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Electoral Commission Committee

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

Electoral Returning Officers

21. Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): What research has been undertaken into the consistency of decision making by electoral returning officers. [124551]

Peter Viggers (Gosport): The Electoral Commission informs me that it has not undertaken any specific research into the consistency of decision making by returning officers. However, it issues guidance and advice to returning officers, and it has recently been given a power in the Electoral Administration Act 2006 to set and monitor performance standards in electoral services.

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Bob Spink: I am grateful for that answer. My hon. Friend will have seen the recommendations made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in January this year that called for tougher controls to prevent the misrunning of elections by errant EROs. What will the commission do to implement those recommendations?

Peter Viggers: There is much to be said for giving returning officers a degree of flexibility to enable them to respond to individual circumstances in their areas, but in the dispute about whether they should be independent or whether there should be central control, my hon. Friend will be pleased to note that the Committee on Standards in Public Life has urged that there should be further monitoring of returning officers, and recent legislation has responded to the thrust of my hon. Friend’s comments.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a need for consistency in decision making about the way in which counts are carried out, particularly in general elections, where among constituencies of similar geographical size, similar distribution of population and similar numbers of polling stations, one is able to declare within two hours or so of the close of voting, and another is still counting at three or four o’clock in the morning? Surely it is in everyone’s democratic interest that there should be a faster count. A model method of achieving an early result would therefore seem to be necessary in some constituencies.

Peter Viggers: As a late countee, I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman’s point. The new legislation gives the Electoral Commission the opportunity to impose performance standards and to identify differences in performance and approach taken by individual returning officers, with a view to raising the general standard.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Would not we have greater consistency in decision-making if electoral returning officers knew what decisions their colleagues had taken? Is there not a role for a co-ordinating body to promote best practice?

Peter Viggers: I have no doubt that the Electoral Commission will publish the results of its research. That will enable general standards to be raised. I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s point.

church commissioners

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

International Visits

22. Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): What the cost was of the visit of the Archbishop of (a) Canterbury and (b) York to Dar es Salaam in February 2007. [124552]

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The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): The Archbishop of Canterbury’s costs were £2,094 and the Archbishop of York’s were £2,866. The cost of the supporting staff was £5,128.

Chris Bryant: I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that the reason for the visit was so that the archbishops could meet other bishops from around the world to discuss the situation in the Episcopal Church in the United States of America. Is it not particularly depressing, however, that the two British archbishops chose to side with the fundamentalist bigots from some other parts of the Anglican communion, rather than represent the ordinary faith of most Anglicans in this country, which is entirely tolerant and decent?

Mr. Speaker: Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the question is about the cost, not the content, of the meeting.

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful, Mr. Speaker. The costs were well invested and well spent. If I may say so in contradiction to my hon. Friend, if he wished to talk about bigotry and extremism, he could have done no better than his choice of language today. In relation to the costs and the conference, I would say blessed are the peacemakers. The meeting concluded with an agreed communiqué, contrary to the expectations of all those who predicted schism. Perhaps this good result came about because the Church of England has two archbishops brought up in other Churches of the Anglican communion, who may therefore appreciate its continuing value more than most. The Church is grateful for their achievement. As I said, blessed are the peacemakers.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Archbishops of Canterbury and of York should be congratulated on saving the Anglican communion from itself, with remarkably good value for money, and that those of us who have our travel expenses funded by the taxpayer should be careful about throwing stones at other organisations that raise their funds internally?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. As he knows, the agreed communiqué specifies practical steps to address the tensions surrounding the recent actions of the Episcopal Church in the United States. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s presidential address to General Synod last week gives a full account of the significance of this outcome. Members can find the address via the archbishop’s website.

Listed Places of Worship Scheme

23. Paul Clark (Gillingham) (Lab): What assessment the Church Commissioners have made of the Listed Places of Worship Scheme; and if he will make a statement. [124553]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): The Church welcomes the listed places of worship grant scheme which, at the end of January 2007, had paid out over £55 million to churches across the United Kingdom. Over £44 million of this was paid to listed
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places of worship. By way of a statement, and to put these figures in context, we believe that about £378 million worth of repairs are still needed in the Church of England alone.

Paul Clark: I thank my hon. Friend for that response. May I draw his attention to churches such as St. Margaret’s in Rainham parish, which is part of my constituency, where the congregation is valiantly trying to raise more than £1 million to save the roof of the Norman building, their having been turned down bythe listed places of worship scheme on a number of occasions? My concern is that churches—St. Margaret’s is no exception—are still an important cog in the community working on agendas such as antisocial behaviour, the respect agenda and helping communities. What steps are the charity commissioners taking to ensure that the Churches are not unduly burdened by the need to save heritage, which thereby displaces their social and community roles?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for describing the work that goes on in St. Margaret’s church, Rainham. I know that my hon. Friend is heavily involved with the churches in his constituency and that he works tremendously hard to support fundraising, on which I congratulate him. I know that St. Margaret’s church, Rainham, faces the great challenge of raising £1 million to save its roof from decay, and I wish the community well in its fundraising efforts. On how we can get other bodies involved, I am sure that he wants to work with us to help us persuade the Government of the need for a more symmetrical balance between the contribution that churches and cathedrals make to their communities, such as that made by St. Margaret’s church Rainham, and the contribution that they receive from public funds.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): The hon. Gentleman will be aware of my ongoing campaign to reduce VAT on church repairs. I am particularly concerned that lottery funding for church repairs may be reduced this year because of the Olympic games. Does he share my concern that church repairs may not enjoy the same support in the coming financial year as they have done in the past three financial years?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who knows that I raised that matter at the previous Question Time, when I said that I am concerned that the Olympic games will drain money from the various schemes to assist our churches. Hon. Members should be aware of that danger, which has been repeated on the Floor of the House, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer should be aware of our concerns.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he has just said. If the Government had invested the money squandered on the dome in preserving our churches and cathedrals, we would not be having this exchange this afternoon.

Sir Stuart Bell: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the two are not mutually exclusive—I do not want to give him a legal definition of mutual exclusivity. I warmly
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welcome the new memorials grant scheme, which came into effect in November 2005 and which has paid out £330,000 for the construction, renovation and maintenance of memorials in England. We continue to press the Government to assist in providing more money for the renovation of churches, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will continue his campaign on that point.

public Accounts commission

The Chairman was asked—

National Audit Office

24. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What recent discussions have taken place within the Commission on revising the 8:1 target ratio of saving to expenditure for the National Audit Office. [124554]

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West): The NAO target of securing £8 in savings for every £1 funded by Parliament was set in 1999. The NAO has achieved that target in each year since then—it generated some £555 million in savings in 2005 alone. The Public Accounts Commission recently endorsed a proposal to increase the savings target to 9:1 from 2007. The NAO will therefore aim to secure additional savings of £74 million from its work in 2007.

Mr. Hollobone: The NAO is clearly making a most effective contribution to the nation’s finances. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that Select Committees other than the Public Accounts Committee could profitably make use of the NAO’s good work?

Mr. Williams: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the support that he has always given to the NAO. The NAO is now involved in supplying secondees to the Select Committees, and it also provides briefings and evidence. At the moment, it is leading a five-yearly review, which I established, into the resources that are available to our Select Committees. In any one year, the NAO deals with nearly 100 inquiries from individual hon. Members. It is very approachable and responsive, although hon. Members must recognise that it cannot comment on policy and that it is there to analyse facts.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the problems is the difference between the savings proposed by the NAO and those that are delivered by the Departments concerned? Does he further agree that we need long-term strategy in those Departments in order to deliver the NAO’s recommendations?

Mr. Williams: It could well be that if the recommendations were fully achieved by the Departments, the savings would be even greater, but the figures that I quoted are those that are actually achieved by the NAO at the moment.

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Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—


25. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): What discussions the Church Commissioners have had with the Wolfson Foundation on the maintenance of the fabric of cathedrals; and if he will make a statement. [124555]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): We welcome the recent announcement of the foundation’s partnership with English Heritage and its commitment to match, until 2010, the £1 million per annum in English Heritage’s grant scheme for repairs to Church of England and Roman Catholic cathedrals. This restores the grants available to pre-2004 funding levels. In relation to the hon. Gentleman’s specific question, we have had no direct discussions, but the commissioners are following these events with great interest.

Michael Fabricant: This has created a useful precedent because, as the hon. Gentleman says, it has brought the level of funding back up to £2 million. He will be aware, however, that the cost of running a cathedral such as Lichfield is in the order of £2 million per year anyway, and that the money has to be spread among more than 40 cathedrals in England and Wales. What can the commissioners do to try to encourage more partnerships, not only with the Wolfson Foundation, which is to be congratulated, but with other organisations, to try to expand funding to beyond the £2 million level?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. As he will know, I do not have the exact figures for Lichfield cathedral, but I know that it does a very good job of welcoming visitors. He is perfectly right that cathedrals are centres of cultural and community activity. Some £11 million per annum was spent on the constant round of repairs and maintenance for our English cathedrals.

By way of an aside, at the previous Church Commissioners Question Time the hon. Gentleman sensibly suggested that knowledge might be shared between churches and cathedrals so that they can benefit from each others’ good ideas for welcoming
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visitors. I have looked into that and can tell him that the Pilgrims Association enables those responsible for the care and welcome of pilgrims, tourists and visitors to exchange ideas and solutions to common problems. I welcome his intervention.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Voter Registration

27. Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): What assessment the Electoral Commission has made of voter registration, broken down by housing tenure. [124557]

Peter Viggers (Gosport): The Electoral Commission informs me that its report, “Understanding electoral registration”, published in 2005, found that people living in rented or rent-free accommodation were on average up to five times more likely not to be registered than owner-occupiers.

Dr. Whitehead: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that reply. Is it not therefore somewhat surprising that the registration of voters in rented accommodation does not appear in the recommended indicators put forward by the Electoral Commission? Would it be a good idea to look at that again to see whether those indicators might be amended to provide information on the registration of people in those circumstances?

Peter Viggers: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. The figure that I gave conceals a number of discrepancies. For instance, 27 per cent. of those living in accommodation rented from private landlords or letting agencies are unregistered and 11 per cent. of those renting from a housing association are likely to be unregistered. The commission’s research identified several reasons for under-registration. Some people are unintentionally unregistered, while others are deliberately unregistered. He makes a useful proposal, and I am sure that the Electoral Commission will wish to consider it.

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Welfare Reform

3.34 pm

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD) ( Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions if he will make a statement on Government plans for welfare reform following today’s report by David Freud.

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. John Hutton): In December, I commissioned David Freud to conduct a review of progress on welfare reform to analyse the future challenges that we face and to make recommendations. David Freud has published his report today. Copies are available to right hon. and hon. Members in the Vote Office and on the Department’s website.

The report is a substantial contribution to the debate and I should like to put on record on behalf of the Government and, I hope, the House, my thanks to David Freud for his work. Freud concluded that we have made strong progress on welfare reform in the past 10 years. Nearly 1 million fewer people are on benefits, 2.5 million more people are in work, 300,000 more lone parents are in work and the numbers of those on incapacity benefit are falling for the first time. Freud concluded that, by any measure, the Government’s programme of welfare reform has been a success.

Freud’s view is that welfare policy now needs to focus on those furthest away from the labour market, especially those on incapacity benefit and lone parents, and that the new focus should be on job retention as well as placement. Progress on all those matters will be essential if we are to fulfil our aspiration of an 80 per cent. employment rate and of eliminating child poverty by 2020, thus ensuring not only a strong economy but a strong society.

David Freud has made four principal recommendations. First, in recognising the success of Jobcentre Plus in helping people get back to work quickly, he believes that we should maintain it at the core of the system, but focus it on helping those who are unemployed for short periods, potentially expanding the approach over time so that it provides a one-stop front end for all benefits.

Secondly, Freud recommends that, once claimants have been supported by Jobcentre Plus for a period of time, back-to-work support should be provided through outcome-based, contracted support, drawing on the innovation of specialist providers from the private and voluntary sectors. The contracting regime would set a core standard that everyone would receive, but beyond that there would be freedom for providers and individuals to do what works for them, rolling up the existing patchwork of public, private and voluntary provision in favour of a more flexible approach focused on the specific barriers that face individuals rather than the specific benefits that they currently claim.

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