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Co-ordinated On-line Register of Electors

The Minister for Local and Regional Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford): Today, I am pleased to announce to the House the launch of a consultation on modernising electoral registration. This follows on from my written statement on the 15 January 2004, Official Report, columns 42–43WS, when I announced the launch of the coordinated online register of electors (CORE) project. At that time I gave a commitment to consult with local government and others on the details for taking forward the project, including the proposed funding arrangements.

This project will contribute to the modernisation of the electoral registration process in Great Britain by, first, standardising local electoral registers and, secondly, allowing authorised users to access local registration data centrally. It will support the achievement of our aim to hold a multi-channelled e-enabled general election sometime after 2006.
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Stakeholders will have until 13 August 2004 to send in their responses.

Copies of the consultation document are available in the Libraries of both Houses and will also be made available on the website of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.


Digital Switchover

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Tessa Jowell): The Government is continuing to work with the broadcasting industry and consumer representatives to facilitate the switch to digital television. Already over half of all households receive digital television services. In view of the progress to date switchover between 2006 and 2010 remains attainable. However it is apparent that more concerted action by broadcasters, retailers and manufacturers, supported by Government and Ofcom, is required if the full benefits of digital television are to be made available to the whole population within the desired period.

Completing the switch to digital will bring significant benefits to consumers, to broadcasters and to the UK economy as a whole:

The BBC and the commercial public service broadcasters have a lead role in achieving switchover. They have an established relationship with virtually all Britain's households and are therefore uniquely placed to ensure a smooth transition to digital broadcasting. They will also benefit from reduced costs and from the ability to offer consumers a wider range of services.

The Government have now written to the commercial terrestrial broadcasters and the BBC inviting them to engage with us and with Ofcom on how to achieve a complete switchover and to establish an appropriate timetable, in liaison with other stakeholders. The outcome of these discussions will be reflected in the digital licences which Ofcom will grant to ITV companies, Channel 4 and 5, and in the BBC's charter review.

Further stages in establishing the plan for switchover will be reported to the House in due course.


Financial Services and Europe

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Ruth Kelly): The Chancellor of the Exchequer is today publishing two documents on financial services and Europe, which have been prepared jointly by Her Majesty's Treasury, the Financial Services Authority and the Bank of
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England. Copies of The "EU Financial Services Action Plan: Delivering the FSAP in the UK" and "After the Financial Services Action Plan: A New Strategic Approach" are available in the Library of the House.


"Building on New Deal: Local Solutions Meeting Individuals' Needs"

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Andrew Smith): I have today published a paper "Building on New Deal: Local Solutions Meeting Individuals' Needs" which provides a summary of our strategy for building on the success of our employment programmes. A copy has been placed in the Library.

The UK employment rate is now the highest in the G7, and the unemployment rate the lowest. Employment has risen in every region of the UK5 and risen more in areas that previously had the lowest employment rates. The number of unemployed people has fallen by over 600,000 on both measures since 1997 to its lowest level for over a quarter of a century.

This success reflects the comprehensive economic strategy that the Government have put into place since 1997. At the heart of this success have been our welfare to work policies, such as the new deal programmes, which have helped well over a million people to find work.

We have achieved significant falls in unemployment and rises in the employment levels of lone parents and older workers. But we are determined to do even more for those who face the most difficult barriers to work. We will build upon the success of the new deal, strengthening the new deal's ability to help people who face particular difficulties in moving into employment. This requires a personalised approach where personal advisers, local managers and service providers are given sufficient flexibility to deliver solutions appropriate for individuals and local labour markets. This strategy builds on existing policies to secure social justice for those who too often have been left behind, and to enable them to realise their full potential, to the economic and social benefit of the whole community and to achieve the goal of full employment in every region and nation of the UK.

We are currently consulting on these proposals with a range of stakeholders, including the devolved administrations, Social Security Advisory Committee, the Disability Employment Advisory Committee, and the National Employment Panel. Once the views of stakeholders have been considered, a final paper setting out the full details of the proposals will be published.

Kerrier District Council (Benefit Fraud Inspectorate Report)

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Chris Pond): On behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the benefit fraud inspectorate (BFI) follow-up inspection report on Kerrier district council was published today and copies of the report have been placed in the Library.
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Following the housing Green Paper, "Quality and Choice: A Decent Home for All", published in April 2000, the Department for Work and Pensions developed a performance framework for housing benefits. The "performance standards for housing benefits" allow local authorities to make a comprehensive self-assessment of whether they deliver benefit effectively and securely. They are the standards that the Department for Work and Pensions expects local authorities to aspire to and achieve in time.

In 2002–03, Kerrier district council administered some £23.1 million in housing benefits, about 60 per cent. of its gross revenue expenditure.

BFI inspected Kerrier district council against the performance standards for housing benefits, and concludes that the council's benefits service had not reached standard in any of the seven functional areas—strategic management, customer services, processing of claims, working with landlords, internal security, counter-fraud and overpayments.

In the first BFI inspection report, published in October 2001, BFI reported that claims processing was poor with a backlog of work, overpayment recovery was improving, and counter-fraud activity was working well.

The follow-up report finds that the council's benefits service had made progress in improving its performance, implementing 68 per cent. of the recommendations from the earlier report.

Kerrier district council had a clear vision, which was underpinned by policies, strategies and effective planning. Good progress had also been made in the area of overpayments, where sound practices were evident and recovery from benefit was strong.

Verification of evidence supporting benefit claims was good in the majority of areas and management checking was clearly evidenced and used to good effect. However, speed of claims processing remained poor, compounded by the continuing backlog of work, with the council taking an average 88 days to process new benefit claims compared to the Performance Standard of 36 days.

The council's three-year best value plan set local targets for new claims, reported changes of circumstances and renewal claims processing. Although these were realistic targets for the council to achieve, they did not meet the performance standards.

The council's counter-fraud policy and positive drive towards quality fraud investigations had prompted a number of successful and publicised sanctions and prosecutions. This demonstrated that the council is serious about tackling benefit fraud. However, the report finds weaknesses, which included inadequate management control and poor communications between benefits and investigation staff.

A comprehensive benefits overpayments policy and procedures manual was in place, high levels of management checks and controls were utilised, and most overpayment recovery methods were used.

The report makes recommendations to help the council address weaknesses and to further improve the administration of housing benefit and council tax benefit, as well as counter-fraud activities.
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My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is now considering the report and will be asking the council for its proposals in response to the BFI's findings and recommendations.

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