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House of Commons

Thursday 20 March 2008

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Private Business

Broads Authority Bill ( By Order)

Order for Third Reading read.

To be read the Third time on Thursday 27 March.

Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Canterbury City Council Bill (By Order)

Leeds City Council Bill (By Order)

London Local Authorities (Shopping Bags) Bill (By Order)

Manchester City Council Bill [ Lords ] (By Order)

Nottingham City Council Bill (By Order)

Reading Borough Council Bill (By Order)

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 27 March.

Oral Answers to Questions

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Electoral Registration

1. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): What percentage of the electorate in (a) Greater London, (b) England and (c) Wales are registered to vote. [195458]

Peter Viggers (Gosport): The total number that could be eligible to vote is not known with accuracy, and I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman’s question in the form in which he put it. As of 21 December 2007, about 5.5 million people were registered to vote in local government elections in Greater London, and the other figures were 38.5 million in England and about 2.25 million in Wales. Past research by the commission suggests that the level of non-registration—for technical
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reasons, I must give the non-registration figure, rather than that for registration—in England and Wales was between 8 and 9 per cent., and in London it could be between 10 and 20 per cent., depending on the area.

Simon Hughes: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that helpful answer, confirming what many of us know and fear—the high level of non-registration, particularly in London, but also elsewhere. Given that it is only a few weeks before the latest date for getting on the electoral roll for the coming May elections in England and Wales, will he talk to his colleagues on the committee and in the Electoral Commission about the much-promised campaign to get people to vote, which was meant to happen each spring? Even if it has not happened this year, will he talk to his colleagues to provide some momentum in the remaining available days? People need to be encouraged to vote.

Peter Viggers: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The last date to register is 16 April. He is right to ask about the commission’s campaign to encourage registration. A significant advertising campaign will be launched after Easter on television and radio, in the outdoor press and online, supported by coverage in the local media. It would help to have a larger number registered, and the Electoral Commission believes that individual registration would encourage that.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): The hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) anticipated my point; I was going to ask whether the committee had considered the implications of the Slough judgment, which called for individual voter registration. The present system does not work and is open to fraud.

Peter Viggers: Since 2003, the Electoral Commission has been urging individual registration. When giving evidence to the Select Committee on Justice earlier this week, its chairman said:

The Slough judgment significantly highlighted the defects in the registration system, and the Electoral Commission has made strong representations to Government about that.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), is the problem not the non-registration of people who can vote but the registration of people who cannot vote? Have the Government given my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) any indication that following the Slough judgment they are prepared to revisit the issue of individual registration?

Peter Viggers: The commission’s view is that the registration system in Great Britain does not provide adequate safeguards against fraudulent registration and thus against fraudulent voting. Names can be added to the register by others, and not enough information is collected about those on the register to establish whether they really exist and are really resident at the address in question. Fraudsters can undermine the electoral process by obtaining and casting postal votes using falsely
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registered names. As its chairman’s evidence to the Justice Committee this week indicated, the Electoral Commission is making strong representations to Government. I have not yet heard their response.

Church Commissioners

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

Parish Ministry (Funding Support)

2. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): What criteria are used to determine areas of need in relation to the allocation of funds via the Archbishops Council in support of parish ministry. [195459]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): Parish ministry support is targeted on low-income dioceses, their share calculated according to a formula that takes into account the income from the historic resources within the diocese, the income levels of the local population and other factors including attendance and electoral roll numbers.

Ben Chapman: The averaging of wealth and well-being results in the masking of some areas and strands of deprivation. Some dioceses that are perceived as being relatively well-off receive less than others. Chester, for example, has done well in terms of parish mission initiatives. What does my hon. Friend plan to do to maintain that creditable list?

Sir Stuart Bell: My hon. Friend is right about Chester diocese being relatively well resourced, but it does receive less from the Church Commissioners than other dioceses do. I congratulate Chester diocese, through my hon. Friend, on its long list of parish mission initiatives. That was supported last year by the mission development moneys that the commissioners made available. I wish the diocese well in its future work.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman ensure that the Archbishops Council allocates funds to investigate bat damage in historic churches? It is a real issue across the country, and it needs to be examined. The Archbishops Council could do that, and it should get in touch with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to ensure that we are not hidebound by foolish regulations to protect bats. I want to protect bats, but we must strike a balance between bat conservation and the needs of historic churches.

Sir Stuart Bell: English Heritage has recognised that, in addition to the public health issues, bat droppings are highly damaging to monuments, brasses and other fixtures. When bats get into the main body of a church, fixtures must be covered and then uncovered for worship and other activities. We recognise the need to conserve the environment, and the Bat Conservation Trust must be considered, but the Church recognises the potential damage to church contents from bats in the belfry.

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Women Ordinands

3. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): What percentage of ordinands ordained in the last 12 months are women. [195460]

Sir Stuart Bell: Some 47 per cent.

Tony Baldry: Is it not noteworthy that the first two people whom Jesus met after the resurrection were Mary and Martha? When will the House of Bishops make proposals that will enable the General Synod to resolve that the head of a woman is as worthy of the hands of apostolic succession as is the head of a man?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his reference to those historical events. This is the first Maundy Thursday that we have had Church Commissioners questions, and I wish you, Mr. Speaker, and the House a happy Easter.

General Synod has already agreed that the legal obstacles to the ordination of women bishops can be removed, and a legislative drafting group, chaired by the Bishop of Manchester, is trying to identify possible ways of doing that, including arrangements for those who are conscientiously unable to accept the ministry of women bishops. It has consulted widely. We hope that the General Synod will refer to the matter again in its July meeting.

Church Thefts

4. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What recent discussions the Church Commissioners have had with clergymen on thefts from churches. [195461]

Sir Stuart Bell: The Archbishops Council has had extensive discussions with parishes and dioceses about the most significant type of church theft, which is the theft of lead from church roofs. This is a serious problem and the Church is working with the police and insurers to try to solve it.

Miss McIntosh: I welcome the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) to his new position on the Front Bench—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] It is obviously a popular appointment.

Everyone who lives in a rural community has a role to play in being vigilant and trying to prevent such thefts. I am especially concerned about the financial impact on churches, and it will continue to be a problem as long as lead and other mineral prices remain as high as they are. Can the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell) say anything about the impact on insurance premiums and the general life of the church, given that predicament?

Sir Stuart Bell: Guidance on those matters can be found on the websites of Churchcare and the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group, and is also available from the National Churchwatch scheme and Church House. Ecclesiastical Insurance has invented a marking product called SmartWater that can trace recovered metal to its owner and link the thief to the scene of the crime. A free security marking system is also available to parishes. We are trying to keep our churches open
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and to keep people coming to them, but we recognise the difficulties and dangers involved. We hope that the methods being introduced by Ecclesiastical Insurance will help to reduce theft, in both rural and city areas.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): The theft of lead and other metals from churches in the Kettering constituency is a growing problem, and there was recently a theft from Wheatley parish church. At what level among senior police officers have the Church Commissioners been having discussions? What discussions have been taking place with senior representatives of the scrap metal industry to control the lead and other metal that is brought to scrap yards for recycling, and to find out where it has come from?

Sir Stuart Bell: All thefts are reported to the police, with whom there is close liaison. I hope that it is of some slight comfort to the hon. Gentleman that, although the problem of stolen lead is getting more serious, the amount of theft of other church fixtures has declined. He asks a pertinent question about scrap metal, and we hope that the marking product being introduced will help us, with the aid of scrap metal merchants, to track both the material that has been stolen and the people who stole it.

Bishoprics (Funding)

5. Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): What recent discussions the Church Commissioners have had with the House of Bishops on the funding of bishoprics. [195462]

Sir Stuart Bell: Following consultation with the House of Bishops last year, a system of global budgets for funding bishops’ office and working costs was introduced at the beginning of this year. The revised system will give bishops greater discretion in how the money is spent within agreed guidelines.

Mark Pritchard: It is a shame that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) has left the Front Bench, as I was looking forward to hearing some straight talking for a change.

I thank the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell) for his reply to my question. Does he agree that bishops do vital work in local communities, and will he join me in thanking the Bishops of Hereford and of Lichfield, and the two suffragan bishops who work under them, the Bishops of Ludlow and of Shrewsbury? Will he give a commitment to the House and to my constituents in both dioceses that those bishops’ funding will be safeguarded and that their valuable work will continue to be recognised?

Sir Stuart Bell: I recognise the role that bishops play locally, nationally and internationally. It is important that they are properly resourced and it is part of the Church Commissioners’ duty to provide that support. In 2006, we spent £24.5 million on bishops’ ministries, although we have other beneficiaries and must balance our obligations. The commission recognises the work done by the specific bishops that the hon. Gentleman listed, and the work of all bishops. We congratulate them on the role that they play in their dioceses.

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Bishops' Historic Residences

6. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): What consideration the Church Commissioners have given to the future of the historic residences of the bishops of the Church of England; and if he will make a statement. [195463]

Sir Stuart Bell: The suitability of every see house is considered when the incumbent bishop reaches the age of 62. By way of a statement, the pre-retirement review process enables constructive dialogue with the bishop, his family, his diocese and a range of other interested parties, and helps us provide a suitable home, workplace and base for his ministry.

Robert Key: Does the Second Church Estates Commissioner agree that it is part and parcel of what the Church of England is that we accept responsibility for looking after the buildings in our care, be they see houses or ancient parish churches? Given that 20 per cent. of this country’s listed buildings—and 40 per cent. of all our grade 1 listed buildings—are maintained by the Church of England Christian community, would not the Church Commissioners be better employed in seeking a new settlement with the state about how the cost of maintaining those national treasures could be shared?

Sir Stuart Bell: It may be Maundy Thursday, but I am reminded of a phrase that Jesus used: words often fall on stony ground. Any suggestion that the Church and the state might work together, with the state providing more money to the Church, will, I suspect, fall on stony ground.

In respect of work carried out in historic residences that are also bishops’ palaces, we have of late maintained Rose castle and Auckland castle. As commissioners, we provide and maintain a residence for each diocesan bishop, so we fully understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. The Church will have to look after its own and not rely on the state. We shall continue to do the job we have been doing. We understand the historical context as well as the need to be up to date and to serve our parishioners, which is what the commissioners are trying to do.


The Solicitor-General was asked—

Crown Prosecution Service

10. Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): What assessment she has made of the Crown Prosecution Service's response to information on crime scene profiles received from the Dutch authorities in January 2007. [195477]

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