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16 Dec 2002 : Column 531continued
Mr. A. J. Beith (representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission): None. However, the Electoral Commission stated in its strategic evaluation of the 2002 electoral pilot schemes that it would welcome further pilots of weekend voting or voting over several days, including the weekend, instead of Thursday voting, to test voter preferences.
32. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): What assessment he has made of the financial impact of the proposed extension of local authority licensing to church venues; and if he will make a statement. 
Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): I draw the hon. Lady's attention to the Bishop of London's speech in the House of Lords on Second Reading of the Licensing Bill. He highlighted concerns on behalf of churches and cathedrals about the provisions for using places of worship for entertainment such as concerts and plays.
Miss McIntosh : The hon. Gentleman was present when the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who remains in his place, said that a review is under way. Will the hon. Gentleman join me in making
Mr. Bell: The hon. Lady knows that the majority of musical events in her constituency take place in churches and chapels, from York minster to humble parish churches, including her own parish church of Sowerby. She will be encouraged to know that in last week's Committee stages of the Licensing Bill, the Bishop of London tabled an amendment to obviate the difficulties that churches would experience. It was supported in Committee. The Minister for the Arts said that she would consider it and we hope for a positive outcome in the House of Lords.
Mr. A. J. Beith (representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission): I understand that the Electoral Commission recently submitted its response to the Government's consultation paper on a policy for electronic democracy. It welcomed consideration of the role of technology in promoting participation, but underlined that the application of new methods of voting alone could not be relied upon to increase election turnout. The Electoral Commission will continue to evaluate the operation and impact of electronic schemes that were piloted at local elections. It will also use new technologies to support its voter awareness activities when appropriate.
Mr. Allen: Every elector can now help us to make better law in this place, in that we can now put pre-legislative scrutiny online. Any electors watching that webcast can e-mail back to us their experiences and views to help to create better law. However, although online pre-legislative scrutiny will be available throughout the United Kingdomand, indeed, the globeit is not yet available to hon. Members in this place. We are the last people to be allowed access to it. I know that this is a matter of concern to the right hon. Gentleman. Will he tell the House what he has managed to do to allow Members access to pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills? Will he also commend this example of e-democracy, which will help to tackle some of the
Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): I notice that my right hon. Friend's response to the question about participation was framed principally in terms of electronic voting. Does he accept that the real problem relates not so much to what happens on the day of a general election as to what happens in the four or five years in between them? Can he ensure that, when the commission considers these issues, it looks more at what happens in between elections than at what happens on polling day?
Mr. Beith: Yes, I believe that the commission is very conscious of that issue. Indeed, my reply implied that the mere introduction of other mechanisms for voting will not, by itself, deal with the problem of low voter turnout.
Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): Figures suggest that, under the Licensing Bill's proposals, churches or other places of worship seeking to provide entertainment five times a year would pay #100 each year. If more events than that were required, a full licence would be needed and annual inspections would be necessary, each of which would attract a fee.
Mr. Key : May I invite the hon. Gentleman to stiffen the resolve of the Government to look again at this issue, as the Minister said in the other place last week? For example, the proposals will affect not just a particular church, but any building within the curtilage of that church, as well as open-air events in churchyards. Salisbury cathedral, in my constituency, covers 74 acres, containing three schools, Sarum college, a museum, a conservation centre, a National Trust house, a medieval hall and 150 houses including the deanery and the bishop's house, all of which are used for entertainment and fundraising efforts. The bureaucracy involved in these provisions will surely outweigh the benefit to those collecting the licence fee in terms of tax.
Mr. Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me an inventory of Salisbury cathedral. He will be interested to know that 16,250 church buildings belonging to the Church of England alone will be covered by the proposed legislation. Many other denominations and faiths are also affected by the proposals as they stand. I invite the hon. Gentleman, and the Association of English Cathedrals, to write to the appropriate Minister to express their views, as we are doing as Church Commissioners, as the Archbishops Council is doing, and as the Bishop of London has so ably done in Committee in the House of Lords.
Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): Does my hon. Friend accept that many churches, such as St. Peter's in Burnley, hold many more than five events a year? They do so not only to raise money, but to be part of the community. Such events provide essential community facilities, and we must ensure that that continues.
Mr. Bell: My hon. Friend makes a wider point than he imagines, because the Church plays a central role in our local communitieswith entertainment and charity events in church halls, for exampleand that is to be encouraged. What we are seeing now is a Government who are prepared to listen. Baroness Blackstone has said that she will consider the amendment proposed by the Bishop of London, and we have heard favourable noises from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and her team today. I am, therefore, hopeful that we will get a dispensation not only for churches throughout the country, but for churches in London that are already covered by previous legislation. My hon. Friend's point is well made and is being listened to. We are hopeful of a positive outcome.
Mr. A. J. Beith (representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission): The commission's evaluation of the May 2002 electoral pilots recognised concerns about the potential loss of privacy for voters involved in remote electronic voting and postal voting. However, the commission also noted that it was unaware of any evidence to suggest that remote voting led to an increase in formal allegations of electoral offences. The commission will continue to monitor closely the implications of remote voting.
Dr. Lewis : I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the reassurance that the commission is aware of the possibilities of abuse, but is it not also the case that the best and most effective forms of abuse are those that are least capable of being detected? If there is good reason for us having separate booths for privacy when we go to the polling stations to cast our vote, surely voting at home online opens up the possibility of undetected
Mr. Beith: One way to ensure that such pressure is not found too often is to make choice available to the electors as to how they cast their vote. Choice is one of the concepts that the commission has sought to encourage in its pilots so that people are not required to vote in ways that limit privacy.