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Strategy Unit

23. Bob Spink (Castle Point): If he will make a statement on the recent work of the strategy unit. [132954]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Douglas Alexander): The strategy unit's role is to conduct long-term strategic and cross-cutting studies of major policy areas, and to

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promote strategic thinking across Whitehall. Current projects include the misuse of alcohol and the UK fisheries project. A sponsor Minister in the relevant Department provides ministerial leadership for the projects.

Bob Spink : Will the unit add to its list of recent long-term strategic reviews an analytical cross-cutting review of pensions policy, to highlight the iniquity and indignity of the mass means-testing of pensioners that results from the Government's policy?

Mr. Alexander: Policies relating to the strategy unit's areas of work are determined by the strategy unit board. I assure the hon. Gentleman that a wide range of policy issues are considered. As for his substantive point about pensions, in my experience as a constituency Member, many people have welcomed a change that has seen a real and significant rise in household incomes for pensioners in communities throughout the country.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough): The strategy unit should look seriously at obesity—it is not a problem for some Members of this House, and although I shall not name names, many are trying to do their bit—which is increasingly being discovered among young children in particular. That serious problem is building up and will be a danger to us all. The strategy unit needs to bring together all the different Departments, but in the light of answers to questions that I have asked in this House, there seems to be no cross-cutting initiative. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department of Health, the Department for Education and Skills and the Home Office need to come together to tackle this problem, but I get no sense that that is happening. Will my hon. Friend look at that issue?

Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend raises an important point that, intriguingly, was echoed on television last Thursday by the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo). I had not previously realised that the right hon. Gentleman was interested in the substantive and important issue of childhood obesity, which needs to be addressed. I will discuss with the Secretary of State for Health the cross-cutting work that is taking place across Government, and I will ask that the Department write to my hon. Friend directly. As he points out, this issue requires the work of more than a single Department and such work must take into account the recreational pursuits and sport necessary for younger people. On that basis, I am happy to ensure that correspondence is forthcoming.

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Points of Order

12.31 pm

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Have you received any explanation as to why it is so cold in this place?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is a Scotsman, like myself. We do not feel the cold.

Mr. William Cash (Stone): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. We are about to embark on Second Reading of the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill, but before doing so I want to mention one important matter. Lord Bethell retired as a Conservative Member of the European Parliament on 30 September. The Government should have nominated the next Conservative on the list to replace him, but that has not yet happened, despite the fact that representations have been made. An element of disenfranchisement is therefore taking place, so could the Government, through your good offices, Mr. Speaker, be encouraged to ensure that the next person on the list is nominated as soon as possible?

Mr. Speaker: I have no powers in these matters, except to say that I wish Lord Bethell well in his retirement.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order for me to point out that Lord Bethell is a constituent of mine, and that he has been a first-class public servant over many decades?

Mr. Speaker: Lord Bethell is a very fortunate man to have the hon. Gentleman as his MP.

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Orders of the Day

European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

12.33 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill's purpose is to allow continuation of the Government's successful programme of piloting innovative electoral processes—including all-postal voting, electronic voting and other electoral innovations—at the forthcoming European elections and, where they are held, at local elections next year. Piloting new voting mechanisms is not done for its own sake. It is innovation for a purpose: to engage the maximum number of voters in the elections, and to make their participation more easy and convenient.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Leslie: It is very early on in my speech, but I shall of course give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. McLoughlin: I am grateful to the Minister. I accept that it is early on in his speech, but I want to ask whether he intends to give an explanation for motion 4 on the Order Paper, which allows for the Bill to be carried over. In making provision for carry-over and explaining it to the House, the former Leader of the House set down certain criteria. Will the Minister tell us during his contribution what criteria he is using for this carry-over?

Mr. Leslie: The motion is very simple, and relates to the Bill's importance and to ensuring that it gets on to the statute book. That is why the motion appears as it does on the Order Paper.

The measures in the Bill form only one part of the Government's wider programme of reform, and of improving the country's democratic processes. We must always aim to reinforce the faith that the public have in our democracy and strive as best as possible to re-engage their trust in the institutions that work on their behalf.

Let me place these measures in context. The elections pilots programme began following the passing of the Representation of the People Act 2000, which has enabled local authorities to apply to trial different ways of voting at local government elections, in order to see which kinds of innovative electoral techniques make it easier for people to vote. It also allowed for the piloting of different approaches to counting, and measures aimed at improving administrative efficiency.

I know that the whole House is aware of the apparent reluctance of a sizeable number of the public to engage with democratic institutions, whether at the local, national or European levels. That is clearly demonstrated by the low turnouts at recent elections. We saw a 59 per cent. turnout at the general election of 2001; a 24 per cent. turnout—5.1 million fewer votes

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compared with a decade earlier—at the European elections of 1999; and only about a third of the electorate cast their vote at this year's local elections.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): When we changed to the list system of elections, I remember the Foreign Secretary assuring us that that would lead to a higher turnout, but it has not. Is not the solution to go back to first-past-the-post, which we all love and cherish in the House?

Mr. Leslie: That is an interesting comment, but I suspect that it is a debate for another day.

I was about to say that the reasons for falling voter turnout are, of course, complicated. There are many and varied theories about the reasons for the fall—and we have just heard one such theory—including a declining sense of social identification, changes to social structure, voter awareness and so forth.

We politicians must share at least some of the responsibility for voter disengagement. Some people argue that it is the confrontational nature of party politics that is putting off voters. Others say that we need more confrontation in politics to whip up some interest and excite people into voting. Whatever the reality, I hope that there is no need for confrontation today.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): Does the Minister accept that one of the problems of the current system is that although the strength of the individual—including how good someone is at representing a particular area—can be an important factor in encouraging people to come out and vote for that person, the European system does not allow people to vote for a particular individual. That arrangement means that a key part of the tools that would otherwise be available to rebuild turnout at elections is lost.

Mr. Leslie: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point because the abilities of an elected representative to connect with the views and wishes of the electorate is obviously important, but it is not for me to judge whether Members of the European Parliament, local councillors or, indeed, other Members of Parliament are particularly good at that. The hon. Gentleman has his own views on that matter.

The Government have already introduced many significant measures to improve participation in the democratic process, including the devolution of decision making, the development of regional and city government and the modernisation of local government. Although making voting more convenient is not a panacea designed to increase the vital element of democratic participation, there is certainly much evidence that it can help. It must, anyway, be right to explore as thoroughly as we can how to make the voting experience fit better with the way people now live their lives. After all, there have been a great many changes since the fundamentally important introduction in the Ballot Act 1872 of our traditional method of voting in secret via the ballot box.

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