax benefit.

The Department also regularly receives research from other organisations.

Departmental Staff

Mr. Nicholas Brown: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions what progress has been made in

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reducing sickness and absence in his Department; what the principal causes of sickness and absence are in his Department; and what remedial work his Department has under way or is proposing. [140649]

Maria Eagle: The Department for Work and Pensions has targets set by Cabinet Office to help contribute to a reduction in public sector sickness absence. These involve an average working days lost figure of eight days by March 2006, and an interim target of 10 days by March 2004. The cumulative average working days lost figure for the period April to October 2003 was 12.3.

Ministers and senior managers in the Department fully recognise the importance of good attendance. The Department's Executive Team, chaired by the Permanent Secretary, reviews sickness absence on a monthly basis.

The remedial work we have in place includes the following:

A new Departmental attendance management policy was implemented in February 2003. This aims to encourage good attendance and provide support to enable people to return to work as quickly as possible following an illness. Formal unsatisfactory attendance action can be considered when an absence reaches eight days in a rolling 12 month period. To measure the effectiveness of the policy, an evaluation exercise will start shortly.

Each of the businesses within the Department has initiatives in place aimed at getting sickness absence levels down. Jobcentre Plus has an 'Improving Attendance' task force in operation. Its emphasis is on reducing long-term absences (i.e. those over 28 days duration), by either facilitating a return to work, or effecting a termination of an individual's contract. The Department is also participating in the 'Well-being at work' pilots that are being run by the Health and Safety Executive. This initiative is intended to combat workplace stress. In addition, the Department is committed to discharging its responsibilities to disabled people by making reasonable adjustments to the workplace to facilitate an individual's return to work, or to avoid people going off in the first place. A pilot will also commence in January that will involve the early intervention of occupational health nurses in addressing, quickly, those absences that have the potential to become long-term.

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