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Independent Honours Committee

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): An important milestone has been reached in the programme of reform of the honours system.

After an open selection process, which followed the requirements of the code of practice of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, the following have agreed to serve as chairs of the specialist committees which advise the Secretary of the Cabinet on candidates for honours:

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The next stage is the selection of the independent members of the committees from people who responded to the advertisements in the press, the Public Appointments Unit and elsewhere. The chairs of the new committees will take a leading role.

Further announcements will be made when the new committees have been formed.



The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): We are today announcing two significant developments in Government energy policy. The first is the publication of a carbon abatement technology strategy for fossil fuel use. The second is our response to the proposals made in the independent report we have received from consultants on a strategic framework for a future hydrogen economy. We are committing some £40 million of capital grants to stimulate the development of these technologies and of fuel cells. Around £25 million is expected to be allocated for demonstration of carbon abatement technologies with £15 million going to hydrogen and fuel cells.

Reaching the UK's target of cutting carbon emissions by 60 per cent. by 2050 requires action now that will enable us to use coal and gas more cleanly. We must of course maintain the very significant momentum already built towards renewables and energy efficiency; but in parallel, cleaning up our use of fossil fuels, developing the vast potential of hydrogen and fuel cells, and keeping UK industry on the front foot are vital long term objectives.

Fossil fuels will continue to be a dominant source of power for decades to come, with about 75 per cent. of UK electricity still likely to be coming from these sources by 2020. The carbon abatement technologies strategy has been designed to promote a twin track approach towards more efficient plant producing lower emissions, together with carbon capture and storage which would enable the remaining carbon to be captured before it escapes to atmosphere and stored in geological formations. At the same time, with major expansion of coal fired power generation expected in China and India, we want to put the UK at the forefront of what could be valuable export opportunities.

Fossil fuels, particularly natural gas, will be the principal source for the first generation of hydrogen production. The UK hydrogen energy strategic framework report provides an objective analysis of the benefits to the UK of moving towards a hydrogen future. It shows that hydrogen could provide competitive low carbon energy for transport from a range of secure energy sources. Though the technical and economic challenges are significant hydrogen has great long term potential and the UK needs to put itself on the path to reap the benefits. Fuel cells also have significant potential in non-transport applications, for
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example natural gas fuel cells have the prospect of becoming viable for stationary power generation over the next few years.

We are today also announcing our intention to establish a hydrogen co-ordination unit which will help to bring together existing and future activity on hydrogen within an overall strategy. It will help to ensure that the UK's participation in international initiatives such as the international partnership for the hydrogen economy is fully effective and benefits both the UK and our international partners.

Across all the technologies there are very major EU and wider international interest and activity offering significant opportunities for British businesses. One of the aims of the hydrogen and CAT strategies is to position the UK to capitalise on this.


Benefit Fraud Inspectorate

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): On behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the benefit fraud inspectorate (BFI) has today announced its phase 12 programme of work. It is important that local authorities deliver housing benefits services that meet customer needs and protect public money. There is still too wide a gap between those authorities delivering an effective, secure service and those that are not.

The BFI programme covers six authorities that were taking significantly longer to process new benefit claims than the average of 42 days in the quarter ended December 2004. The authorities are Rhondda Cynon Taff county borough council, Rugby borough council, the royal borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, Havant borough council, Highland council and Cardiff council.

BFI will also be undertaking seven inspections of authorities that have a low level of prosecutions and sanctions. These inspections will focus on the adequacy of counter-fraud and verification arrangements in Cannock Chase district council, Waverley borough council, borough of Poole, West Devon borough council, Weymouth and Portland borough council, Mendip district council and Clackmannanshire council.

A full inspection of Ceredigion county council will be undertaken as this authority's benefits service was found to be at risk following assessment as part of the Wales programme for improvement.

I am pleased to announce that planned inspections of Malvern Hills district council and Mansfield district council will not go ahead because both councils have shown significant improvements in their performance.

BFI is an independent unit within the Department for Work and Pensions that inspects and reports directly to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the effectiveness and security of benefits administration in local authorities and the Department.