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The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): On 8 January 2004, in a written ministerial statement, Official Report, columns 1314WS, the then Energy Minister launched the second phase of a three-phase strategy addressing the issue of future changes to the quality of gas imports to Great Britain. I can now inform the House that assessment of the available policy options, under phase two of the exercise, is complete. All of the available evidence points to a strong case for retaining the current gas quality specifications, and during the Christmas recess the Government launched a public consultation on this basis.
Phase 1 of this exercise, an independent scoping report commissioned by Government, was completed in November 2003. It confirmed that the Wobbe Index specification of certain anticipated gas imports is, before processing, likely to fall outside the current limits of the Health and Safety Executive's Gas Safety (Management) Regulations (GS(M)R). In light of Great Britain's increasing dependence on imported gas, phase 2 of the exercise was launched to identify an appropriate policy response.
As stated in previous announcements, our broad policy options appear to be: to retain the current specifications, requiring off-specification imports to be blended or processed so that the gas composition complies with existing limits, or to amend the current specifications to reflect more closely the expected quality of future gas supplies.
During the course of phase 2 the Department has let a variety of independent technical research contracts, and officials have worked closely with key stakeholders, to evaluate these options. The results show that treating off-specification imports is technically feasible and relatively cost-effective, but that the investment required risks deterring certain supplies at the gas quality margins. Alternatively, amending Great Britain's gas quality specifications could improve access to more diverse sources of supply, thus safeguarding against supply shortfalls and maintaining competition in the British gas supply market. However, introducing such changes would pose a potential threat to the safety of many gas appliances, and would risk increasing environmental emissions. Changes to Great Britain's gas quality regulations could not therefore be implemented without first undertaking a nation-wide programme to manage at-risk appliances. This would be extremely expensive. The Government therefore propose to retain the current gas quality specifications and have moved to public consultation on this basis.
This exercise has been developed by the DTI as a member of the Sustainable Energy Policy Network (SEPN) which is working to deliver the Energy White Paper "Our Energy Futurecreating a low carbon economy".
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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 BFI inspection report on Bromsgrove district council was published today and copies have been placed in the Library.
In 200405, Bromsgrove district council administered some £10.5 million in housing benefits, about 33 per cent. of its gross revenue expenditure. There had been sustained improvement in the reported time taken to process new claims, from an average of 50 days in 200304 to 44 days in 200405 and 42 days for the first quarter of 200506. However, this performance was still below the Department's standard of 36 days.
BFI found that a lack of prioritisation and inefficient practices were creating unnecessary delays at each stage of the claims process. This was compounded by a failure to ensure that the evidence provided by its customers met the minimum requirements of the Department's Verification Framework.
Members and senior officers were not aware of very poor performance in preventing and recovering benefit overpayments and overpayment debt had increased by almost 400 per cent. between 200203 and 200405. Very little action was being taken to minimise avoidable overpayments.
Performance in the application of sanctions against benefit fraudsters was found to have improved. The council applied 11 sanctions in 200203, increasing to 37 in 200405. However, it had failed to prosecute offenders in nine instances where fraud had been proven. This was due to delays within its Legal Services Department.
The inspection revealed that management information provided to Members, senior officers and the Department was often inaccurate with performance being overstated in some instances. Inspectors found minimal management checks being carried out, inadequate audit coverage and a failure to act on audit recommendations.
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 BFI inspection report on Falkirk Council was published today and copies have been placed in the Library.
In 200405 Falkirk council administered some £37.7 million in housing benefits, about 10 per cent. of its gross revenue expenditure. The inspection focused on the council's counter-fraud arrangements, as it reported to the Department that it had not applied any sanctions between April 2003 and March 2005.
BFI found that the council had strengths in its processes to limit the opportunities for fraud and error to enter the benefit system. In particular, claims were
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consistently verified to the standard of the Department's verification framework and effective arrangements were in place to carry out claim reviews and data matches.
However, while the council had a prosecution policy, the inspection found that it did not apply it in practice. Its failure to administer any form of counter-fraud sanction had undermined the council's ability to create an anti-fraud culture and send a clear message to benefit fraudsters.
The inspection also revealed that the council lacked key management controls over its counter-fraud activities. Its investigation work and file management were ineffective and there was a need to improve the monitoring of performance and analysis of casework within the fraud team.
Falkirk council has acknowledged its shortcomings in this area and there is a commitment to improve performance, which includes developing an action plan to address the recommendations made in BFI's report.
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 BFI inspection report on South Northamptonshire council was published today and copies have been placed in the Library.
In 200405 South Northamptonshire council administered some £8.7 million in housing benefits, about 20 per cent. of its gross revenue expenditure. The inspection focused on the council's arrangements for processing claims, as it was taking an average of 104 days to process new claims for housing benefit in 200304.
BFI found that the council's performance in processing new claims had significantly improved. The average time taken had reduced from 104 days in 200304 to 81.5 days in 200405, and 43.5 days in the first quarter of 200506. While this remained longer than the Department's Standard of 36 days, there had clearly been a considerable improvement in the council's performance.
The inspection revealed a similar situation in the time taken to process changes of circumstances, which had improved from an average of 44 days in 200304, to 19.7 days in 200405, and 18.7 days in the first quarter of 200506. Again, this performance was below the Department's Standard of nine days, but represented a significant improvement.
The council's lack of workload prioritisation and forward planning was causing unnecessary delays. In particular, it had not set any internal targets for Benefits staff. This was compounded by a lack of procedural guidance throughout the Benefits service, leading to inconsistent working practices. Inspectors found that this was one of a number of internal audit recommendations that the council had failed to act upon.
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