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Implementation of the Network Modification Provisions in the Railways Act 2005

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): Today we have published a consultation document on the implementation of the provisions in the Railways Act 2005 relating to network changes. The consultation covers the guidance which the Secretary of State is required to issue on circumstances in which rail closures should be allowed. It also covers when more minor modifications should be allowed, and will replace existing guidance that becomes obsolete when the Strategic Rail Authority is formally wound-up later this year.

The Government want more passengers to use the railways. Indeed, Britain now has the fastest growing railway in Europe. The Government are also committed to increasing investment in the railways. But from time to time, as in any industry, changes to service provision will be necessary to reflect passenger and freight demand. That is why there needs to be an open and transparent process to allow these changes to be made. The Railways Act 2005 allows that to happen—hence this consultation.

This guidance will ensure that safeguards and standard practices are applied to any proposals for changes on the rail network. For the first time, statutory guidance will be put in place on rail closures, making procedures clearer and more transparent. It will also ensure certain procedures are taken into account before any rail closure can be considered. The draft guidance requires that:

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The document published today seeks views on the proposed implementation of this legislation.

Copies of the consultation have been laid in the House Library and the deadline for responses is the 21 April 2006. The existing procedure for closures will remain in place until the responses to the consultation have been considered and a final version of the new guidance has been laid before Parliament. It will continue to be administered by the Strategic Rail Authority during this period. This will be the Authority's sole responsibility after 31 March 2006, and will only require a minimal number of staff.


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 14 programme of work.

BFI inspections in this programme will include councils whose published performance figures indicate that they take longer than most to process claims for housing benefit. There can be a number of reasons for comparatively slow processing of claims. BFI inspection will determine the reasons for delays and seek to provide remedies. The councils include: Gateshead metropolitan borough council, Portsmouth city council, Shepway district council, Stevenage borough council and Walsall metropolitan borough council. Where this has been achieved, the councils will have the opportunity to demonstrate improvement in recent performance.

It is important to deter fraudsters by applying sanctions, including prosecutions; therefore BFI will inspect two authorities that in comparison to their caseload have applied few sanctions, including successful prosecutions. The authorities are Elmbridge borough council and Exeter city council.

BFI will also inspect four other authorities to provide assurance on a range of reported performance. These authorities are Dudley metropolitan borough council, Milton Keynes council, Reading borough council and Rushcliffe borough council.

I am pleased to announce that planned inspections of Castle Point borough council and South Ayrshire 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 standard of benefits administration and counter-fraud activity in local authorities and the Department itself. During its inspections, BFI undertakes a thorough analysis of service standards and is careful to understand the reasons for under performance. Where a council has recently improved and has effective recovery plans in place, BFI will take this into account in the final inspection report.