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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
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.
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 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
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.
Our partners are developing a standard claim letter that should be in place by October.
We are drafting a leaflet for those diagnosed with mesothelioma to explain the help available to them and where to find it.
In July, DWP will clarify with claims handlers best practice for ensuring priority for industrial injuries disablement benefits for those with mesothelioma.
Also in July, DWP will work with Revenue and Customs to address tracing employer records more quickly.
To support the code of practice for tracing Employers' Liability Compulsory Insurance (ELCI) policies, ABI will introduce a phone enquiries helpline in the autumn and will also issue guidance on how to get the best out of the code.
We will review the code of practice for tracing ELCI policies to ensure that the code is comprehensive and has the confidence of users.
ABI will spread best practice within the wider insurance industry with a claims handling best practice guide.
Partners will consider further public awareness activity to encourage claimants to use qualified, experienced legal practitioners when making a claim.
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.
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.
Many customers were not aware that they could use their bank account at the Post Office. This is not just an issue for those receiving a benefit or pension. There are around 20 million people who could access their bank account at a Post Office, but only around 10 per cent. (2 million) per week actually do so. This is a huge untapped market which could bring vital new income into Post Office branches. DWP will work with Post Office Ltd. and support it in its efforts to increase this market;
once customers had moved from the Post Office card account and become used to their new routine, the vast majority (85 per cent.) were happy using a bank account rather than a Post Office card account. Customers like the additional features of bank accounts and the flexibility to get their money when and where they want; and
there are opportunities for Post Office Ltd. to respond positively to customer demand by providing new products which offer more features than the Post Office card account. Customers need to be properly informed of all of their options and the services that the Post Office offers.
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.
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.
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.