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The RPA clarifies the role of the railway in the region, its contribution to the economy and its place in the overall transport system, setting out where greater
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rail capability and capacity will be needed over the next twenty years, and the options for responding to that need. The focus of the RPA is making better use of the existing network but it also draws attention to the need to improve access to stations, including interchanges, and the expected need to increase train capacity to meet forecast growth in demand.

Copies of the document have been placed in the House Library.

Work and Pensions

Social Fund

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): I am pleased to announce publication of the annual report by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the Social Fund 2005-06 and the Social Fund Commissioner's annual report.

The Secretary of State's annual report on the social fund for 2005-06 (Cm 6856) was published today and has been laid before Parliament. Copies are available in the Vote Office and Printed Paper Office.

The report records that total gross expenditure in 2005-06, excluding winter fuel payments, was £917 million. This included more than 275,000 non-repayable grants and more than 2.2 million interest free loans together worth over £742 million, and funeral and cold weather payments totalling more than £53 million. In addition around 238,000 Sure Start maternity grants worth over £120 million were made, and over eight million households benefited from a winter fuel payment at a cost of around £1.99 billion.

The report also confirms that reforms to the social fund loan scheme were introduced from April 2006, with extra net funding of £210 million over the next three years to support the changes.

The social fund commissioner's report has also been published today and copies will be available in the Libraries of both Houses.

Claims Handling (Mesothelioma)

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. John Hutton): On 16 May I announced that my Department and the Association of British Insurers (ABI), the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL), and the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) had agreed to work together to identify urgently ways in which we can speed the settlement of claims for those suffering from mesothelioma. I said that I would report on progress before Parliament rises for the summer recess.

More stakeholders have also been involved in this work, such as the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS) and we have also kept other interested parties informed.

Since then, the Government have introduced amendments to the Compensation Bill to reverse the
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effects of the Law Lords ruling on Barker v. Corus. This would have caused delays in resolving claims and made it more difficult for mesothelioma sufferers to recover full compensation. We are changing the law to make it easier for them to get full compensation as quickly as possible.

These new provisions would also enable certain changes to be made to the financial services compensation scheme, which should considerably speed up payment of claims to mesothelioma victims and produce a fair outcome for insurers.

Today I announce interim measures to speed up current claims handling for mesothelioma sufferers. I am also confirming that we will put in place a long term solution. This work will start now and I will provide a further update on progress in the autumn. We are committed to having a full dialogue and we will invite comments from all interested parties.

Looking forward, we have identified a number of interim measures that can be implemented relatively quickly and will speed up the settlement of claims across the UK:

We will continue to work with our partners to ensure that these short-term outcomes are delivered quickly as we develop options for future change.

Post Office Card Accounts

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): The Department for Work and Pensions ran a number of small-scale Post Office card account pilots between 13 February and 10 March 2006. The pilots tested various approaches to moving people from having their benefit or pension paid into a Post Office card account to payments into a bank account, and they have provided us with some useful information on how customers react.

We have already shared the key findings with Post Office Ltd. to help them identify customer needs as they develop new savings and banking products which are likely to be more attractive to many of their customers than the current Post Office card account.
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Post Office Ltd. plan to start a three month trial next week when it will be writing to 10,000 existing Post Office card account customers to encourage them to open one of its new instant saver accounts.

Among the key findings from the DWP pilots were:

We will continue to discuss with Post Office Ltd. and other key stakeholders how the needs of customers can continue to be met after the Post Office card account contract ends in 2010. DWP officials will also be discussing the findings from the pilots and our future payments strategy with customer representative groups and other key stakeholders over the next few months.

Our commitment to allowing people to continue to collect their benefit or pension in cash at the Post Office if they wish remains unchanged. Around 25 different bank accounts can be accessed at Post Office branches now, and we hope there could be more in the future, as well as new Post Office products.

I am placing a report of the pilot findings in the Library of the House.

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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 17 programme of work.

The authorities that will be inspected are: Caerphilly county borough council, city of Edinburgh council, Glasgow city council, London borough of Hounslow council, Sheffield city council, south Bedfordshire district council, Staffordshire Moorlands district council, and Watford borough council.

I am pleased to announce that the planned focused inspections of the claims administration in, Braintree district council, London borough of Newham council and Solihull Metropolitan borough council will not go ahead as all three 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 benefit administration and counter-fraud activity in local authorities and the Department itself.

Agency Reports and Accounts

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. John Hutton): I am pleased to announce that the Department for Work and Pensions has today laid the 2005-06 annual reports and accounts for two of its executive agencies: The Pension Service (HC1531) and The Rent Service (HC1289). Copies are available in the Printed Paper Office and the Vote Office.

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