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Faversham Jobcentre

15. Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con): If he will make a statement on the future of Faversham jobcentre. [196331]

The Minister for Work (Jane Kennedy): The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed the future of Faversham jobcentre before. He knows that by 2006 we will have completed the roll-out of the Jobcentre Plus network and will be delivering radically improved services to all our customers. However, he knows, because I wrote to him on 3 November, that the existing jobcentre in Faversham is unfortunately not suitable for conversion to one of the new style offices, so we intend to provide our enhanced services from our Sittingbourne office, where many of our Faversham customers already go.

Hugh Robertson: I thank the Minister for her letter, if not the news that it contained. She will understand that the loss of the five days a week service and its
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replacement with one half day is causing a great deal of local anguish. Is there any way in which she can increase the number of days on which a face-to-face service is available? Will she assure me that no steps will be taken to close Faversham jobcentre before the new service at Sittingbourne is up and running?

Jane Kennedy: I will look at the detail again. However, the hon. Gentleman knows that there are only 620 claimants in his constituency, which is down 60 per cent. on the figure in 1997. Jobcentre Plus is not about only new offices. He rightly asks whether we can ensure that the new way in which services will be delivered will be sufficient to address the requirements placed upon them. I will look into the matter that he raised today. We will offer services outside jobcentres in such places as local surgeries and shared sites with local authorities to meet the needs of our local customers. I will look again at the number of days on which services will be available in Faversham.

Child Support Agency

17. Mr Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich West) (Lab/Co-op): What assessment he has made of the new Child Support Agency calculation scheme for maintenance payments; and if he will make a statement. [196333]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Chris Pond): I was anxious that I might not get a further opportunity this afternoon to get to the Dispatch Box to talk about the Child Support Agency.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made regular progress reports to the House, the latest being on 28 October. More than 230,000 cases have been cleared under the new arrangements and more than 33,000 of the poorest families are benefiting from the new child maintenance premium. Customers and staff confirm that when it works well, they like the simplicity of the new scheme.

Mr. Bailey: I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. One of the results of the welcome simplification and transparency of the new scheme is that parents who are paying under the old scheme can access the website to calculate what their payments would be under the new scheme. However, they then of course find that they will not graduate on to the new scheme until some date in the future that is yet to be determined. Will he reassure my constituents and me that they will graduate at the earliest possible opportunity?

Mr. Pond: Of course we understand that the new scheme's transparency is attractive, which is why the whole House wants us to move towards it as quickly as possible. I understand that parents who want to move on to the new scheme quickly are frustrated because they do not know the date on which that will happen. If one parent is anxious to move on to the new scheme, it probably means that the other parent will lose significantly. However, I must make it clear that even after we have made the decision to move across to the
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new scheme, phasing arrangements will apply, which will mean that people will not move immediately on to new assessments. I reassure my hon. Friend that we will move on to the new scheme as soon as possible after we are sure that the new system is working properly.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): That answer will not help people who are trying to work out what will happen to them. Our constituents need to plan their lives and finances. Can the Minister give them any idea of what "as soon as practically possible" means? What sort of phasing time scale does he expect to apply? Has he worked out at least the phasing part so that our constituents can understand how long the phasing will last?

Mr. Pond: Yes—the phasing arrangements are already well publicised. We reckon that 80 per cent. of cases, even with phasing, will move on to the new assessment within three years, although the change will take up to five years for others. That process is designed to ensure that people will not face large changes to their liabilities or assessments, but, again, I am afraid that I
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cannot give the hon. Gentleman or the House a clear date on which we will be able to begin the process. I wish that I could.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries) (Lab): It is a tremendous achievement when the CSA secures the information to carry out the assessment. It is an even greater achievement when the non-resident parent makes the payments. The ex-partner of one of my constituents has been making payments to the CSA since June, yet she has not received a single penny. If I pass information on that case on to my hon. Friend, will he endeavour to secure the release of those funds at the earliest opportunity?

Mr. Pond: The agency is committed to passing on those payments as quickly as possible so that the children for whom they are intended get that help as soon as possible. There may be circumstances in which it cannot pass them on, sometimes because it does not have sufficient information on the intended recipient of the payment or it is waiting for clearance from bank accounts. However, I assure my hon. Friend that if he brings that case to me, I shall look at it carefully.

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EU Summit

3.30 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on the European Council that took place in Brussels on 4 and 5 November.

I should like to thank Prime Minister Balkenende and the Dutch Government for their arrangements for the summit, and for the way in which they have conducted their presidency to date. The Council was inevitably dominated by Iraq, given the presence of Dr. Allawi, the Iraqi Prime Minister.

First, let me express what I know will be the sentiments of the entire House in sending our profound condolences to the families of the Black Watch soldiers killed by a terrorist bomb in Iraq last week and our sympathy to those soldiers injured yesterday in another   terrorist attack. We salute their dedication, professionalism and, above all, sheer and undaunted courage. They are an example to us all and we can and should be very proud of them.

Let us also be very clear about the fundamental importance to Britain's security of what the Black Watch and, indeed, the British armed forces in the south of Iraq are doing. Defeat of terrorism in Iraq is defeat for this new and virulent form of global terrorism everywhere. A democratic Iraq is the last thing the terrorists want to see. It is precisely for that reason—because victory for the terrorists would damage security around the world, including here in Britain—that we have to hold firm, be resolute and see this through, including in Falluja.

The action by allied and Iraqi forces under way in Falluja would cease now, immediately, if the terrorists and insurgents who are using Falluja as a base for terrorism laid down their weapons and agreed to participate in the elections. Over the past few months, as he explained today, Prime Minister Allawi has tried to persuade them to do so. They have refused, not because they are fighting a foreign occupation—if the terrorism stopped, American, British and other troops would leave Iraq—but because they are fighting democracy. They are fighting to stop democratic elections, supervised by the UN and due to take place in January. They know that while Falluja remains outside the control of the UN-endorsed Government, they can use it to wreck elections. Why do the terrorists fear elections? Because they know that given the chance to vote for their own Government, Iraqis would reject the extremism and fanaticism these terrorists represent.

The powerful speech made by Dr. Allawi to the European Council made precisely those points. He appealed for Europe's help. Some promised support of a military nature; others promised only financial support. But all of the Council agreed that it was in the interests of global security for Iraqi elections to take place. The Council also agreed a comprehensive package of EU assistance for Iraq, including a further programme of financial and logistical support for the elections, and financing for the UN protection force. This is on top of €300 million of humanitarian and reconstruction support from the EU over the past two years.

Following the re-election of President Bush, the Council also agreed that a close transatlantic partnership was fundamental to building international
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peace, security and prosperity, and that we now need to strengthen that alliance so that we can intensify our work together in addressing the main international threats and challenges of the moment, including regional conflicts, terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

The Council also heard a presentation from the former Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Wim Kok, on his mid-term review of the Lisbon strategy on European economic competitiveness. He rightly concluded that Europe has to do far more to improve its underlying economic performance if it is to respond to the challenges of Asia and the United States, and he sensibly highlighted the importance of completing the single market, developing flexible labour markets, and promoting sustainable growth. The Council adopted a new five-year work programme of measures in the area of justice and home affairs. There are great benefits for the UK in co-operation with our European partners on these issues. Illegal immigration affects all member states. However, the opt-in protocol for Britain—[Interruption.]

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