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The Electoral Commission is conducting a formal review of the minimum age for voting and expects to publish its report before Easter. The commission has conducted an extensive public consultation exercise in connection with the review, and has received a wide range of views, which it will take into account when formulating its conclusions and recommendations.
Bob Spink : I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. He will know that opinion is mixed on this issue, even among youngsters themselves. Will he please urge the commission to be brave and innovative in its response to this consultation, and to give a message to young people that we are prepared to trust them and to listen to them, even at 16? There are many good young people, and even though turnout might be low in that age group, I believe that they should be offered the opportunity to share in our democracy.
Mr. Viggers: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The Electoral Commission is well aware of the activities of the Votes at Sixteen campaign and others who have been campaigning for the vote to be extended to this younger age group. I am sure that the commission's forthcoming report will include an assessment of the level of support expressed in relation to the recommendations that it makes. Any change in the minimum voting age would, of course, require primary legislation.
Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): I should like to ask the hon. Gentleman whether the Electoral Commission is aware of the Nestlé family monitor study of young people's attitudes towards politics, which clearly showed that 53 per cent. of young people aged between 11 and 18 supported the reduction of the voting age to 16 or even lower. Will the hon. Gentleman ensure that the commission takes note of this extensive survey?
Mr. Viggers: Yes. A completely separate point is that the Electoral Commission has been keen to identify initiatives that would assist in reconnecting young people with politics, in line with its statutory duty to promote public awareness of democratic institutions. This is a separate point from that of the reduction of the voting age.
Mr. Viggers: Yes, I think I recall that the Liberal Democrats were indeed active in encouraging people to fill in forms relating to the Votes at Sixteen campaign. I also think I am right in saying that they were successful in encouraging 23 people to write to the Electoral Commission.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. David Lammy): The Church Commissioners have made no such assessment. Their role in cathedral funding is limited to the payment of some clergy stipends and the provision of grants for staff and administrative costs.
Mr. Luff : I declare an interest as chairman of Worcester cathedral council. [Hon. Members: "Ah!"] That is a non-remunerated post, I hasten to add. Does the Minister not agree that the triple responsibility of maintaining a living heritage of music and liturgy in cathedrals, maintaining the built heritage, which is rightly subject to strong statutory protection, and, of course, offering witness to the Christian faith is proving an intolerable burden for many cathedrals?
A crisis is looming in cathedral funding. Cathedrals such as Worcester are taking steps to address that by seeking endowments for their music in particular, but is not there a need for the Church Commissioners to lead a national debateinvolving, for example, the Minister's colleagues at the Treasury and the Department for Culture, Media and Sportbefore that crisis reaches a dreadful fruition?
Mr. Lammy: I too should declare an interest as a former cathedral chorister at Peterborough, but I should also say that although the Church Commissioners provide some assistance to cathedralslast year they gave £6 millionthey must obviously pay attention to the core of their business and their obligations through legal trusts to parishes. I understand from the Archbishops Council that Worcester cathedral has been offered £99,000 in an English Heritage grant for 200405 for the repair of its chapterhouse roof, but I am of course happy to draw
Jane Griffiths (Reading, East) (Lab): My hon. Friend the Minister will know the history of the appointment of the next Bishop of Reading. Will he comment, however, on a Sunday newspaper report, which is expanded on in today's Reading Evening Post, to the effect that the next Bishop of Reading is to be your chaplain, Mr. Speaker, who is held in very high respect in the House?
Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): I wonder whether the Church Commissioners should not take this opportunity to look carefully at what is happening in other countries, which will show that most other European countries are very much more generous towards their great ecclesiastical edificeseven states that are professedly agnostic, such as France. Would it not be good for the Church Commissioners to get a bit tougher with this Government, and indeed all Governments, to ensure that the state helps to keep up these great buildings with a great deal more generosity?
Mr. Lammy: There has been considerable progress since 1990, when the Church conducted a substantial review of work needed on its cathedrals. Many of those cathedrals have been substantially repaired since then. As is proper and right, the Church Commissioners make a contribution, but it is right also that the lion's share of that contribution goes to parishes. This is an important issue for the Church, and indeed for the heritage of this country, which is why English Heritage also makes a substantial contribution to the life of our cathedrals and their general fabric.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. David Lammy): The Church of England VAT group and other faith groups were delighted to see in the recent pre-Budget report that the listed places of worship grant scheme has been approved to run for a further period up to the end of March 2006. The current EU Commission proposals in respect of the wider VAT review have been rejected by the European Council of Finance Ministers, bringing about a temporary halt, but it is hoped that the Commission will revise its proposals.
Miss McIntosh : I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he convey my warmest congratulations to the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell), on his well deserved knighthood?
Will the Minister join me and the Second Church Estates Commissioner in making representations on reducing VAT on church repairs and also on the preservation of burial sites such as the Thornborough henges, which have enormous religious and archeological value and which could be thrown away for ever because of a quarrying application?
Mr. Lammy: I know that the hon. Lady's is one of the strongest voices in Parliament on this issue. The campaign continues, a number of MEPs convey their wish to continue to lobby in Europe, there is a letter-writing campaign by the Church, and the Second Church Estates Commissioner and I will use our best endeavours to keep up the pressure on this important issue.