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The Minister for the Arts (Estelle Morris): The National Railway museum is a branch of the National Museum of Science and Industry. Although we grant aid the NMSI, it then makes its own judgment about the grant-in-aid that it allocates to the National Railway museum, which received £6.1 million this year from the NMSI.
Hugh Bayley: My right hon. Friend is committed to broadening access to culture and heritage. Is she aware that the National Railway museum has almost doubled attendances since the Government removed admission charges and, at 40 per cent., gets more social class C2, D and E visitors than any other national museum, yet receives less funding from her Department than most other national museums? Will she address that in her forthcoming funding announcement? Will she find a date when she can come to York to discuss with the museum director what the museum is doing for the region and the nation?
Estelle Morris: I agree that since free admissions were introduced it is good to see an increase in visitors to all the museums that used to charge. The statistic that my hon. Friend quotes is pretty similar for all museums in that category. I would argue a little about the increase in grant. I am not sure that the museum has received a smaller grant than others. It is about 22.9 per cent. I accept, however, that that includes money to enable free admissions. We hope to continue investing in the arts, including museums, and further announcements will be made in due course when we announce the results of the spending round.
Mr. Prentice: These are significant figures. It is always sad when churches close because the congregations go away and disperse, but are there any inappropriate uses to which those redundant churches will not be put? Can my hon. Friend give me some examples?
Sir Stuart Bell:
That is a double negative. First, the use of redundant churches must be by another Christian body or for wider community purposes that are generally regarded as most suitable. In terms of the second negative, the commissioners usually impose covenants on the new owner of a redundant church, restricting its use to that approved under statute and prohibiting any unauthorised architectural or structural alterations, demolition and the disturbance of human remains.
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Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport) : The Electoral Commission has produced several reports and made a number of recommendations for changes in the law relating to postal voting, and looks forward to the Government's response in due course. It is also working with relevant authorities to develop best practice to combat fraud.
Simon Hughes: Will the hon. Gentleman join me and others who support the view of the Electoral Commission and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Select Committee that, in the light of the bad experience of postal voting earlier this year, and with the prospect of a general election next year, there should be some early legislation to make voting applications personal, not by household, to allow them to be seen as they are made; to allow any patterns in applications to be seen; and to clean up thoroughly the present unsatisfactory nature of applications, with fraudulent declarations of identity?
Mr. Viggers: Yes, the Electoral Commission will develop proposals for a foundation model, as suggested in its report, "Delivering Democracy", and it will report before 31 March 2005. It will consult with interested individuals, including Members and political parties, as the development work gets under way next year. The model is expected to build on the benefits of all-postal voting but also to retain use of polling stations. As for legislation, as the hon. Gentleman will well know, that is a matter for the Government and the House.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Can I urge the hon. Gentleman not to get too over-excited about the issue of fraud in postal voting? Between 5,000 and 7,000 postal votes were cast in my constituency in the local elections this year, with no accusations of fraud. The one issue that most troubled many voters was that someone else had to watch over them when they were signing a form, which was enforced on us by the Liberal Democrats. Many people find it troubling that someone else must act as a witness to say that they are the person who they said that they are.
The hon. Gentleman is right. The commission has noted that the level of allegation and prosecution in the areas where all-postal voting was piloted is at this time no higher than that noted in a conventional election in those areas. The other point that he makes is entirely correct, and the Government have now moved to eliminate that type of form.
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Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): Following the highly unsatisfactory all-postal vote for the north-east assembly, could the hon. Gentleman now confirm that never again will voters be forced to go to the polls without the choice of casting their vote in a ballot box?
Mr. Viggers: As my hon. Friend will have heard me just say, the Electoral Commission is now working on a foundation model, and recognises that a significant proportion of the population wish to cast their vote in a ballot box.
Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport) : The commission provides information and application forms to eligible overseas electors through its websites. In addition, information has been provided to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for use on the websites of overseas posts. Whenever the commission undertakes general voter registration campaigns, it includes targeted public relations activity, directed at potential eligible overseas electors.
Mr. Greg Knight: Why is the Electoral Commission spending £705,000 in the current financial year specifically to encourage young people to get out and vote, yet only £9,000, the majority of which, I understand, is staff costs, is being spent to encourage overseas voters to register and vote. As it has been estimated that up to 4 million people are living overseas who could take part in our democratic process, is not that discrepancy somewhat perverse?
Mr. Viggers: My right hon. Friend is on to a very good point. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office estimate of British citizens living overseas is 15.5 million, and there is no accurate estimate of the number of those who would be eligible to vote by reason of having been registered on an electoral register in this country within the past 15 years. It is difficult for the Electoral Commission to consider such a wide range of individuals because they are difficult to identify and even more difficult to reach. It is a stark fact, however, that only 11,496 persons were registered to vote from overseas in February 2001. We all have our part to play in encouraging more registrations and voting.
Sir George Young: On that theme, can I press my hon. Friend on online registration? If a citizen can file his tax return online and discharge that civic obligation, why can an overseas voter not complete his electoral registration form online and discharge another important civic obligation?
Indeed, the Electoral Commission has given some thought to that issue, it is in its mind, and it would be one way to facilitate the registration and voting of overseas residents.
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Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): Should not the Electoral Commission simply let overseas registration wither on the vine? People should be registered in the country responsible for the relevant laws and economic arrangementsa principle that should be fully adopted not just in this country, but overseas. We should at least change the law regarding a link with the past from 15 years to just five years; at the moment, the situation changes when people move overseas.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): While encouraging those who are eligible to vote to do so, is it not important to maintain for overseas voters the same level of precaution against fraud that we are urging in respect of our domestic electorate? Is the Electoral Commission doing any work on the difficulties experienced by those who register in this country, but who are in fact nationals of other countries and are not entitled to vote in British elections?
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