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The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty):
The provisions in the Railways Bill, which is due to complete its Commons consideration today, would devolve to the Scottish Ministers additional powers and functions to determine Scottish railway
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strategies; to let, monitor and manage the Scotrail franchise; and to specify rail infrastructure needs in Scotland. They will also be able to set fares and fund improvements to the railway. Only some functionsprincipally safety and the licensing of railway operatorswill remain reserved to UK Ministers.
The changes in the Railways Bill affect the executive powers of the Scottish Ministers. Responsibility for primary legislation dealing with the management and operation of railways remains reserved to the Westminster Parliament.
Under the Sewel Convention the Government have committed not to vary the executive competence of the Scottish Ministers without the consent of the Scottish Parliament. Therefore, in order to legislate in the Railways Bill the Parliament must give its consent to the Sewel motion for those aspects of the Bill which relate to devolving additional executive powers and functions to the Scottish Ministers. The motion put to the Scottish Parliament was:
"That the Parliament agrees that those provisions that confer executive powers and functions on the Scottish Ministers in the Railways Bill and those that relate to devolved matters should be considered by the UK Parliament".
To support these devolved responsibilities, the Secretary of State has announced that agreement has been reached with Scottish Ministers to transfer approximately £325 million to the Scottish Executive which would provide sufficient funding to cover all the responsibilities being transferred by virtue of the Railways Bill.
The Scottish Executive will receive a Departmental Expenditure Limit (DEL) transfer from the Department for Transport (DfT) of £7.5 million to accompany the transfer of the majority of the Strategic Rail Authority's (SRA's) functions to the Scottish Executive. This sum represents the application of the Barnett formula (0.1023) to 75 per cent. of the relevant SRA budgets for 200405.
The Scottish Executive will receive a DEL transfer from DfT of £302 million to fund Network Rail's Operation, Maintenance and Renewals activities in Scotland to deliver the network outputs in Scotland. This will take effect from 1 April 2006.
A significant proportion of the £302 million total relates to a new Scotland element of Network Rail's regulatory asset base (RAB). The disagregation of the current GB RAB into elements for Scotland and for England and Wales will be determined by the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) before the end of 2005, following joint representations by DfT and the Scottish Executive. The DfT and Scottish Executive will each receive funding precisely sufficient to remunerate their respective RABs. The Scottish Executive and DfT agree that the best estimate that can be made of the RAB for Scotland in advance of the ORR's determination is that it will be very close to 10 per cent. of the RAB for Great Britain, which is the basis on which the RAB spend above is calculated.
Finally, the ORR will have the same range of responsibilities in Scotland as in England and Wales. Like the Secretary of State for Transport, Scottish Ministers will be required to provide guidance to the ORR on desired outputs, and ORR will determine the cost of delivering these outputs. To reflect the fact that in future Network Rail will be funded by two Governments, a separate binding arrangement between Scottish Ministers and Network Rail will be established, similar to the parallel binding arrangement between UK Ministers and Network Rail. No transfer of resources is required to reflect these arrangements.
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) report on Southampton City Council's processing of claims for housing benefits was published today and copies of the report have been placed in the Library. In 200304 Southampton City Council administered approximately £67.5 million in housing benefits. This is approximately 13 per cent. of its gross revenue expenditure.
Southampton City Council was selected for inspection because it was taking 99 days on average to process new Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit claims compared to the Department for Work and Pensions standard of 36 days.
BFI found that the council had made improvements since the first BFI inspection report, published in 2002 and that in the first quarter of 200405 new claims performance had improved to 57 days. The Verification Framework was introduced in October 2002 and claims are now being verified to a high standard. A comprehensive set of management checking procedures is now in place and claims are monitored to identify if a payment on account is required. Although these factors have improved the quality of new claims processing, there needs to be more proactive management at all stages of the new claims process if Southampton City Council is to reach the standard of 36 days.
The report makes recommendations to help the council improve the administration of housing benefit and council tax benefit. It also contains the council's action plan for implementation of the recommendations.
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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) report on Chelmsford borough council's processing of claims for housing benefits was published today and copies of the report have been placed in the Library. In 200304 Chelmsford borough council administered some £27 million in housing benefits. This is approximately 36 per cent. of its gross revenue expenditure.
Chelmsford borough council was selected for inspection because it was reporting that it was taking 101 days on average to process new housing benefit and council tax benefit claims, compared to the Department for Work and Pensions standard of 36 days.
At the time of inspection only 33 per cent. of new claims were decided within 14 days of all information being available and claims were taking an average of 93 days from date of receipt to date of decision. The council attributed poor clearance times over the last two years to the effects of introducing new IT and document management systems and the verification framework over a short period in late 2003. There were delays at most stages of the new claims process and staff lacked confidence in the new benefits IT and document management systems.
Also, although Chelmsford borough council had good policies and procedures for verifying claims, these were not always followed. There were clear strengths in verification of identity, confirming residency and verifying national insurance numbers, but weaknesses in other areas.
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