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3 Feb 2003 : Column 14—continued

Local Radio

11. Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): What measures she will put in place to ensure that deregulation of local radio ownership does not undermine the local character of radio stations. [94801]

The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting (Dr. Kim Howells): Clause 302 of the Communications Bill, currently being considered by the House, will impose a duty on Ofcom to ensure that local sound broadcasting services contain local content and retain the character of local radio. Ofcom is required to draft, publish and maintain a code, giving guidance on local content and character and to have regard to the code when carrying out its functions in relation to local sound broadcasting services.

Miss Begg : My hon. Friend knows that I have already raised my fears with regard to the loss of local identity in television stations, so he will not be surprised that I am asking him about local radio. My own local radio station—Northsound in Aberdeen—does a wonderful job in reflecting the local culture and in supporting and promoting north-east culture over the airwaves. Does my hon. Friend agree that the loss of that very essence, which makes a local radio station local, would be a tragedy and that the last thing that we want is a lot of local radio stations that all sound the same?

Dr. Howells: Yes, I could not agree more. To be fair to all the operators of local radio stations, I should say that they understand full well that their biggest pulling power for audiences is precisely their localness. It is entirely possible for the radio station owners to get together with Ofcom to draw up a code that will bring together the best ideas in the industry about strengthening localness. We put a great deal of stress on that in the Bill, and our proposals have had a favourable reception. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that it is absolutely vital to preserve and enhance that localness not only for the service of the community, but because of its great pulling power for audiences.


The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Proxy Voting

21. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): What plans the Electoral Commission has to stop abuse of proxyvotes. [94811]

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Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. A. J. Beith), who normally answers for the Speaker's Committee, apologises for not being in the Chamber this afternoon. He is attending the funeral of our former parliamentary colleague, Richard Wainwright. I have been asked to reply.

The Electoral Commission is examining the use of proxy voting as part of its current review of the law and practice in relation to absent voting generally. The commission plans to publish its final report and recommendations in April this year.

Mike Gapes : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that reply. However, before the commission publishes its final report, will it give some attention to events that took place in my constituency in July last year, when there were 400 proxy votes in a single ward in a council by-election? I have to say—I can say it here very clearly—that there are very strong suspicions that many elderly people gave their proxy votes to individuals who then did not cast those proxy votes in the way that those people would have wished if they had known what they were doing. Can we deal with the proxy vote problem once and for all? Now that we have good availability of postal votes, is it not time that we scrapped the possible abuse and intimidation of people via the proxy vote system, got rid of proxy votes and used postal votes instead?

Mr. Viggers: The commission has no power to investigate specific allegations of electoral abuse or fraud. Any such allegation should be referred to the police. However, the commission is interested in gathering more evidence about the extent and scale of electoral abuses in the United Kingdom and intends to fund research in that area in the coming year. If the hon. Gentleman would care to make representations to the Electoral Commission, I am sure that they would be well received.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): I wish to disagree with the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) because a large proportion of people in my constituency work in the oil industry. They work offshore on a two-week-on, two-week-off rota. Sometimes they work three weeks on, three weeks off; or they work abroad for large parts of the year. In those circumstances, postal voting is not practical, especially as we still have fairly short notice of when elections will be held; so may I make a plea that proxy voting remain an option for people who cannot be present to vote on the day?

Mr. Viggers: Of course, if we were to rely entirely on postal voting, there may be circumstances in which a voter who is resident overseas might find it difficult or even impossible to register to vote within the time limit, so the hon. Lady makes a very fair point.

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The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Open Spaces and Greenfield Land

22. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): What is the policy of the Church Commissioners for preserving open spaces and green field land in their ownership. [94812]

Second Church Estates Commissioner (Mr. Stuart Bell): The commissioners have in place an environmental policy for their rural estates. Their primary responsibility is towards their beneficiaries, the serving and retired clergy of the Church of England. However, they are careful to balance that against the need for responsibility towards the environment.

Simon Hughes : Will the Second Church Estates Commissioner ask his colleagues to pay particular attention to a park just over the water called Archbishops park, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey)? She, I and many other people have a major concern that the Church may be pursuing the wrong course. The Church is the freeholder. Will the hon. Gentleman try to make sure that the Church negotiates that that park can remain a public park for the foreseeable future, and give a lease to the local authority, or to somebody else willing to manage it as it would wish, so that it can be protected, and that there is no risk of it being developed, built on or sold off.

Mr. Bell: I am glad to say that I anticipated the hon. Gentleman's question, and I have already made the inquiries that he would wish me to make. Lambeth borough council manages the park, and, having security of tenure under the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954, can continue to occupy unless the commissioners require it for their own occupation or redevelopment. The commissioners do not have plans to redevelop the park, which is zoned in the unitary plan as an open space, and are therefore seeking to agree a new lease.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall): Further to the inquiries that my hon. Friend has made, although we are grateful for them, it would be helpful if he would return to the issue. The reality is that the Commissioners are not prepared to negotiate the lease for any longer than 15 years. That is hopeless when it comes to bringing in other money from other agencies, which we want to do to enhance and improve that park. We must ask for the situation to be clarified so that, with the Church Commissioners, we can move forward to keep that park in its current use and to improve it for the next 115 years.

Mr. Bell: I am happy to say that I also anticipated my hon. Friend's question—[Interruption.] If one asks the question, one gets the answers. Lambeth borough council has sought a term of lease—given the latent value of the site, should it cease to be zoned as an open space—but the commissioners are unable to grant it.

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However, dialogue between the two parties is ongoing, and I will make sure that the commissioners have heard what my hon. Friend has said.


23. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): What changes have taken place in the total rents received from church land over the past three years. [94813]

Second Church Estates Commissioner (Mr. Stuart Bell): The average decrease in rents reviewed in the last three years was 15 per cent., 11 per cent. and 5 per cent. respectively.

Paul Flynn : The commissioners have generously decreased or frozen the rents for many of their rural tenants in anticipation of reductions in income that, in the main, did not take place. At the same time, they meanly introduced market rents to the Octavia Hill estate: 1,600 dwellings that have been used for more than a century to provide fair rents and good-value homes to people on low and average incomes. Have the commissioners got their priorities right?

Mr. Bell: The commissioners, as important landlords, are very concerned about their farmers and their tenants. All tenants have been encouraged to contact either the commissioners' property department or their local managing agents if they are in financial difficulties. All cases will be looked at individually. That could result, for example, in abatements of rental payments, which could be delayed interest-free. On the more specific point that my hon. Friend makes, I will be glad to take up individual cases on his behalf.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): How many individuals or organisations have been evicted for non-payment of rents during the period in question?

Mr. Bell: It is a pertinant point that the hon. Gentleman makes. I am not aware of anyone having been evicted on the question of non-payment of rent.

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