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House of Commons

Thursday 7 February 2008

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Private Business

Broads Authority Bill

Order for Third Reading read.

To be read a Third time on Thursday 21 February.

Oral Answers to Questions

Church Commissioners

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

Parsonage Houses

1. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): With reference to the Ecclesiastical Offices (Terms of Service) Measure, for what reason the ownership of a parsonage house is being removed from incumbents and vested in the diocese. [185162]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): Good morning, Mr. Speaker. The proposal, which recognises that housing is an important element in the terms of service of office holders, seeks the provision of appropriate accommodation and the establishment of a consistent framework to govern the relationship between housing providers and office holders.

Robert Key: Will the Church Commissioners listen carefully to the concerns of the diocesan synods and the meeting of the Church of England General Synod next week about this transfer of £4 billion of property from the parishes to the dioceses? The current legal vehicle, the corporation sole, ensures unencumbered continuity of these properties from generation to generation. The new trust will not do that. Will the hon. Gentleman assure me that the commissioners will look carefully to see that the property vested in the new parsonage boards of the dioceses will be as safe and inviolable as it is under the current legal arrangements?

Sir Stuart Bell: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall listen very carefully to the views of the General Synod next week. As he will know, “Render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar”. To reverse the role, we must render unto the General Synod that which belongs to the General Synod. It will meet next
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week to discuss the matter. There are differences of views, but the hon. Gentleman, who is a member of the Synod, will be able to participate in those proceedings as well as the proceedings here.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): A large proportion of parsonage houses were endowed locally. Land was given by a local landowner, and the houses were often built by a local individual after a fundraising effort on a grand scale. Why should we interfere with arrangements that have worked well for many years? We are transferring the title to the diocesan body, which will undoubtedly have a significantly different agenda of its own—different from that of the local community.

Sir Stuart Bell: In order to enlighten my hon. Friend and the House on what will be proposed and debated at the Synod next week, I can tell him that the primary aim of the legislation is to improve the security of the clergy by giving them rights equivalent to those enjoyed by employees under the Employment Relations Act 1999. As I said, the General Synod will consider that significant piece of legislation next week, and we await the outcome of its considerations.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. I would like to follow up a point made by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor). Many parsonage homes were endowed locally for the furtherance of the Church’s work locally. This centralising measure will take power away from benefices and give it to diocesan boards of finance. Will the hon. Gentleman representing the Church Commissioners convey the serious concern that exists among a great many people throughout the country about this centralising measure?

Sir Stuart Bell: I welcome the hon. Gentleman to these question sessions, and I also welcome the pertinence of his question. Clearly, the matter he raises preoccupies Members of the House. The General Synod will be aware of that when it meets next week, and I have no doubt that the views expressed here will be taken into account in its debates.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Democratic Process (Public Participation)

2. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What additional measures the Electoral Commission has considered to increase public participation in the democratic process. [185163]

Peter Viggers (Gosport): The Electoral Commission undertakes a range of activities to ensure people understand how to register and how to vote. Additionally, the commission is launching a campaign with London Elects to provide information about the London election on 1 May, and an information campaign for the English and Welsh local elections on the same day.

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John Robertson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his answer. He will know that in last year’s local elections, an attempt was made to increase voting through voting by phone. Unfortunately, a report came out in which the commissioners said that such schemes had a negligible effect on turnout. Will he explain why that was, what lessons were learned from that experience, and how they are going to take the process forward in the London elections this year?

Peter Viggers: The hon. Gentleman makes a detailed point and I would like, if I may, to investigate the matter. I undertake to write to him about it.

On the more general point, other bodies undertake work to increase turnout and the commission has significantly refocused its public awareness activity on providing information about registration, elections and democratic institutions. Indeed, it is another main thrust of the Electoral Commission’s work. Of course, it is still much involved in promoting registration and voting.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman comment on the number of local authorities that do a reasonable canvass of their areas to get more people on to the register? Little of that appears to be going on in the Bradford district. It is terribly important in Bradford because approximately 50 per cent. of the Asian community do not speak English and are illiterate. It would be a great help in my constituency if we had a really good canvass to get more people on to the register.

Peter Viggers: Yes, the commission works closely with local authorities throughout the United Kingdom to support and advise them on voter awareness activities. The commission provides voter information materials free of charge and runs training sessions with electoral registration officers. Support is also available via a dedicated website. In the past year, more than 2 million voter information leaflets and resources have been ordered by electoral administrators to encourage registration and understanding of the democratic process.

On the hon. Lady’s specific point, the Electoral Commission is vigilant in trying to ensure that a range of information and materials is available in different languages.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): As a non-conformist, I feel on rather safer ground with the Electoral Commission than I do with the Church Commissioners.

The hon. Gentleman knows that there has been much debate about refocusing the Electoral Commission’s work and tilting the balance towards regularity and probity in electoral matters. He knows that we are anticipating early legislation on the matter. What discussions has he held with the Lord Chancellor in advance of that legislation to ensure that the Electoral Commission can greatly expand its work and thus make sure that our elections are held fairly and properly?

Peter Viggers: I think the best answer I can give is that, although, on behalf of the Speaker’s Committee, I do not personally become involved in negotiations
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and discussions with different Departments, it has occasionally been suggested that it would be appropriate for the House to deliberate on Electoral Commission issues. I instituted one debate, which was allowed by the Liaison Committee, on the subject, and perhaps it would be helpful for hon. Members to have an opportunity soon to discuss Electoral Commission issues. Indeed, given that we are seeking a new chairman for the commission, that would be very appropriate. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman agrees that a general discussion in the House might be useful.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): Hon. Members have repeatedly referred to voter registration as a key matter. Surely, we need, first and foremost, to heed the advice that the Electoral Commission has already given us and enact legislation on individual voter registration as a matter of urgency.

Peter Viggers: Indeed, since 2003, the Electoral Commission has urged that individual voter registration should be introduced. The subject causes the commission some concern because there is an opportunity in the current system for the head of a household, or the person who receives the mail, to deal with electoral registration as he thinks fit. Of course, in most cases, that is done with propriety, but there is an opportunity for corruption and for the head of a household to overlook the duty. The Electoral Commission has urged the introduction of individual registration.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not think that he replied adequately to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer). She made the point that the extent of under-registration in several areas can genuinely be addressed only by door-to-door canvassing. She asked what steps the commission was taking to ensure that such canvassing, which happens in many places, is adopted universally.

Peter Viggers: The Electoral Commission informs me that its advertising campaigns for the 2007 elections involved activity targeted at under-registered black, Chinese and Polish communities and included radio, press, outdoor and online advertising. The Electoral Commission has also undertaken special work to encourage students to register. It has been especially vigilant in trying to ensure that younger people and students are aware of their opportunity to register and vote.

Overseas Voters

3. Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): What estimate the Electoral Commission has made of the number of eligible UK voters who live abroad but have not registered to vote. [185164]

Peter Viggers: Recent research suggests that the total number of British people who live abroad for a year or more may be approximately 5.5 million. Only British citizens who have registered to vote in the United Kingdom in the past 15 years are eligible to register while living abroad. There is no effective way of measuring that number.

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Mr. Evans: One can only imagine why so many Brits want to live abroad. Of the many millions that my hon. Friend mentioned, only 13,000 are registered to vote in general elections. That is a low figure. The amount of money that the Electoral Commission spends on promoting voting abroad is £12,000. Is not that figure far too small? Should not it be greater and be properly focused to try to attract those who are eligible to register and vote?

Peter Viggers: The Electoral Commission ran a campaign last autumn at a cost of about £100,000, which was more than twice as much as was spent in advance of the previous general election. The problem, of course, is identifying the market. The number of people is extremely large, but the number registered is extremely small, as my hon. Friend pointed out. The most recent campaign to reach British citizens living abroad included online advertising, public relations activity, mailing to British people living overseas and the distribution of information via British embassies and high commissions.

The Electoral Commission is also proposing to convene a seminar later this year with political parties to discuss ways of improving registration levels among overseas residents. How good it would be if we could learn something from the American elections. I understand that it is estimated that many thousands of American citizens living in London are exercising their right to vote. I have been advised to be cautious about quoting those numbers, but it would be nice to think that lessons could be learned from that campaign.

Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton) (Lab): One of the problems with the votes in the American presidential elections is that they sometimes arrive far too late to be counted, but that is another matter. I agree with the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) that the number of people voting among those living abroad who are eligible to vote is woefully low. I wonder whether the electoral registration officers, who play such an important role in getting our registers up to date, have a role in attracting people who live overseas to register to vote.

Peter Viggers: The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. There are three parties involved. The first is the Electoral Commission, which takes the view that it would not be proportionate for it to devote very large amounts of resources to overseas voters, because of the difficulties of reaching them. The second is the electoral registration officers and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making a valid point about them. I will discuss with the Electoral Commission what further can be done to enable them to fulfil their duties in that regard. The third is the political parties. The Electoral Commission takes the view that it is primarily the responsibility of the political parties to seek to encourage overseas citizens to register and vote in UK elections.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): Does the Electoral Commission have a view on whether UK citizens living abroad have been deterred from bothering to register to vote by the Government’s
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decision to cut the qualifying period during which people who have left the UK can participate in general elections?

Peter Viggers: This is of course a controversial issue. Parliament has taken the view that residents who have lived overseas for 15 years or less after their period of registration in the United Kingdom should vote. It has been suggested that that period should be lengthened or even shortened. My hon. Friend makes a fair point, although it would not be appropriate for me to express an opinion.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that many of my constituents would regard spending resources that could be better used to increase registration among those who live in the United Kingdom as a gross waste of money? I have nothing against those who live abroad, but they often pay no taxes and break the connection. I would far sooner encourage UK residents to vote than those living overseas.

Peter Viggers: The Electoral Commission spends less than 2 per cent. of its budget on exhorting overseas residents to register and vote. The commission believes that to be a proportionate amount, but the hon. Gentleman’s point will of course be noted.

Church Commissioners

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

Women Bishops

5. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): If he will make a statement on the consultation process in relation to women bishops in the Church of England. [185166]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): A legislative drafting group, chaired by the Bishop of Manchester, having received more than 300 representations from across the Church, is now preparing a report for discussion at the General Synod, hopefully in July.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Is the hon. Gentleman concerned that an inadequate consultation opportunity has been given to the Third Province Movement, whose membership includes a significant number of clergy and laity? Will he please ensure an opportunity for the widest possible consultation on the women bishops’ proposal, particularly with those who have prominent and active leadership roles in the Church?

Sir Stuart Bell: The hon. Gentleman will know that the legislative drafting group has met a number of consultees representing a wide cross-section of views. The drafting group’s challenging task is to identify possible arrangements for those who may be conscientiously unable to receive the ministry of women bishops. We should hesitate to be critical of those who are trying to preserve the Church of England as a broad church that
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gladly encompasses such differences. By way of teasing the hon. Gentleman, I shall use a phrase from the European Union: within the Church, there may be unity in diversity.


6. Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): How many listed vicarages and rectories the Church of England has sold in the last 10 years. [185167]

Sir Stuart Bell: The information that the hon. Gentleman requests is not held centrally. However, since 2001, dioceses have been free to sell parsonages without any reference to the commissioners, so long as there are no objections, the sale meets standard criteria and the property is sold at full value.

Mr. Swire: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I share the general nervousness of other hon. Members about the centralisation of the Church estate, and I hope that he will make those views known to the Synod. Of course I understand the problems of merging parishes, which can, in some areas, leave too many vicarages or houses tied to the Church. Will he also convey to the Synod the feeling, particularly in rural areas, that the temptation to sell off desirable houses and to separate the rectory or vicarage from the church in order to make a quick cash gain can have long-term negative implications for the local community?

Sir Stuart Bell: The hon. Gentleman puts his finger on one of the problems of our era. How can the Church deal with the changing nature of our society in relation to the location of our parsonages and churches? The points that he has raised, which are related to other points raised today, will be taken into account by the Synod and by the Church generally.

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