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British Achievements

21. Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): What steps she is taking to encourage the use of the opportunity presented by the Olympic Games in 2012 to celebrate a wide range of British achievements. [160991]

Tessa Jowell: As my hon. Friend knows, hosting the Olympic games and the Paralympic games in 2012 will put the whole of the UK at the centre of a global audience. The cultural olympiad that will begin with the closing ceremony in Beijing next year will be an opportunity to showcase world-class culture around the country. The games present an opportunity to
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provide a great boost to tourism across the UK. We hope to see a £2 billion boost to the value of tourism revenue and we must make sure that the tourism benefit outside London—to Scotland, Wales and the rest of the UK—is maximised. We have clear commitments in relation to the Olympic legacy, and by early next year we will publish a detailed plan showing how those big ambitions for the country will be realised.

Miss Begg: I am delighted to hear the Minister’s reply, because as soon as the Olympics are mentioned, one thinks of sport; when the London Olympics are mentioned, one thinks of sport in London. I am not a huge fan of sport and am keen to ensure that everyone realises that there is more to the Olympics than just sport. People visiting with family members or sports teams will have opportunities to see some of the other things that are going on around Britain—in Scotland and elsewhere—that may not be necessarily geared towards a sporting audience. Will the Minister assure me that there will be as much emphasis on those activities as on the sport?

Tessa Jowell: I absolutely agree. The Olympics, the Paralympics and the Queen’s diamond jubilee will all be national celebrations, as will the cultural olympiad. My hon. Friend would not want us to forget that a new regional centre of excellence for sport will open in Aberdeen shortly. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides will also wish Glasgow the best of luck in the decision on the selection of the Commonwealth games venue, which is to be made in the next couple of weeks.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): The Minister will know that my constituency is the home of the National Rifle Association at Bisley, whose achievements over the years have been enormous. What can she do to encourage target pistol shooters to get in the practice within this country, so that they might succeed at the next Olympics, as we all want them to?

Tessa Jowell: Of course we do, and the hon. Gentleman will know about the detailed discussions taking place within Government and with the national governing body in this respect. The House will not need to be reminded that we have laws in place prohibiting the possession of handguns for competitive purposes because of the tragedy at Dunblane. Nothing that we do should in any way seek to compromise those commitments; I know that the hon. Gentleman would share my view on that. He will, I suspect, also be aware of some detailed discussions that are under way between the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office and the national governing body about restricted access to particular sites so that pistol shooters can practise. Those negotiations are continuing. When they have concluded, I will report to the House.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to ensure widespread participation in the 2012 games. What structures will she put in place so that towns and cities throughout the country can get the necessary information and participate in the business opportunities and cultural legacy as well as the sporting opportunities?

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Tessa Jowell: I thank my hon. Friend for her comment, and I pay tribute to her for her great efforts to ensure that even at this stage her constituents derive full benefit from participation in the Olympic games. In my visits to her constituency, it has been clear that in Northampton, enthusiasm for the games is very high. My hon. Friend is right, however: we must ensure that any lack of involvement is not the result of people not having access to the proper information. That is why the Olympic Delivery Authority has put in place a systematic way of informing businesses through electronic alerts about contracts that are open for tender. I am sure that businesses in her constituency will secure some of them. The website is open for people to register their interest in volunteering for the games, and through the nations and regions group every region of the country is developing its own Olympic plan. I know that the east midlands has some extremely good ideas—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I must stop the Minister there.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): The Minister will have seen the reports in today’s press quoting Lord Moynihan as saying that there is room for improvement in the financial management of the games and a need for greater transparency. Does the Minister agree that if the budget issue is not tackled and there is not more transparency, it will not be possible to celebrate fully many of the achievements that we want to celebrate?

Tessa Jowell: With great respect to Lord Moynihan, I would point him to the recent reports of the National Audit Office and other experts. There has been assistance in the development of the budget and proper financial oversight. People must believe that their money is being properly spent—regardless of whether it comes from the lottery, the London council tax or the Exchequer—if we are to maintain public commitment and support for the games. I give the House an assurance that Members will receive regular periodic updates on the state of the budget, and I can give an absolute commitment to transparency and high-quality management of the Olympic budget. I do not, therefore, agree with Lord Moynihan on the points that he chose to make public.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con): I was at the party conference when the Red Arrows issue was raised for the first time. Lord Coe made the position straightforward then, and I spoke to three journalists who phoned me afterwards and said there was no truth in the story. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will withdraw her remark and apologise for it.

Lord Moynihan said that,

Those are very serious allegations. Will the Minister therefore confirm whether the three basic financial controls necessary for that oversight—an updated and clearly defined budget, a monthly cash-flow analysis, and a breakdown of the contingency fund allocated to specific projects—is available to each and every Olympic board? And if not, why not?

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Tessa Jowell: The information is provided to the Olympic board at a point when the detailed work—and the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well the level of scrutiny currently being carried out to test line by line the baseline budget I announced to the House back in March—[Hon. Members: “When will they know?”] When the work is complete, that will be available to the board, and the information will also be made available to the funders committee within Government before any further decisions are taken to release contingency. I urge the hon. Gentleman not to leap into print with his own allegations about, for instance, decisions on the release of contingency.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Weekend General Elections

27. Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): What plans the Electoral Commission has to assess public support for weekend general elections. [160981]

Peter Viggers (Gosport): The Electoral Commission informs me that it has no plans to assess public support for weekend general elections.

Mr. Marsden: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that reply. I find it extraordinary that there are no such plans, given that the Government announced a review of this issue in their paper “The Governance of Britain”, and given that the Electoral Commission itself published research in 2001 that showed that one fifth of people did not vote because of the inconvenience. Holding general elections on a Thursday has only been a convention in this country since 1935. Most other countries in Europe hold them at weekends and have good turnouts, so is it not time the Electoral Commission considered consulting public opinion on this, in the same way as the Government are going to consult local authorities?

Peter Viggers: The reason why the Electoral Commission has not put forward proposals itself is that it has noted the Government’s proposal in the Green Paper “The Governance of Britain” for consultation on weekend voting, and intends to contribute to that, particularly in relation to the practicalities of such a move. The Electoral Commission has refocused its activities. It now focuses more on the practicalities and bones of voting, rather than on the theoretical matters that the hon. Gentleman has raised, which it regards rather as the matter of Government and of Parliament.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): May I put it to my hon. Friend that the Electoral Commission should be considering this issue, because the highest priority of all of us should surely be to increase the number of people voting? Just because elections have taken place on a Thursday since the 1930s does not mean that weekends should be ruled out. We should have an open mind, and it would be helpful to hear the results of any such survey.

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Peter Viggers: There is indeed a consultation process in place. It was put forward by the Government in their paper “The Governance of Britain”. The Electoral Commission is making its contribution to that process in its own specialist area, but it would urge everyone to contribute to the Government’s consultation procedure on the subject.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): If and when the Electoral Commission looks at other options for the selection of dates for general elections, perhaps it could conduct surveys in Paisley, Doncaster and Wakefield on the desirability of late autumn elections—one of which might have taken place on, say, 1 November or 8 November this year—and feed back the strong comments that might be made to the MPs for those areas, to inform better their future advice to No. 10.

Peter Viggers: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman thinks that if an election had taken place, it would have mattered very much whether it was on a Thursday or another day of the week. Fair points have been made during these exchanges. It is true that the larger number of European countries hold their elections on Sundays—and, of course, that some countries even have fixed-term elections. That, perhaps, would cover the hon. Gentleman’s point.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I think that many people would welcome a little research to support the view that there ought to be a relaxation of the rules governing election days, because there is nothing sacrosanct about Thursdays. While the Electoral Commission does that, it might also examine whether the national interest, or narrow party interest, is best served by refusing to have a fixed-term Parliament.

Peter Viggers: The hon. Gentleman is correct that there is nothing sacred about Thursdays for general elections, although the last election to take place on a weekend in this country was held on Saturday 14 December 1918. A number of practical implications are involved in switching away from a Thursday. The current legislation says that general elections must be held on weekdays, whereas local elections must be held on Thursdays. There is nothing sacrosanct about these rules, and the consultation procedure will no doubt throw up a number of different views.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): As anybody who wants to vote by post can already do so, do we not need powerful reasons for moving away from the current arrangements?

Peter Viggers: It is true that a large number of people are used to voting on Thursdays and that that day has some practical advantages in terms of the timing during the week and the availability of local government staff. It is also true that postal and other voting systems have made voting easier now, and that there are fewer complaints about the availability of voting. However, the fact is that we have quite a low turnout at general elections in this country, and we should all be concerned about that.

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Polling Stations (Siting)

28. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Whether the Electoral Commission has considered the merits of reviewing the rules on the siting of polling stations. [160982]

Peter Viggers: Responsibility to keep polling districts and places under regular review has been placed upon local authorities under the Electoral Administration Act 2006, which came into force on 1 January 2007. The Electoral Commission has issued guidance to local authorities, but it has no plans to review the rules.

Mr. Bone: In the Croyland ward in my constituency, there are three polling districts: CA, CB and CC. There have been four elections in that ward since May 2005. In the two elections when there was a polling station in the CC district, CC topped the turnout or was second. In the other two elections, when there was no polling station in CC and people had to drive out of the estate on a very difficult route to vote, the turnout dropped by 53 per cent. Will the Electoral Commission consider making it compulsory to have a minimum of one polling station in each polling district?

Peter Viggers: As I pointed out, Parliament gave local authorities the responsibility for deciding on such matters. Given the detailed point that my hon. Friend has made, it is wise that local authorities should be responsible, because they have the specialist knowledge. If he has a complaint about the polling arrangements in his constituency, he should draw it to the attention of the local authority, which, as I have said, has that responsibility.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): May I ask my hon. Friend to consider strengthening the guidance given in two respects, the first of which is the distance that people have to walk? People have to walk a tremendous distance to some of the polling stations in my constituency, which is, of course, a deterrent to voting. The second issue is the use of temporary structures on sites that are convenient for people to go to. My local authority never seems to use any temporary structure, because of the cost involved. Could we give some guidance that would strengthen local authorities’ ability to make it easy for people to vote?

Peter Viggers: May I say how grateful I am to the hon. Gentleman for extending his friendship to me—no doubt on the basis of our joint membership of the Treasury Committee? As with the reply that I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), it is very much a matter for the local authority to decide on such matters, and no maximum is specified for the distance between polling stations or the distance that individuals have to travel. That matter is left to the discretion of the local authority, which must take into account a number of issues, such as accessibility, ready visibility, disabled access and so on.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Does my hon. Friend not accept that it would be most undesirable if any polling station or ballot box was placed in superstores such as Tesco—an idea that has been put forward? Tesco has a big enough advantage as it is, without people being advised to go into those superstores, which undermines the small retail sector.

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Peter Viggers: With his wide experience, my hon. Friend never ceases to have the ability to surprise me with his questions. I had not anticipated that one and will certainly look into it and discuss it with the Electoral Commission.


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

VAT (Church Repairs)

29. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What recent discussions the commissioners have had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on VAT on church repairs. [160983]

Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford, South): I have been asked to reply—with your permission, Mr. Speaker—on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell), who is recovering from a back operation. I am sure that hon. Members will join me in wishing him well.

The commissioners have not met the Chancellor, but the Church Heritage Forum, on which they are represented, continues to explore with the Government how the contribution that churches and cathedrals make to the nation should be reflected in the funds that they receive from the state.

Miss McIntosh: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that reply. Will he convey our warmest wishes for a speedy recovery to the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell)?

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the cost to the taxpayer of administering grants from English Heritage puts a burden on the state, whereas reduced VAT—the subject of an ongoing campaign by me and many Members on both sides of the House—would actually help churches, bearing in mind that they have a particular role in rural constituencies such as Vale of York?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I thank the hon. Lady for her kind remarks, which I shall pass on to my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough. I congratulate her on her work in trying to resolve church repairs issues, which are substantial in terms of the £100 million target. However, she will be pleased to know that to date £63 million has come from return of VAT, and that the scheme has been extended to 2011. I hope she recognises that the state is trying to do its bit, with the Church, to try to resolve some of the issues.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): Any amount is gladly received, but as my hon. Friend knows, the situation has been going on for a long time. Many of the churches are mediaeval and need an enormous amount of upkeep, so can we come to a sensible conclusion quickly?

Mr. Sutcliffe: Again, I acknowledge the work that my hon. Friend has been doing on this issue and I am sure that she, too, will welcome the extension of the scheme to 2011. I shall ensure that her comments are
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passed to my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, and I am sure that he will take them up with the Treasury.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): The hon. Gentleman may not know that lead and copper thefts from churches are increasing sizeably. In Northamptonshire alone, 10 such cases occurred in September, causing £200,000-worth of damage. In many cases, insurance does not cover the repairs, so will the hon. Gentleman consider VAT relief in that respect when he addresses the issue?

Mr. Sutcliffe: Of course those thefts are regretted; it causes much inconvenience and cost to churches when such things occur. I am a little hesitant to make any commitments for my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough at this stage, but I shall pass the hon. Gentleman’s comments to him.

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