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21 Jan 2004 : Column 1333Wcontinued
Margaret Hodge: All 524 planned Sure Start local programmes are now operating, serving many of the most disadvantaged communities in England. All Sure Start programmes are 'community-led' through a partnership (made up of parents, community groups, and local representatives of voluntary and statutory organisations providing services to the families in the area) that designs the programme after consultation with families and workers in the area so that services reflect the needs of the community. These partnerships, in the main, have no legal status and are not
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incorporated bodies. One of the partner organisations must act as the 'accountable body' and take the legal responsibility for receiving the grant on behalf of the partnership. 86 programmes (16 per cent.) have non-statutory organisations as their accountable body, and of these, 16 (3 per cent.) are community groups or partnerships who have taken legal status for the purpose of running the programme.
|Academic year||Percentage of pupils who achieved 5+ A*-C at GCSE/GNVQ with the help of vocational qualifications|
Mr. Pond: Local authorities generally process council tax benefit claims alongside claims for housing benefit. We have already put in place a comprehensive programme of reforms to the administration of both these benefits; our immediate priority is to reduce delays in processing times and we are making good progress.
As part of the 2002 Spending Review, the Department invested £200 million over three years in a standards fund to help local authorities fund improvements in the service. The priority for the first year of funding was improvement in the speed and accuracy of claims processing and the prevention and recovery of overpayments.
The need for pensioners to make renewal claims for council tax benefit was abolished in October 2003 and renewal claims for working age claimants will be abolished from April 2004. Previously claims for council tax benefit were made for a set period of up to 60 weeks.
Mr. Waterson: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions what plans he has to relax restrictions on council tax benefit eligibility for pensioners who have modest savings; and if he will make a statement. 
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Mr. Pond: With the introduction of pension credit on 6 October 2003, the upper capital limit of £16,000 has been abolished for those pensioners who receive the pension credit guarantee. The more generous income and savings rules in pension credit also apply to both housing benefit and council tax benefit. The rate at which money is deducted from benefit in respect of capital over £6,000 has also been halved, from £1 in every £250 to £1 in every £500. Around 1.9 million households stand to get more help, or help for the first time, with their council tax as a result of the introduction of pension credit.
Additionally, we are abolishing the council tax benefit restriction from 1 April 2004; this currently restricts the maximum amount of council tax benefit for people living in properties in council tax bands F, G or H to the maximum amount payable for a band E property. Pensioners will, of course, be among those people who benefit from this change.
Mr. Waterson: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions what plans he has to give the pension service overall responsibility for raising the take-up of council tax benefit in partnership with organisations working directly with pensioners; and if he will make a statement. 
Mr. Pond: Promoting the take-up of council tax benefit is the statutory duty of local authorities. However we are keen to ensure that all pensioners entitled to help with their council tax bills are claiming this. In particular, we want to ensure that the 1.9 million pensioners who gain, or gain more, council tax benefit on the introduction of pension credit get the extra help to which they are entitled.
We are therefore actively pursuing ways of supporting local authorities in their duty to promote awareness of council tax benefit. Many authorities already have well developed take up strategies and we want to support these, and other authorities, to ensure that more pensioners on low income are receiving the help to which they are entitled.
The pension service are inviting claims for council tax benefit when an application for pension credit is made, and we recently introduced a shortened claim form for pensioners applying for the benefit to make their claim easier. Everyone who calls the pension credit application line and wishes to apply for housing/council tax benefit is issued with a form.
The local service is also working with partner organisations, including local authorities, to help reach the most vulnerable pensioners. During visits to pensioners in the local community or their homes advice on entitlement is provided and help offered to complete application forms.
The Third Age Programme is also joining up existing service providers to offer a "whole person" service to pensioners. Joint teams (consisting of both local authority and pension service staff) are already up and running in nine local authority areas in the southwest and plan to roll these teams out nationally over the next two years.
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The Third Age Programme are also working with the voluntary sector to help reinforce messages about take-up and funding has been provided to support innovative pilots to increase the take-up of benefits including council tax benefit.
Mr. Cousins: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to what extent, and for what reason he has agreed to delegate decisions over the level of housing benefit or council tax benefit to the Scottish Executive. 
Mr. Pond: Although housing policy and local government finance are areas of devolved responsibility that interact closely with housing benefit and council tax benefit, responsibility for decisions over the level of housing benefit and council tax benefit remains with the UK Government at Westminster.
Paul Holmes: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions how many staff responsible for detection of benefit fraud have been employed by his Department in each year since 1997, broken down by region; and if he will make a statement. 
Mr. Pond: The overall aim of the Department's anti-fraud strategy is to have a benefit system that is secure from first claim to final payment. The implementation of this strategy means than an anti-fraud focus is integral to the work of all staff in the Department, as is dealing with the wider agenda of error and incorrectness in benefit payments.
Mr. Pond: For Great Britain, we published "Fraud and Error in Housing Benefit, April 2002 to March 2003" on 11 December 2003; a copy will be placed in the Library. Social security matters in Northern Ireland are a matter for my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
Paul Holmes: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions how many people have been convicted of benefit fraud twice within three years since 1997; how many of these have had their benefit (a) reduced and (b) withdrawn; and if he will make a statement. 
Mr. Pond: Records of second convictions before 'Two Strikes' legislation came into effect on 1 April 2002 are not available. This provision cannot be applied retrospectively and applies only to people who have committed, and then been convicted of, two separate benefit offences after that date.
To date, 23 people have been convicted of benefit fraud against the Department on two or more occasions. Sanctions have been applied to 11 of these cases, five of which have had their benefit reduced, and a further six have had their benefit withdrawn. A further 10 individuals are not currently in receipt of benefit. Additionally, a further two individuals are due to have their benefits withdrawn after the appeal period allowed has lapsed.
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Mr. Djanogly: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions how many pensioners were in receipt of (a) full and (b) partial council tax benefit in Huntingdon in each of the last three financial years. 
Mr. Pond: The information is not available. At August 2003, there were 3,700 people aged 60 or over receiving Council Tax Benefit in Huntingdonshire, of which 2,100 people were also in receipt of Income Support or Jobseekers Allowance (income-based).
Estimates of CTB take-up in Wirral South are not available. Statistics on the take-up of income-related benefits are available on a national basis only, and are published in the DWP report entitled "Income Related Benefits Estimates of Take-up"; copies of the publication series can be found in the Library.
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