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6 Jan 2004 : Column 332W—continued

Fuel Poverty

Mr. Roy Beggs: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what steps he is taking to assist those pensioners with small occupational pensions or savings who are not eligible for the Warm Homes Scheme to upgrade to a non-manual central heating system. [145313]

Mr. Spellar: The eligibility criteria for the Warm Homes Scheme is kept under regular review to ensure that as many vulnerable people as possible can benefit. For example, it was recently revised to include pension credit.

Pensioners with additional income who are ineligible for assistance through the Warm Homes Scheme may qualify for a Disabled Facilities Grant which includes provision for assistance towards the cost of replacing heating systems.

Mr. Beggs: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what the average time taken in the last 12 months was to process assessments of applications to upgrade heating systems through the Northern Ireland Housing Executive's Disabled Facilities Grant Scheme, broken down by Health and Social Services trust area. [145314]

Mr. Spellar: The information is not available in the format requested as works required to be carried out in a Disabled Facilities Grant (DFG) application are not recorded separately. DFG covers a wide range of works for access to and around a house as well as facilities within a house. Where a heating upgrade is required this is likely to form only a small part of the works required.

In DFG cases generally, the average time taken from date of receipt of preliminary inquiry to the issue of schedule of works for DFGs in the year up to the end of October 2003 was 278 days. This figure includes the time for the occupational therapist's assessment, which took an average of 192 days.

Once the applicant has decided to proceed with the grant application, the average time from the receipt of completed documentation to the issue of formal approval, including the test of resources, was 131 days. Over the last six months 98 per cent. of cases have been processed within the agreed target time of 26 weeks.

The Housing Executive is currently reviewing its arrangements regarding the processing of DFG cases with the aim of further reducing the processing time for the stages that are within its direct control.

Hare Population

Lady Hermon: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what progress has been made in

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introducing the proposed temporary ban on the killing or taking of Irish hares; and if he will make a statement. [144386]

Angela Smith: Having carefully considered all the objections to the proposed ban, I have decided to proceed with making a Special Protection Order, under the Game Preservation Act (NI) 1928, which will impose a ban on the killing, taking, sale or purchase of Irish Hares with effect from 19 January 2004 for a period of one year.

This temporary ban is a precautionary measure which will allow the Department of the Environment the opportunity to conduct further detailed research on the Irish Hare in early 2004. The results of this research work will inform the Department's conclusions on the level of protection required for the Irish Hare, as part of a current overall review of the Wildlife (NI) Order 1985. This review will consider the status of several species of animals, birds and plants, with a view to providing adequate protection for a wide range of Northern Ireland's varied wildlife.


Mr. McGrady: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland how many public sector dwellings are in the ownership of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive in the Portstewart area; and what plans are in place to provide for social housing in this area. [145101]

Mr. Spellar: The Northern Ireland Housing Executive has 209 properties in the Portstewart area and has identified a requirement for an additional 22 houses that will be built by Housing Associations. Some sites for these properties have already been acquired and four houses have been built while eight are programmed to start in 2004–05. Housing Associations, in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, are actively investigating possible locations for other sites for the remaining 10 properties.

Lady Hermon: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what assessment he has made of the potential demand for new homes in Northern Ireland in the next five years; whether he expects this demand to be met; and if he will make a statement. [144347]

Mr. Spellar: The Regional Development Strategy for Northern Ireland 2025 established a need for 160,000 additional dwellings in Northern Ireland by 2015 and 250,000 by 2025.

Progress is monitored and reported annually. The Strategy will be reviewed in 2011/2012 to consider if major changes of direction are required in light of new trends and circumstances. There will be a focused reassessment of the Regional Development Strategy in 2006/2006 to identify any aspects where 'in course' adjustments might be appropriate.

In terms of social housing, the Net Stock Model—the basis for calculating the number of social houses to be built has identified a need for some 1,500 annually. The model is, however, currently under review and the figures will be adjusted in the light of this. I will continue to bid for the funding to support whatever level of new build social housing is required.

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Midwife-led Maternity Units

Mrs. Iris Robinson: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what means he used to find out what people think of the Government's proposals for establishing stand-alone, midwife-led maternity units. [144777]

Angela Smith: In line with my predecessor's commitment, I issued a consultation document on Community Midwifery Units on 30 June 2003.

As part of the consultation process, advertisements were placed in the main regional newspapers. The consultation document was made available on my Department's website and was also issued to a wide range of organisations and individuals. In addition, my Department commissioned the Community Development and Health Network to undertake a series of focus groups across Northern Ireland. These focus groups were specifically targeted to obtain responses from both potential service users and those groups least likely to respond to government consultations.

The consultation period closed on 31 October. Officials are now in the process of drawing together an analysis of the responses received.

Modern Apprenticeship Courses

Mr. Beggs: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland how many people enrolled on a modern apprenticeship course in September 2003. [145308]

Jane Kennedy: 869 young people were enrolled on a Jobskills Modern Apprenticeship programme during September 2003.

Northern Ireland Housing Executive

Mr. McGrady: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the Northern Ireland Housing Executive plans for reducing the time taken to process grant applications for home improvements. [145105]

Mr. Spellar: The Northern Ireland Housing Executive has initiated the Modernising the Private Sector Improvement Services project. The main aim of this project is to streamline the grants process and make it easier for applicants. Preliminary work has been undertaken on the project including a review of processes and the preparation of detailed requirements for a new Grants Management IT System. Work on the IT system is planned to start early in 2004 and it is anticipated that it will be complete in two years. However, it is expected that, during this process, procedures will be identified that can be streamlined within the overall timeframe for the project.

Applications for small scale works made under Home Repairs Assistance Grant, which was introduced from 1 December 2003, can be processed in a comparatively short time to help the elderly and those with disabilities.

Election Candidates

Mr. McNamara: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what his policy is on whether a member of the (a) Human Rights Commission and (b) Equality Commission may accept a nomination to contest an

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election for (i) a district council, (ii) the Northern Ireland Assembly and (iii) the Westminster Parliament; and what account he took of the Paris Principles in determining that policy. [145212]

Mr. Spellar: Members of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission cannot accept a nomination to contest an election for the Northern Ireland Assembly or the Westminster Parliament under the terms of the Northern Ireland Assembly Disqualification Act 1975 and the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975.

Post Office

Mr. Beggs: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what discussions he has had with the major banking groups in Northern Ireland regarding access to bank accounts at post offices. [145310]

Mr. Timms: I have been asked to reply.

All the major banking groups in Northern Ireland are playing a full role in universal banking services at the Post Office, making their own basic bank accounts accessible at post offices and contributing towards the costs of the Post Office card account. Whether they provide access to other accounts at post offices is a commercial matter between the individual banks and the Post Office. I would welcome all banks making all their current accounts accessible at post offices for the benefit of their customers.

Mr. Beggs: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland how many people have opened a Post Office Card Account. [145311]

Mr. Timms: I have been asked to reply.

I understand from Post Office Ltd. as of 5 December 2003, 1,165,147 Post Office card accounts had been opened.

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