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Charities Bill

19. Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): What representations the Commissioners made to the Government about the Charities Bill. [64559]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): The Church Commissioners and the Archbishops Council responded to the strategy unit's report on charity law reform. Subsequently, they discussed with the Home Office the likely implications of the proposed legislation for various parts of the Church.

Hugh Bayley: Church of England cathedrals, which are such an important part of the national heritage, are always in need of funds. York minster, for instance, is seeking £20 million to restore the east window. Does my hon. Friend agree that cathedrals would find it easier to raise money from the public were they as closely regulated as other church charities and therefore less likely to fall into the sort of difficulties that befell Bradford cathedral, which, incidentally, has still not paid my constituents who work for the company Past Forward for the work that they did for Bradford cathedral's exhibition?

Sir Stuart Bell: My hon. Friend will know, as he has raised the question previously, that cathedrals are legally and financially independent bodies, governed by the Cathedrals Measure passed by Parliament in 1999. That
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ensures accountability and compliance with proper standards of financial management. Unfortunately for him, the Measure came into effect after the Bradford problem developed.


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

Overseas Residents

21. Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): How much the Electoral Commission is spending on the promotion of voting in British elections by British residents overseas in 2006. [64562]

Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): Only Crown servants, members of the armed forces and their spouses or civil partners are eligible to vote in local elections from overseas. More than £55,000 has been spent promoting participation among those groups in the 2006 local elections. The commission also plans to spend a further £12,000 to provide materials to support the registration of British citizens living overseas, Crown servants and service personnel at the annual canvass in autumn 2006.

Mr. Evans: I thank my hon. Friend for that response. He will recall, however, that the amount of money that the Electoral Commission spent prior to the last general election on informing overseas voters that they were eligible to vote was a small percentage of its total budget. Will he encourage the Electoral Commission to consider in the long term its expenditure on informing British citizens abroad of their eligibility to vote at the next general election, whenever that might come, to ensure that a fair percentage of the allocated budget is spent ?

Peter Viggers: My hon. Friend makes a fair point. He will know that only some 17,000 voters are registered to vote from overseas. The Electoral Commission takes that into account in assessing its budget. My hon. Friend has made his point and has been pursuing it assiduously.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): As my hon. Friend will know, a substantial proportion of overseas voters are service personnel. At the last election, a large proportion of them were effectively disfranchised, which was disgraceful. What progress is the Electoral Commission making to ensure that service personnel are never again disfranchised as they were at the last election?

Peter Viggers: My hon. Friend has taken the lead on this issue, and I congratulate him on that. I am pleased to be able to give him good news. A registration survey has been undertaken by the Ministry of Defence and supported by the Electoral Commission. It asks questions about a number of matters, including whether
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service personnel were registered before the 2005 general election, how they were registered—as ordinary, overseas or service voters—whether they voted in the general election and why some people are not registered to vote. It also asks questions about how civil service personnel are currently registered, and about their views on the commission's service registration booklet. The commission understands that the results of the MOD's survey will be available in May.

Election Expenditure

22. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): Whether the commission plans to review limits on expenditure by candidates in general elections; and if he will make a statement. [64563]

Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): The commission made recommendations in January 2005 in respect of the variation of election expenses for candidates in United Kingdom parliamentary and English and Welsh local government elections. They were accepted by the Government, and came into force on 4 March 2005. The recommendations also outlined the commission's view of the need for a more fundamental review of candidate and party spending limits in the future.

Mr. Allen: The Electoral Commission should be encouraged to conduct a far-reaching review. It is rather strange in this day and age that most Members of Parliament can spend no more than £7,000, £8,000 or £9,000 during a general election campaign. Nowadays, that barely covers the cost of three or four leaflets. I do not suggest that we should go to the extremes of American politics, in which someone must be a millionaire to run for local dog catcher, but there must be a better perspective on allowing Members of Parliament and parliamentary candidates to spend money on conveying the message from whichever party to the electorate. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that only if we do that will we revive politics locally, and prevent it from being seen entirely as a feature of national life?

Peter Viggers: The commission takes the view that inquiries and discussion would indeed be valuable. It informs me that it expects those issues to be addressed by the reviews of the funding of political parties that are being undertaken by Sir Hayden Phillips and the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs. It plans to contribute to both reviews.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman tell us what progress has been made in the inquiry into widespread abuse by the application of central funding to local campaigns in the general election, which are currently off limits? Is a conclusion expected to be reached in time for the Government to    table appropriate amendments to the Electoral Administration Bill in another place?

Peter Viggers: I do not think it would be appropriate for me to reply on behalf of the Speaker's Committee to the hon. Gentleman's question about the inquiry, but he has made his point.
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The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Pension Fund

23. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): If he will make a statement on pension funds available for future retired clergy. [64564]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): In common with most other organisations that provide defined-benefit pension schemes, the Church of England is having to review its pension arrangements as a result of increased costs and new regulatory requirements. The hon. Gentleman asks for a statement. There will be widespread consultation in the Church before any decisions are made, which will include reference to the General Synod.

Michael Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the concern among people working in the Church about the future of their pensions, and of the concern about whether new people joining the clergy will have final pension schemes. Is he prepared to go as far as the John Lewis Partnership? In that instance, not only is the existing pension scheme secure, but future members of the partnership will have final pension schemes.

Sir Stuart Bell: As the hon. Gentleman knows, under the Pensions Act 2004 new regulations were introduced that have altered the way in which pension funds must calculate their liabilities and returns on contributions. The Act requires pension schemes to make prudent assumptions about investment returns, and to make good any deficit more quickly. I referred earlier to widespread consultation in the Church. The hon. Gentleman's points will be taken into account in that consultation.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): The hon. Gentleman will know that the subject of pension fund returns to the clergy has been controversial for, I believe, as long as I have been a Member of Parliament. Can he tell us whether the Church of England uses benchmarking for the performance of its pension fund? If so, how does it compare with others?

Sir Stuart Bell: In fact, the benchmarking of the pension fund refers to the investments of the Church Commissioners, which are appropriately benchmarked. The hon. Gentleman will see from next week's annual report that, as I am happy to inform him, our returns will be some £4.7 billion, which shows that we are not merely adequately benchmarked but ahead of the field.

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