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Courts (London)

21. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey) (LD): What plans there are for the amalgamation of courts in London. [161261]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. David Lammy): I am advised by the Greater London Magistrates Courts Authority that it proposes to amalgamate the Barnet and Hendon magistrates courts, and also the Bow street, Horseferry road and Marylebone magistrates courts, although no date has yet been set for completion of that. The Court Service is investigating the co-location of West London county court and West London magistrates court.

Simon Hughes : I am grateful for the Minister's helpful reply. He may be aware that there was a great outcry last year when there was a proposal for three family court centres in London, but none in south or west London. The Greater London Magistrates Courts Authority changed its mind and provided five, which was welcome. Will he ensure that before any decisions are agreed,

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there is careful consideration of whether all parts of London, and all Londoners, can get relatively easy access to the courts? Will he ensure that the courts are cheaper for the authorities to attend and that there is a fair distribution of courts of all sorts throughout the whole of London so that justice can be done not only for all, but in all parts of London, all the time?

Mr. Lammy: Access to justice was at the core of the Courts Act 2003, which passed through the House towards the end of last year. The unified Court Service will ensure that differentiation between the magistrates courts committees on one hand and the Court Service on the other will be brought to an end. We are able to get that flexibility so that justice is seen to be done locally throughout London and, indeed, the rest of the country.

Electoral Register

22. Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): What plans the Department has to undertake a review of the current arrangements for recording those eligible to vote. [161262]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): Although my Department has no plans to carry out such a review, the independent Electoral Commission has reviewed electoral registration procedures, which formed part of the proposals in its "Voting for Change" report in June 2003. The Government are currently considering the recommendations made by the commission.

Dr. Whitehead : Does my hon. Friend accept that if we look at the latest returns for registered parliamentary electors we see what is effectively a slow collapse of registration in a number of urban and inner-city areas? Does he accept that if that trend continues, it will in the long term undermine the integrity of the electoral process? Will he consider measures targeted on urban areas to rectify the problem?

Mr. Leslie: My hon. Friend will know that my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) recently held a debate on this matter in Westminster Hall. I know that it is of concern to a number of colleagues who have noticed changes in the electoral register, either inflating or decreasing the numbers. In many cases, that is due to population change, but perhaps local returning officers are being more accurate and assiduous in putting names on the register, ensuring that there is no duplication and so forth. We have new powers for rolling registration, and we have given returning officers extra powers to canvass, making sure that our registers are accurate. I hope that that gives my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) some assurance.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Does the Minister accept that the integrity of the electoral register is vital, and that there should be safeguards so that when people register—people have registered cows, dogs and children—checks are undertaken by the appropriate officer to ensure that all those who are registered genuinely have the right to vote? Bearing in mind that

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we are moving towards having more postal voting, what additional safeguards will be introduced to ensure the integrity of the electoral register?

Mr. Leslie: I agree: the sound integrity of our electoral register is important. I have not visited the hon. Gentleman's constituency and seen any instances of cows and dogs being registered, as he suggests, and to my knowledge they are not on the register in my constituency. We want to make sure that the new powers available to registration officers are used to ensure, by door-to-door canvassing as well as the paper canvass process, that we get the best possible electoral register.

Jury Service

23. Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): What assessment has been made of the adequacy of employee protection for those called for jury service. [161263]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. David Lammy): The Government strongly support the idea that people should feel secure in the workplace. The Minister with responsibility for courts is in discussion with the Minister for Work to ensure that adequate protection is put in place for those employees summoned for jury service.

Mr. Marsden : My hon. Friend is aware of the case of my constituent who was employed on a construction site when he was summoned for jury service. He accepted, and informed his employers. They wrote direct to the Court Service without his knowledge in an attempt to have him excused, and when that request was refused, they sacked him. Does my hon. Friend agree that that raises disturbing questions about employee protection, particularly when employees have not been employed long enough to have recourse to an employment tribunal? Will he, his colleagues and officials look at other mechanisms, such as temporary protection and the arrangements that I understand pertain in Canada?

Mr. Lammy: My hon. Friend is right. The Contempt of Court Act 1981 can be brought to bear where it can be seen that an employer has interfered with the judicial process, but we need to do more in this area, particularly as we begin to implement the Criminal Justice Act 2003 to ensure that more people on the electoral roll are able to do jury service. People need to feel secure in their employment when they are doing jury service. We have undertaken to do more; conversations are going on within government, and I hope that we will be able to come forward with something shortly.

All-postal Voting Pilots

24. Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): What action has been taken to prevent fraud in all-postal voting pilots. [161264]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): Any electoral system is potentially open to fraud, but it is important to remember that a number of electoral

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offences and safeguards are already in place, including an offence of applying undue influence on a voter and the offence of personation. The European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill builds on existing sanctions so that, for example, it would be an arrestable offence to cast a postal vote as someone else without their consent in the pilots. Other measures are being used, including measures to combat ballot paper forgery and the use of secrecy warnings on postal voting literature.

Angela Watkinson : I thank the Minister for his reply, but he will be aware of the opportunities for fraud in houses in multiple occupation, where there is a frequent turnover of occupants, all of whom receive their mail through the same letter box. Will he therefore consider introducing special safeguards to ensure that the declarations of identity that accompany ballot papers from those properties relate to the person named on the ballot paper?

Mr. Leslie: It would not be right to inflate the notion that there is a big problem with houses in multiple occupation and postal voting, because there is no specific evidence that there is. However, I accept the hon. Lady's concerns, which she shares with other hon. Members, about a single letter box serving a number of flats. Recently, in Brighton and Hove, a team visited houses in multiple occupation to make sure that ballot papers were properly delivered, and we want to build on that, possibly in the all-postal pilots.


The Leader of the House was asked—

Members' Services

32. Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): What proposals he has submitted to the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons on the provision of personal digital assistants to hon. Members. [161273]

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Phil Woolas): My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has submitted no such proposals—

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) (Con): Why not?

Mr. Woolas: Hang on! However, my right hon. Friend welcomes the fact that the Information Committee has looked at personal digital assistants and other hand-held technology, and has already made recommendations to the advisory panel on Members' allowances, which, for the benefit of the House, was formerly known as the Speaker's advisory panel.

Mr. Illsley : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his reply. He will be aware, as most Members are, of the huge growth in e-mail to Members and the time needed to deal with the vast amount of electronic correspondence. Does he agree that the provision of hand-held personal digital assistants will enable

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Members to access the PDVN system remotely, provided that the two are linked, giving them more time to deal with that growing electronic mail?

Mr. Woolas: My hon. Friend is a technophile, and is using the new technology to the advantage of his constituents. I am pleased to tell the House that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is also a technophile, and is keen to make progress on the matter. As I said, proposals have been submitted to the advisory panel, and I invite my hon. Friend to write to the Senior Salaries Review Body and put the case for the new technology.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): As someone who is not a natural technophile, may I ask the Minister whether he is aware that Members can become so submerged in information that they are unable to make decisions?

Mr. Woolas: It is patently obvious to all Members of Parliament that it is entirely possible to become submerged in information and not get on with the job in hand. However, in response to the hon. Gentleman's serious point, Members of Parliament, whatever their party, are better able to serve their constituents if they have access to new technology. I am sure that he agrees that the new provisions that have been introduced have benefited our constituents.

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