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7 Jan 2003 : Column 13—continued

Voting System

24. Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): What recent representations the Lord Chancellor has received on changes to the voting system. [89159]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Yvette Cooper): The Lord Chancellor's Department receives a small but steady stream of representations from organisations on changes to the voting system. In addition, we have received jointly with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister a wide range of recent responses to the consultation paper on the 2004 elections and weekend voting.

Ms Munn : I thank my hon. Friend for her reply. Has the Lord Chancellor's Department formed a view on all-postal ballots? Is there an intention to have more pilot exercises in the next lot of local elections?

Yvette Cooper: There will indeed be more pilot exercises for all-postal voting, and they are being taken forward by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. The Electoral Commission considered the previous round of pilot exercises and concluded that they had had a significant impact on raising turnout, which is an extremely important factor, but equally that more pilot exercises were needed to ensure that people could have full confidence and that there was proper security against fraud.

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Domestic Violence

26. Mr. Chris Mole (Ipswich): What steps the Lord Chancellor is taking to strengthen his Department's support for victims of domestic violence. [89161]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Ms Rosie Winterton): My Department is committed to tackling domestic violence and is leading work on improving links between the civil, family and criminal law. We are taking action to give survivors of domestic violence swift and effective protection, to bring perpetrators to justice and to make sure that children's contact with their parents is safe for all family members. We are working closely with the Home Office on its recently announced consultation paper on domestic violence.

Mr. Mole : Does the Minister agree that it is important to make people aware that allegations should be brought to the courts as soon as possible and to ensure that victims are aware of the support that the police and other agencies can give them?

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. That is why we recently amended the Children Act 1998, so that the courts must take into account the effects of domestic violence when considering cases involving contact with children. However, we also want to go further, so we will ensure through secondary legislation that the courts know about and investigate any allegations of domestic violence at the start of any child contact proceedings. The court will have to decide whether domestic violence took place before considering any contact or evidence issues. If the court decides that domestic violence has taken place but still orders contact between the parent and child, reasons will have to be given as to why contact was allowed.

Transsexual People

27. Hugh Bayley (City of York): If she will make a statement about the Government's policy towards birth certificates for transsexual people. [89162]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Ms Rosie Winterton): On 13 December, I issued a statement, published in Hansard on 16 December, that set out our plans to give transsexual people recognition in their acquired gender, including our intention to legislate for registrars general to create a new record in relation to transsexual people.

Hugh Bayley : I speak on behalf of three constituents who are transsexuals who have approached me because they have all had problems in relation to official documents that record their gender inappropriately. The Government have no choice but to change the law because the European Court of Human Rights has said that we must, but transsexuals, such as my constituents, still face problems. The question on their lips is not whether the Government will legislate, but when the Government will legislate.

Ms Winterton: I fully accept the points that my hon. Friend has made. He eloquently sets out the difficult

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position in which many transsexual people find themselves. We propose to publish a draft Bill, which will be available for pre-legislative scrutiny. I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that I cannot say exactly when that draft Bill will be published but my officials are currently actively engaged in bringing the work forward. Clearly, the timing of substantive legislation after the draft Bill is a matter for the Legislative Programme Committee and parliamentary business managers. It is difficult to secure time within busy legislative programmes, but I assure him that we are committed to legislating as soon as possible.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): Further to the Minister's answer, is she aware of cases such as that of a constituent of mine who has been a woman for 40 years but cannot claim a woman's pension because she is shown as a man on her birth certificate? Although such people welcome the Government's overall approach, a real sense of urgency exists in relation to some of these cases. Will she bear that in mind in trying to expedite the legislation?

Ms Winterton: The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to that particular issue. I hope that he will appreciate that many issues need to be considered when drafting legislation on this matter. It is therefore important that the legislation addresses all the different aspects that are likely to arise, which is why we want to make sure that we get the legislation right.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): Will my hon. Friend make sure that, under any legislation that comes forward, the new certificate that will be issued to show the new gender and new name of the person will allow that person to be issued with a passport in their new gender and new name. That is an issue about which one of my constituents is most concerned.

Ms Winterton: That will certainly be possible. At the moment, I believe that people can be issued with a different certificate, and it is more an issue of explaining why the birth certificate is different from the passport application. That is certainly one of the issues that will be addressed in the legislation.

Voting System

28. Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South): What responses the Lord Chancellor has received on the document XSame day elections and weekendvoting". [89163]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Yvette Cooper): Responses to the consultation paper have to be sent to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, with whom we are jointly conducting the consultation, by the end of January 2003. By mid-December, around 100 responses had been received from local authorities, councillors, MPs and members of the public. We will consider the responses before coming to conclusions.

Ms Taylor : I thank my hon. Friend for her response. Many hon. Members, across the House, are very concerned about low turnouts, and we work hard to

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legitimise politics and to make politics seem real within our communities. We are therefore very concerned when people choose not to vote. In relation to changing the system, has her Department received evidence indicating that voting at the weekend would increase participation?

Yvette Cooper: Interestingly, very little research has been done on weekend voting, and only a small number of experiments have been done in that regard. That is why we are interested in responses to the consultation in relation to whether more trials should be conducted. For people who go to work and have kids, finding time to vote on a busy Thursday can be a real hassle. Exercising one's democratic rights and going out to vote should not be a hassle. It is therefore right that we consider ways of making it easier for people to vote, without kidding ourselves that changing the voting system will solve all the problems of turnout.

Licensing Magistrates Courts

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central): Happy new year, Mr. Speaker—[Interruption.] Let us start as we want to go on.

Mr. Speaker: Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should ask Question 29.

Mr. Cousins On how many occasions hearings in licensing magistrates courts have had to be adjourned because of lack of space to hear objectors in each of the last three years. [89164]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Yvette Cooper): The Lord Chancellor's Department collects nationally only the details of the number of licensing sessions held and has no detail in relation to adjourned licensing hearings or the reasons for any adjournments.

Mr. Cousins : Happy new year again, Mr. Speaker. The season had got to me.

May I draw to my hon. Friend's attention a most unfortunate incident that occurred in Gosforth magistrates court just before Christmas when I and more than 120 of my constituents turned up to make representations against the granting of an additional pub licence in Osborne road, Newcastle, which is becoming a kind of Blackpool of the north-east? Sufficient provision had not been made to hear the volume of objections from local people to the granting of the licence and the hearing had to be adjourned to20 or 21 January. During the discussions on the matter, the barrister for the applicants suggested that the volume of objections was a display of mob rule. Will my hon. Friend therefore look into the incident to ensure that very important and sensitive licensing applications are properly heard and dealt with in licensing courts?

Yvette Cooper: I shall certainly look into the case that my hon. Friend has raised. He will be aware that the Government have proposed transferring licensing responsibilities to local authorities as part of the work

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being taken forward by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. In the long term, these are the issues that local authorities will need to address.

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