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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the decision in terms of percentages was laid down in the Social Security (Hospital In-Patients) Regulations 1975. It was based on a percentage of retirement pension. As the retirement pension has risen, the percentage has, of course, risen with it.

The noble Lord asked whether the figures would be reviewed. As of a few months ago, we have been able to reduce the number of people caught by hospital downrating by changing the limit of a hospital stay before downrating occurs from six weeks to 13 weeks. As a result, instead of 35,000 people losing benefit, only 9,000 will do so in future.

Finally, the noble Lord asked me what percentage of income that may represent. For the average pensioner couple the amount of benefit reduction represented by hospital downrating is 5 per cent.

Lord Geddes: My Lords, who, or what, is a decision-making officer? Who decides who shall be a decision-making officer?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the decision-making officer in this case is an administrative officer within the Civil Service in the local benefits office. The same official also decides eligibility for DLA, income support, JSA and similar related benefits.

Baroness Barker: My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the percentage to which she referred has in fact dropped from 40 to 38 per cent of state retirement pension? What steps is the department taking to inform patients in acute and intermediate

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care of their responsibility to notify housing benefit and council tax benefit offices of a change in circumstances under the current system and under the new system?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the noble Baroness says that the percentage has fallen from 40 to 38 per cent. I am sorry to be a pedant about these matters, but the figure is 39 per cent. That is based on a percentage of retirement pension. If other benefits, savings income and income from occupational pensions are added in, it represents about 5 per cent of an average pensioner couple's income.

The noble Baroness makes an entirely valid point about those who may be in long-term or intermediate care beyond 12 months. As she will know, housing benefit runs for 12 months; thereafter, the application must be renewed. There is clearly an obligation on the department to ensure that pensioners in that situation are informed that they need to review their relationship with the local authority.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: My Lords, how much does the administration of the system cost? Is the system of downrating cost-effective in proportion to the amount of money saved?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the amount of money saved by moving to the 13-week rule—in other words, the 9,000 pensioners and others on benefit who remain in hospital for longer than 13 weeks—is in the order of some £40 million. The cost of administration is £4.5 million. Of that, only half a million pounds is actually associated with process—that is, putting the "flags" on the computer—and £4 million is associated with the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, which is that often people take time to tell us that they have gone into hospital. Therefore, £4 million of the £4.5 million cost comprises recovering overpayments. As I say, administration accounts for only half a million pounds of around £100 million-worth of benefit costs.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, I was surprised by the Minister's Answer. Does she accept that this has not changed since 1975, which is a long period of time, and that the percentage of the pension measure takes no account whatever of changes in the general pattern of life in terms of house ownership, whether people have refrigerators or whether the whole situation has changed? Surely we need an independent appraisal of the actual amount.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the percentage is based on the provision which the noble Lord knows perfectly well is embedded in social security; that is, that there is not double provision. In other words, if you are a widow you do not receive a carer's allowance; if some of your food, heating and laundry costs are met by a hospital, you do not also receive payment for that. The percentage has remained the same; the actual costs have obviously changed because retirement pension and incomes have

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increased. It is because we recognise that people's methods of payment and how they organise their finances have changed since the ration book era that we have gone from six weeks' withdrawal of benefit to 13 weeks', thus allowing people who pay their bills monthly or quarterly to have ample time to adjust them.

Inter-Congolese Dialogue

2.51 p.m.

Viscount Craigavon: My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Sandwich, at his request and with the permission of your Lordships, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

    To ask Her Majesty's Government how they will help to revive inter-Congolese dialogue and peace prospects in the Great Lakes region.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Amos): My Lords, the inter-Congolese dialogue is a crucial part of the Lusaka peace process. That is why the Prime Minister has spoken to President Mbeki to thank him for his political and financial contribution and urged him to continue his efforts. At the same time we continue to urge all sides to resume talks immediately on an inclusive transitional government and impress upon them the desire of the people of the DRC to live in peace and security. It is the duty of all the parties to put aside their differences in pursuit of this goal.

Viscount Craigavon: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that it is extremely difficult for inter-Congolese dialogue to proceed constructively so long as neighbouring states park standing and occupying armies particularly in the east of the Congo to fight proxy wars and to plunder the mineral wealth which belongs to the Congolese people?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I wish the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, a speedy recovery. With respect to the inter-Congolese dialogue, and in particular the role played by other countries in the region, it is an essential part of the Lusaka peace process that neighbouring countries withdraw their troops. That is why the process is so important. Inter-Congolese dialogue is one aspect of it; the withdrawal of foreign troops is the second and DDRRR is the third. With respect to the exploitation of resources, we have pressed for the mandate of the UN committee to be extended. Its report is expected in July or August.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, as regards the UN panel of experts, have the Government noted the views that it expressed on the continued illegal exploitation of resources and in particular the presence of the Zimbabweans backed by troops in the Province of Kasai where they are illegally mining diamonds?

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Do the Government consider that the Security Council should publish the evidence on which the interim report has been based so that doubters who have already begun to question the UN panel, such as President Museveni of Uganda, could be reassured? Do the Government support the idea of a curtain of troops along the eastern borders of the DRC which was advanced during the recent Security Council mission?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, the report of the UN panel on exploitation of the DRC's resources is an interim report which outlines the procedure and process which have been adopted by the panel. As I said, we expect the final report in July or August. I anticipate that corroboration of what is in the interim report will be contained in that document. The UN panel will also consider the role played by all high value commodities, including coltan. I think that the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, with respect to the eastern DRC related to coltan. It will report at that time.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, I am sure that the noble Baroness is aware of reports of a number of human rights abuses in areas controlled by the RCD. Do Her Majesty's Government agree with many in the region that an international independent inquiry should be set up to investigate those allegations in order that the stalled peace process may move ahead? Does she also think that it is necessary that the UN strengthens the mandate of its mission in the DRC, MONUC, in order to avoid further violations of the fragile peace?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, we are very concerned about human rights abuses and about humanitarian standards in the DRC. That is a matter which is not confined to one side. We have registered those concerns. We have also contributed funds through NGOs to human rights projects in the DRC and the Great Lakes region. Through the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner we have worked to develop their capacity for monitoring the human rights situation. We shall continue to do that because, as the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, rightly pointed out, until the human rights situation is addressed, peace in the DRC and the Great Lakes region will be difficult to come by.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that there should be penalties of some kind on those neighbouring countries which fail to withdraw their forces which are now partitioning the Congo? Does she see some prospect of getting purchasers of diamonds to refrain from buying plundered gems? Can anything be done about tropical hardwoods which are being illegally chopped down?

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