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Electoral Commission Committee

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

Party Funding

19. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What assessment the Speaker's Committee has made of the Electoral Commission’s report on party funding; and if he will make a statement. [144679]

Peter Viggers (Gosport): I assume that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the research report on public attitudes to party funding, which was published last year. The Speaker’s Committee has made no assessment of that report.

John Robertson: Sir Hayden Phillips has recommended that some £25 million should be used for funding political parties. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that perhaps the political parties should get together and try to sell the fact that we are trustworthy and above board before we start thinking of spending taxpayers’ money on funding?

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Peter Viggers: The central point of Sir Hayden Phillips’ report was that the decision should be in the hands of the parties and they should discuss a solution. He laid down four principles: that nothing should be done until everything is agreed; that a fair system need not initially be a uniform system; that a new settlement should be reached by consensus; and that any solution should serve the long-term interests of our parliamentary system. However, he made it very clear that the initiative for this must lie with the political parties, and it is for them to discuss a possible solution.

Local Authority Candidates (Age Requirement)

20. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Whether the Electoral Commission plans to assess the merits of lowering the minimum age of local authority candidates from 21 to 18 years. [144680]

Peter Viggers: After an assessment in 2004, the Electoral Commission recommended reducing the minimum candidacy age for all elections to 18. That recommendation was accepted by the Government and implemented by the Electoral Administration Act 2006. The Electoral Commission advises me that it has no plans to make a further assessment.

Mr. Bone: Will my hon. Friend congratulate all young candidates who took part in the recent local government elections, particularly, in Wellingborough, Mr. Peter Bedford, who is 21 years old, Mr. Calum Heckstall-Smith and Mr. Thomas Pursglove, who are 18 years old, all of whom are young, all of whom are newly elected and excellent councillors, and all of whom are Tories?

Peter Viggers: I think that the whole House will welcome the election of younger candidates throughout the country. I understand that the commission is currently collating the data from returning officers on the number of candidates between the ages of 18 and 21 who stood in the recent May elections. It will make the data available as soon as possible.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman, as part of his Committee’s inquiries, encourage his Committee and the Electoral Commission to examine the diversity of the candidates who stand? People are keen that we should have a broader base of candidates. May we have information on that as soon as possible?

We welcome the new initiative of people between the ages of 18 and 21 being able to stand. We note that such young people in different parties have not only been elected but ended up on council executives and in senior positions in their first term of office, both south of the border in England and north of the border in Scotland. That is welcome progress.

Peter Viggers: I think that most parliamentary colleagues welcome the participation of younger people in the elections, and their election if they are successful. Of course, they have to satisfy the electorate and get themselves elected. All political parties are taking an initiative to broaden the base of their support.

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Church Commissioners

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

Women Bishops

21. Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): What progress has been made in discussions on enabling the appointment of women bishops in the Church of England. [144681]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): Last July, the General Synod set up a legislative drafting group to prepare the draft Measure and canon necessary to remove the legal obstacles to the consecration of women bishops. It is keen to make progress but, realistically, we are several years away from the consecration of the first female bishop.

Ms Johnson: With 50 per cent. of current ordinands being women, 69 per cent. of the clergy saying that they support women bishops and 89 per cent. of young people in the Church of England saying that they want women bishops, are we not missing out on the talent and abilities of a huge swathe of women who are ready to become bishops? The length of time is unacceptable.

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s comments. The Synod is meeting next month, and I am sure it will listen to what she has to say. The General Synod has approved the principle of removing the legal obstacles to the consecration of women bishops, but we will ultimately need a two-thirds majority in each of the Synod’s three houses before any legislation can receive final approval.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Has the hon. Gentleman seen early-day motion 1664, which was tabled only 10 days ago but has already attracted 67 signatures from across the House? Will he please sign that motion?

Sir Stuart Bell: The hon. Gentleman makes official his unofficial request to me. Perhaps we should wait till Thursday and see what happens.

We should hesitate to be critical of those who try to preserve the Church of England as a broad church that gladly encompasses such differences. They are profound and theological and make for enormous difficulties in the Church.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I admit that I am not involved in religion of any kind, but will my hon. Friend explain to me why on earth, given that the House voted for women priests, there should be any difficulty about bishops? We established the principle; the Church of England gave a lead to other religions, so why the endless delay in appointing women bishops?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but he knows that, since 1919, we have rendered

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That is to say that the Church is responsible for its own legislation and we are here to enact it, should it interfere with legislation that is already on the statute book.

certainly in relation to women bishops.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): But is it not a fact that the vast majority of Christians in the world—those who belong to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions—do not have women bishops? As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, some people have serious and conscientious reservations about the matter.

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It may seem simple to some hon. Members, but a significant number of people in the Church from both the Catholic and evangelical wings are opposed on theological grounds to women bishops.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): As a very proud stepmother whose stepdaughter will be ordained in Sheffield cathedral on Sunday, I have a vested interest and I should like a little more encouragement from my hon. Friend. Does the Ecclesiastical Committee not have an influence?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has already raised these matters with me. She will know that the Ecclesiastical Committee will meet on 27 June, and I can assure her that when it deals with the issue there will be strong representation by women on the Committee, and we will give the subject the best and fairest of winds.

Pastoral Reorganisation

22. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What plans the commissioners have to review the legal framework for pastoral reorganisation. [144682]

Sir Stuart Bell: A recent major review of the legislation dealing with pastoral reorganisation has resulted in the preparation of the Dioceses, Pastoral and Mission Measure, which is now before Parliament. As I have indicated, it is to be considered by the Ecclesiastical Committee on 27 June.

Miss McIntosh: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that that measure aims to reduce the size of rural parishes that are nursed by one priest, who has to look after several parishes at once, which puts a huge burden on them? Will he confirm that that arrangement will be reviewed in the Measure?

Sir Stuart Bell: The object of the Dioceses, Pastoral and Mission Measure is to make new, more flexible provision for the Church’s structures and procedures to facilitate missions for the 21st century. Taking into account the points that the hon. Lady has made, we believe that it aims to make better provision for the cure of souls.

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Churches Conservation Trust

23. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): How much funding the commissioners have given to the Churches Conservation Trust in 2007-08. [144683]

Sir Stuart Bell: The commissioners’ contribution to the funding of the Churches Conservation Trust in 2007-08 will be £1.286 million.

Bob Russell: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that answer. Does he agree, however, that a considerable additional sum is required if historic churches no longer used for regular worship are to be maintained and remain part of the nation’s important heritage?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for continuing to raise that issue on the Floor of the House and for drawing attention to our heritage. Since 1989, the Government have provided 70 per cent. of the trust budget, and the Church has provided 30 per cent. The overall budget for 2006-09 is £12.6 million, with £8 million from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and £3.8 million as the Church’s share. We continue to lobby for more.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Electoral Administrative Arrangements (Kettering)

24. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Whether the commission plans to visit Kettering Borough Council to discuss new electoral administrative arrangements. [144684]

Peter Viggers (Gosport): The commission informs me that it has no current plans to do so.

Mr. Hollobone: May I urge my hon. Friend to encourage the commission to change its mind, because if it visited the democratic and legal services team at Kettering borough council it would learn a great deal from the impressive way in which the council handled the recent local elections, including changes to ward boundaries and the introduction of new postal voting arrangements?

Peter Viggers: I am advised that the returning officer for Kettering is exceptionally capable and active in ensuring that the new electoral arrangements are carried out satisfactorily. The chairman of the Electoral Commission visited Kettering fairly recently, and I gather that officials at Kettering borough council have made contact with the Electoral Commission’s new midlands office, which is based in Coventry. I hope that all those things have helped the council in its very efficient performance.

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Public Accounts Commission

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—

Private Sector Consultants

25. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What recent estimate the commission has made of the cost to the public purse of the use by the National Audit Office of private sector consultants. [144685]

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission (Mr. Alan Williams): The commission examined the NAO estimate for 2007-08 earlier this year. It approved a budget of just under £92 million for audit and other assurance services. The NAO estimated that some £55 million would be needed for staff, £21 million for outsourced services, and the balance for supporting services such as IT and travel. Just under 25 per cent. of the NAO budget, therefore, is expected to buy in external expertise.

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David Taylor: The Comptroller and Auditor General has had 43 foreign trips in the past three years, staying in the most sumptuous style possible. Does my right hon. Friend think there is enough left in the NAO budget to investigate some of the excessive use of private sector consultants across the public sector, not least in the NAO, which has a target of saving £8 for every £1 that is spent, whether on expensive bathrooms in Paris or not?

Mr. Williams: I thank my hon. Friend for his supportive observations. May I point out that the National Audit Office makes a profit of £4 million a year from its overseas operations in 23 countries? On the recent publicity in relation to travel, it is important that I make something clear to the House. I have met the Chair of the Audit Committee of the National Audit Office. He agrees with me that because the House has given complete discretion—that is a statutory term—to the Comptroller and Auditor General, it is appropriate that we should develop a more transparent system. He is now working with the Commission and myself to develop such a system, and when it is finalised I will make a statement.

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European Council

3.30 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement about the outcome of the European Council in Brussels on 21 and 22 June.

I congratulate the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, on concluding successfully an exceptionally difficult negotiation and on an outstanding presidency of the European Union.

Before the European Council, I made it clear that the concept of a constitutional treaty for Europe had to be abandoned and that we should agree instead a conventional amending treaty like the Nice, Amsterdam and Maastricht treaties and the Single European Act. I also made it clear that the UK had four central demands which had to be met. First, on the charter of fundamental rights, we secured a legally binding protocol, specific to the UK, and applicable both to the British courts and to the European Court of Justice. Let me read the terms. The protocol states that

the Charter

In respect of our criminal law system and police and judicial processes, we obtained an extension of the opt-in rights that we secured in an earlier treaty on migration, asylum and immigration issues. This means that we have the sovereign right to opt in on individual measures, where we consider it would be in the British interest to do so, but also to stay out, if we want to. It is precisely the pick and choose policy often advocated. It gives us complete freedom to protect our common law system, but it also allows us to participate in areas where co-operation advances British interests. In asylum and immigration, for example, we have opted in on measures dealing with illegal immigration, and in measures allowing us to return asylum seekers to other European countries—both unquestionably in Britain’s interests. But it will be within our exclusive power to decide on a case-by-case basis, which is exactly what we wanted.

In respect of social security, we negotiated a provision which allows us to insist on unanimity in any case where we—that is, Britain—declare that any proposal from the Commission would affect important aspects of our social security system, including its scope, cost, or financial structure or balance. Our social security and benefits system is therefore completely protected.

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