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The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Hazel Blears): I have today placed in the Library of the House a copy of the National Community Safety Plan which incorporates the National Policing Plan 200609.
The National Community Safety Plan is the first of its kind. It sets out central Government's key community safety priorities for the next three years and our minimum expectations of each of our partners, to underline the very broadly based nature of community safety work. Its aim is to join up the approach to community safety across central Government, to instil a new relationship between public services and the communities they serve in the community safety field and to encourage a deeper and more mature relationship between central Government and its partners in this area.
The delivery of community safety requires a multi-agency approach and the police are key players, so the National Policing Plan is now embedded within the National Community Safety Plan. This, the fourth National Policing Plan, sets the framework and context for policing in England and Wales for the next three years. It will inform local police planning and help to ensure that all communities know what they should expect from their local police force.
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): I have today published a consultation paper on the Government's proposals for the powers of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. The Government strongly believe in the importance of human rights and are committed to ensuring that the Commission has the right powers to enable it to carry out its duties effectively.
The consultation paper sets out the Government's conclusions on each of the recommendations put forward by the Commission in its own review of its powers. In total, the Commission has recommended 29 amendments to the Northern Ireland Act 1998, although following a House of Lords ruling the Commission withdrew eight of the recommendations.
In assessing these recommendations, the Government have concluded that it is satisfied that the Northern Ireland Act 1998 already broadly provides the Commission with the right powers to carry out its duties efficiently. In a number of cases, we agree with the recommendations put forward but believe that these changes do not require any additional legislative provision but should be made administratively, in co-operation with the Commission.
However in two important areas, namely, the right of access to places of detention and the power to compel evidence and witnesses, we agree that it is right to amend the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in order to grant the Commission the necessary powers to allow it to fulfil its existing functions properly.
The consultation, which will run until 8 February 2006, invites views on all aspects of the paper, but I have asked specifically for views on how these two powers should be implemented and how we can make sure that the right safeguards are in place.
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) inspection report on Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council was published today and copies have been placed in the Library.
In 200405, Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council administered some £25.1 million housing benefits, about 37 per cent. of its gross revenue expenditure. The council was selected for inspection because it was taking 46 days on average to process new claims for housing benefit in the quarter ended 31 December 2004 and it had operated with a backlog of claims for several years. The inability to clear the backlog was mainly due to a high turnover of Benefits
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service staff and managers and time lost to the introduction of new technology. Several initiatives to reduce the backlog were tried, including the introduction of a twilight shift, overtime working and the use of a dedicated backlog team. The backlog was eventually cleared in September 2004.
The overall performance of the Benefits service has improved considerably over the past 12 months. A variety of initiatives and changes to procedures have been introduced, including the fast tracking of claims and the prioritisation of changes of circumstances. BFI's sampling confirmed that processing times for new claims had improved considerably with the time taken to process new claims for the quarter ended 31 March 2005 now at the Department's standard of 36 days. The sampling also confirmed that performance in respect of changes of circumstances had followed a similar pattern of steady improvement. In 200304, the average time taken to process changes of circumstances was 43 days but this had reduced to an average of 17 days in 200405.
The overall standard of verification was good with only one area of weakness. The claim form currently used by the council does not meet the design and content principles of the Department's model claim form but the council is in the process of revising the form and will ensure that best practice is taken into account in the new version.
The council has good working relationships with many stakeholders, including landlords, housing associations, The Pensions Service and Jobcentre Plus. The council has an effective performance management framework in place to report the benefits service statistics to members but current performance targets are not challenging enough. Targets need to be reviewed to ensure that they remain up to date and challenging. This will help the council drive forward further improvements to performance and help it achieve its aim of top quartile performance by 2006.
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) inspection report on Great Yarmouth Borough Council was published today and copies have been placed in the Library.
In 200405 Great Yarmouth Borough Council administered some £27.7 million in housing benefits, about 31 per cent. of its gross revenue expenditure. Overall, the inspection found that Great Yarmouth Borough Council was performing to a Fair standard.
The council has had a backlog of work for many years. This, together with problems recruiting and retaining processing staff and an outdated benefits IT system have made it difficult for the council to provide an effective benefits service. The council reported that it
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had taken an average of 89 days to process new claims in 200405. However, BFI's inspection revealed that a combination of errors meant that its reported performance was understated and the real average was nearer 49 days, compared to the Standard of 36 days. Inefficient practices were creating unnecessary delays at each stage of the claims process and the council's checking regime was not identifying some of the errors that were resulting in inaccurate reporting. Only limited analysis was carried out by the council to establish the
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reason for failure to meet targets. Insufficient internal audit resources had been allocated to audit the benefits service.
The council has demonstrated a commitment to improving its benefit service by allocating funds to clear the backlog, implementing a new benefits IT system and seeking to enter into a partnership with consultants to help improve performance.