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House of Commons

Thursday 8 May 2008

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


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 15 May.

Oral Answers to Questions

Church Commissioners

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

Redundant Churches

1. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): What the policy of the commissioners is on redundant churches for which dioceses have found no alternative use. [204051]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): Good morning, Mr. Speaker. With your permission, may I draw the attention of the House to the Church Commissioners’ excellent results for last year? The value of assets has grown to £5.67 billion, and £37 million more has been returned to the Church each year during the past decade. Those are figures of which the commissioners and the Church are justly proud.

In response to my hon. Friend’s question, the arrangements for settling the future of redundant churches are set out in the Pastoral Measure 1983.

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Ben Chapman: To what extent will the commissioners and my hon. Friend take account of the views of Sir Roy Strong in his book “A Little History of the English Country Church” about the variety of uses that local communities would find of value to them in using redundant church premises?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning Sir Roy Strong, whose work is closely followed within the Church. He is a renowned campaigner for making Church heritage live—not just preserving the heritage, but doing things with it. That is a concept with which we can all agree.

On the essence of my hon. Friend’s question, in most cases an alternative use is found for churches that have closed down, and where not, the commissioners have to decide, after consulting their statutory advisers, between preservation in the Churches Conservation Trust or demolition.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Elections (Turnout)

2. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): What additional measures the Electoral Commission has considered to increase public participation in elections. [204052]

Peter Viggers (Gosport): In addition to its long-standing voter registration campaigns, the Electoral Commission in advance of last week’s election piloted a text message response service, extended its face-to-face voter registration activity and undertook additional work with local authorities and community groups to encourage voter registration.

Simon Hughes: Clearly, something worked to encourage participation last week. It might have been the prospect of defeating Labour candidates—[Hon. Members: “You lost out.”] Or other candidates—that is very true. Will the hon. Gentleman talk to the Electoral Commission about whether having as places to vote the places where most people go on voting day—railway stations, bus stations and shopping centres—is the logical thing to do, rather than making people go to places that, for many of them, are not on their beaten track, which means that many of them therefore decide to choose not to visit them at all?

Peter Viggers: The Electoral Commission has indeed carried out research on that general area, and rather than deal with the detail now I would prefer to write to the hon. Gentleman to let him know the overall package that the Electoral Commission has brought to bear on the issue and the extent to which it has piloted similar efforts. I will write to the hon. Gentleman and bring that to his attention.

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Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Although it is true that the Electoral Commission has run voter registration campaigns, we all know that there are millions of people in this country who are not registered to vote who ought to be registered to vote. The non-registration rate varies between perhaps 5 and 25 per cent. in some parts of the country. What can we do to get a much more effective voter registration scheme under way across the country, so that we get the millions who are not registered on to the register so that they can vote?

Peter Viggers: The Electoral Commission runs a three-week campaign in advance of every election to encourage voter registration. The commission has previously piloted a registration week, but its view is that a three-week campaign, rather than focusing activity on a single week or day, allows more flexibility for local authorities to participate and that the cumulative effect of advertising over a longer period generates a higher response. The Electoral Commission’s main concern is that there should be individual registration. It thinks that that would encourage registration and diminish the risk of fraud.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): One of the ways in which participation is supposed to increase is by campaign spending by candidates. Will my hon. Friend please pass on to the Electoral Commission something that is a surprise outside the House as well as inside it, which is that in eight years the former Mayor of London apparently had no personal donations but they were all channelled through a political party, to the surprise of most who watched?

Peter Viggers: The rules on these matters are actually quite complicated; they overlap and the rules for regulated donees are different from the rules for candidates during the candidacy period. There is a specific question on this issue and if that question is reached, I will deal with it in some detail then.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): Is it not the case that the most effective way of increasing participation in any election is by having 100 per cent. postal voting? The hon. Gentleman will know that, after the parliamentary by-election on 22 May in Crewe and Nantwich, the next most important occasion in the electoral calendar this year will be 3 July when we hold a mayoral referendum in Bury. Will he raise with the Electoral Commission whether all mayoral referendums should be required to have 100 per cent. postal voting?

Peter Viggers: As the hon. Gentleman has mentioned that specific issue, I will indeed raise it with the Electoral Commission as he has requested.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I am sure that Members on both sides of the House appreciate that people fought and died to get the vote. Is it not about time that people took responsibility themselves? They are able to register and it is up to them to do so. Why should we always go out of our way to make it easy for people to do something when, if they believe that voting is important, not only will they register but they will go out and vote?

Peter Viggers: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our predecessors who created the system of secret voting, with a possibility of tracing that secret vote in
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extremis, certainly knew what they were doing and developed a system that has enormous credibility and trust. Although the number of cases of fraud may be quite small, it takes only a small number of such cases to diminish credibility and trust, with a corresponding diminution in the value of our democracy.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman look into the situation, such as that in Chorley, where registration in rented areas is always lower than anywhere else? Unfortunately, that does not show up because the figures are calculated on a macro-level and across council wards, which have a greater rate of registration at 70 or 80 per cent. However, the figure at a micro-level can drop to something like 30 per cent. What can we do to ensure that people in rented accommodation are treated equally to those in private accommodation?

Peter Viggers: One of the advantages that the Electoral Commission sees in individual registration is that it will pick up people who are not covered at the moment by the heads of households whose duty it is to register people to vote. That might be relevant to the hon. Gentleman’s point.

Electoral Fraud

3. Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): What steps are being taken to reduce the potential for electoral fraud and inaccurate electoral registrations. [204053]

Peter Viggers: The Electoral Commission informs me that it continues to issue detailed guidance and that it works with returning officers, electoral registration officers and the police on strategies for preventing and detecting electoral malpractice.

Andrew Rosindell: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply but, in the light of the recent London elections and local elections, will he tell us what investigations and reviews the Electoral Commission is carrying out to ensure the integrity of the electoral process, particularly with regards to postal voting? That is of great concern to a number of people because fraud has taken place in recent and past local elections.

Peter Viggers: My hon. Friend may have seen a recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust into “Purity of Elections in the UK”. It highlighted the fact that although fraud is not widespread, the system remains vulnerable. The commission is continuing to work hard with those who run elections and with the police to detect and deter fraud, but it also continues to call for the introduction of individual voter registration to make the system more secure.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Although I do not describe the practice as fraud, the widespread use of personal votes in very patriarchal communities disfranchises a lot of women because the head of the household will vote on behalf of the women in his house. Are the hon. Gentleman and the commission aware of that practice, which means that I am afraid I do not agree with the proposal to extend the postal vote?

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Peter Viggers: The hon. Lady’s point is one of the reasons the Electoral Commission is very keen to press the case for individual registration and for each individual—male or female—to accept responsibility for their registration and, indeed, their democratic right to vote.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Given the inaccuracies in the electoral register, is there not a special problem that is tied in with the inaccuracy of census data? There are now rather perverse but strong incentives for local authorities to keep names on the register inaccurately in order to qualify for larger central Government grants. Will my hon. Friend ensure that that issue is dealt with as part and parcel of the reforms that are urgently needed for the integrity of our electoral system?

Peter Viggers: Indeed, and in reply to an oral question on 20 March, I spelled out the Electoral Commission’s concern about the inadequacy of data. It is not possible to measure turnout accurately because there is not an accurate list of those who are entitled to vote.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) that the way to increase participation at elections is to have all-postal ballots. Why has the Electoral Commission ignored its original report into electoral pilots in places such as the north-east, which resulted in a by-election in my constituency with a 67 per cent. turnout? It found that there was no great instance of fraud and that the pilots were a good way of increasing participation. Why did the commission retreat from that and possibly bow to the pressure of some of the popular press?

Peter Viggers: The Electoral Commission takes a balanced view on that. There are great advantages in postal voting. Its view is that the postal voting system should be improved and any possible fraud removed. Central to that is individual registration.

Supplementary Vote System

4. Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): Whether the Electoral Commission has made an assessment of the effectiveness of the supplementary vote system used in the London mayoral election. [204054]

Peter Viggers: The Electoral Commission informs me that it has made no such assessment.

Mr. Holloway: Does my hon. Friend think there may be an argument for reforming the 5 per cent. threshold whereby extremist parties such as the British National party can gain seats with a relatively small number of votes?

Peter Viggers: The view of the Electoral Commission is that its role is to report on the administration of statutory elections in the UK and to provide information to electors on the way the electoral system works. However, it takes the view that it is the responsibility of the
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Government to promote and for Parliament to decide on the detail of the manner in which the vote is implemented.

Church Commissioners

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

Carbon Emissions

5. Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): What steps the commissioners are taking to reduce the carbon footprint of activities within their responsibility. [204055]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): Within their own areas of responsibility, in 2007 the commissioners increased from seven to 18 the number of fuel-efficient hybrid-power cars provided to bishops, and they aim to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in diocesan bishops’ houses and offices by 60 per cent. by the year 2050 in line with the Government’s energy White Paper.

Norman Baker: I am grateful for that answer and encouraged to learn that action is being taken. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the most important thing is to have an overall assessment of the carbon footprint of all the activities of the Church Commissioners and that they are all subject to a target for carbon reduction in line with the specific target that he referred to for housing?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question. He will remember the answer that I gave him on 23 July 2007 in relation to the National Church Institutions being committed to the Church’s shrinking footprint campaign. I am sure he would agree that there is a welcome conference taking place at Lambeth Palace on 13 May, when the Archbishop of Canterbury will host the first anniversary celebration of “Together”, a climate change campaign that aims to make the practical things that everyone can do easier and more affordable. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to the cause.

electoral commission committee

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

Candidates (Declaration of Donations)

6. Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): If the Electoral Commission will take steps to ensure that candidates for directly elected office declare donations made to them separately from donations made to their political party. [204056]

Peter Viggers (Gosport): The rules on reporting donations by parties and candidates are set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The commission’s role is to ensure compliance with those rules. The commission informs me that it publishes guidance for parties, candidates and agents, provides advice on request, and takes enforcement action in accordance with the Act if the rules are not followed.

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Mr. Hands: It is unacceptable that a candidate for, and the incumbent of, a directly elected office, particularly that of, for example, the elected mayor in London, do not have to declare donations, especially if that person is a sole-person planning authority meeting in private. We really must have transparency to see who is funding that person. I urge the Electoral Commission to have another look at that.

Peter Viggers: The rules for declaring donations overlap and are not consistent. Donations over £1,000 made to an individual in connection with political activities must be reported to the commission within 30 days of acceptance. Donations over the value of £50 for use by a candidate during the regulated period must be reported in the candidate’s election expenses return. For the mayoral election in London, the expense return is due 70 days after the election result is declared. Meanwhile, donations over £5,000 received by a party must be reported in the party’s quarterly donation report to the commission.

Perhaps I may add that the commission received a number of complaints alleging a failure by Ken Livingstone to report donations in connection with the mayoral election. The commission concluded that there was no evidence of a breach of the donation reporting requirements.

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