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Church Access (Disability Discrimination)

23. Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): What plans the Church Commissioners have to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 with regard to access to churches and church buildings. [129574]

Second Church Estates Commissioner (Mr. Stuart Bell): The Council for the Care of Churches and the Cathedrals Fabric Commission, within whose remit those matters lie, has issued a guidance note which explains the Act and its ramifications for the Church. That document can be found on the Church Care website.

Mr. Edwards : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Does he agree that churches and chapels should not feel threatened by the Act, as it requires that reasonable steps be made and in fact many churches and chapels make reasonable steps? However, given the age and design of many churches and chapels, it would be a great help if they were able to apply for public moneys to adapt churches and church entrances for the benefit of people with disabilities.

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The question of public moneys is for the Chancellor of the Exchequer and not for the Church, but the Church takes reasonable steps to ensure that any disabled person who has difficulty can take communion. There is also provision of auxiliary aids, such as hearing loops, large-print hymn sheets and handrails. We are careful to ensure that there is no discrimination as regards worship or access to churches.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): While of course we all support, in spirit and in law, the provisions of the DDA, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that it is his hope that there will be a light touch where meeting those provisions involves serious alterations to buildings of outstanding architectural merit? As many of our churches are among our country's 500,000 listed buildings, it would be wrong deleteriously to affect their

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design by meeting the provisions of the Act, so a sensible compromise is needed, such as that we have found, I hope, in the Palace of Westminster.

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Modifying churches to allow access is relatively inexpensive, although lack of funds is never an excuse to ignore the requirements of the Act. However, awareness of our heritage and of the number of buildings that are either listed or extremely old is a point well worth making.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston): Is my hon. Friend aware that many churches have an outstanding record in responding to the needs of people with disabilities, especially in the provision of hearing loops, to which he referred? Will they continue to do that in the interest of best practice in public buildings?

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I, like many other hon. Members, remember his sterling work for disabled people over many years and of the particular private Member's Bill that he put through. His point is well taken and will be well received in the Church.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield): Further to the hon. Gentleman's reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman), does he agree that, although it is essential that our churches are available to everyone who wants to visit them or worship in them, it would be wrong for structural changes to compromise the outstanding beauty and architectural merit of some of the historic churches that are part of our national heritage?

Mr. Bell: That point was well made. However, we would not wish to deny any member of our society—disabled or otherwise—access to holy communion, so any necessary steps should be taken to allow participation. In fact, to act to the contrary would be unlawful.


The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Postal Votes (Intimidation)

24. Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): If he will make a statement on the commission's assessment of measures necessary for the prevention of intimidation of postal voters. [129575]

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): In its reports, "Absent Voting in Great Britain" and "The Shape of Elections to Come", which were published earlier this year, the Electoral Commission has recommended a range of measures designed to reinforce the arrangements to prevent the abuse of postal votes.

Mr. Turner: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I am sure that he will be aware that our forebears fought

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for the secrecy of the ballot and that that secrecy would be compromised by having to mark ballot papers or being able to mark them in public, whether in the presence of a landlord, a trade union official or the head of a household. What is the Electoral Commission doing to ensure that no undue influence is exercised on people because of the requirement for them to mark their ballot papers in public?

Mr. Viggers: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Of course, the Electoral Commission has to balance that against the clear advantage of the increase in voter participation with postal ballots. The commission has recommended a wide range of measures, including replacing the current declaration of identity with a new security statement, signed by the voter; new secrecy warnings on postal voting literature and ballot papers; more effective tools for prosecutors; a new police power of arrest on reasonable suspicion of personation at any location, not just at polling stations; a marked register, showing who has cast a vote by post, available after elections; and a new code of practice on handling postal ballot papers by candidates and party workers.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): The hon. Member will recognise that most recent election disputes have been over postal and proxy votes. As we are increasingly moving into an era of all-postal votes, is he absolutely certain that local police, local authorities and returning officers will have adequate powers to ensure that votes are in fact cast in the way that was intended by the said voters, so that the voting is not a sham?

Mr. Viggers: The Electoral Commission will propose that we move forward on the basis that I have just described, but of course, it will keep the situation under review, and I am sure that, if further action is required, it will be anxious to proceed with that as quickly as possible. I have to inform the House that, having examined the operation of the pilot schemes, the commission has recommended that all-postal voting, if backed by changes in the law to minimise the risk of electoral abuses, should become the standard approach at local elections. That is the commission's proposal; it will be for the Government to decide whether to act on it; and then, of course, ultimately for the House to implement any change.

Boundary Reviews

25. Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): What provision is made to assist stakeholders interested in local government and boundary reviews to obtain information to help them to make submissions to the boundary committee; and if he will make a statement. [129576]

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): The boundary committee provides a wide range of information to assist stakeholders in making submissions, including leaflets, information in the local press and through the committee's website. The committee also holds briefing meetings in the areas under review.

Mr. O'Brien : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware of the report that the Select Committee on the

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Office of the Deputy Prime Minister issued after taking evidence from the chairman of the boundary commission and the boundary committee which identified that people in the wards under review are at a disadvantage because maps, statistics and professional help are not available to them, but are available to the local authority. I am disappointed with the hon. Gentleman's response because the real issue has apparently not been addressed: the need to give that information to stakeholders to help them to submit an alternative to the boundary committee's proposals. That lack of information denies many people their democratic right to have some say in their own destiny. Will the hon. Gentleman relay that point to the boundary committee and ensure that information is made available to stakeholders, so that they can compete with local authorities when submitting a response to the boundary committee?

Mr. Viggers: I am instructed that the Electoral Commission and its boundary committee give equal

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consideration to all submissions that are received. Where appropriate, it requests that the local authority provide interested parties with further detailed information and some assistance. The boundary committee will also make its information available to interested parties. The main consideration is always the argument and evidence that accompanies any submission.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that the boundary committee is in the process of a major review of local government boundaries in three regions in this country, including the north-west, which I represent, as a result of the proposed referendums on regional government. In terms of providing information to stakeholders and others, will the committee publish how much that review will cost?

Mr. Viggers: I must say to my hon. Friend that the work undertaken by the boundary committee is at the instruction of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, to which any questions on that subject should be put.

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