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House of Commons

Thursday 9 October 2008

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Private Business

London Local Authorities (Shopping Bags) Bill (By O rder)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 16 October.

Manchester City Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [12 June], That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Debate to be resumed on Thursday 16 October.

Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Canterbury City Council Bill (By Order)

Leeds City Council Bill (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 16 October.

Oral Answers to Questions

Church Commissioners

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

Stipendiary Pay

1. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): When the Church Commissioners last met the Archbishop of Canterbury to discuss stipendiary pay for parish priests in rural areas. [225230]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): I have not discussed the subject with the archbishop since June, when we had our annual meeting of the Church Commissioners, but I know that he, like me, would agree with the hon. Lady that parish churches and their congregations are at the heart of rural life. The national stipends benchmark is £21,600, although dioceses set their own policy on the application of national recommendations.

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Miss McIntosh: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that answer. May I express my concern that rural parish vicars are being asked to spread themselves very thinly. As the hon. Gentleman has said, they go to the heart of rural life, but in the midst of the current rural crisis, is that having an impact on recruitment? What is he doing to ensure that we have sufficient parish priests to cope with all the parishes that require pastors?

Sir Stuart Bell: I have sympathy with the points that the hon. Lady makes and with the difficulties that parish priests will have with the cost of living, as have the rest of our citizens at the moment. The policy on parish priests is set by the Archbishops Council, but the commissioners have a role in supporting the ministry. In 2007, we spent almost £178 million, including £105 million on pensions, nearly £33 million on parish mission and ministry support, nearly £25 million on bishops ministry and nearly £7 million on support for cathedrals. As the hon. Lady knows, apart from the stipend, the clergy remuneration package for parish priests in rural areas includes the provision of housing, the payment of council tax, water charges and maintenance costs, a non-contributory pension, removal grants and subsidised insurance in high-risk areas. The hon. Lady has made a valid point about how many more parish priests we can get in rural areas, and the Church will take it into account.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): In addition to the question of stipends, will the Second Church Estates Commissioner tell us about the state of discussions between the Church Commissioners and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Treasury on the approved motor mileage allowance, which is tax free, because it seems to me that the clergy are currently subsidising their employers.

Sir Stuart Bell: As usual, the hon. Gentleman has made a pertinent and adept point. I am not involved in the discussions between the commissioners and Revenue and Customs. I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman a response, and I will leave a copy in the Library.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I have never seen myself as a trade union leader for vicars, but on this occasion I am happy to do so, because I, too, believe that the parish church is the heart of rural life. Vicars have disappeared from certain areas in my constituency, which means that other vicars have had to double up or even treble up in order to cover those parishes. I hope that discussions will take place with the Archbishop of Canterbury to ensure that the pay package for priests is sufficiently attractive to allow all parishes to be covered.

Sir Stuart Bell: As I said earlier, we think that parish priests are adequately covered in terms of finance, but it is true that churches in outlying villages are closed. When I go to my church in the north-east of England, it is always sad to find it closed. Stipends need to be flexible enough to allow the Church to put clergy where they are best deployed and consistent enough to avoid impeding mobility. Hon. Members have made important points today, which I will take back to the Church.

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King James Bible

2. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Whether the Church Commissioners plan to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible in 2011. [225232]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): The 2011 Trust has been established to celebrate that important anniversary through a series of lectures, exhibitions and concerts, culminating in a service of thanksgiving at Westminster abbey on 16 November 2011. I know that the commissioners and the House of Commons will wish the trust well in its work.

Tony Baldry: That is very good news. Of course, the King James Bible made the Bible accessible to every man and woman in the country. As the translator said,

so it really is good news that there will be celebrations in 2011. Perhaps, in these troubled times, it is worth recalling one phrase from the King James Bible:

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks on the pertinence of the text. The authorised version of the Bible is one that we were all brought up on. I was personally saddened when the phrase

was changed so that the new Bible read “with water”. I thought that that was a sad difference between the two Bibles. When I have the opportunity to give a reading, I always use the old version rather than the new.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the 2011 Trust is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). Its patron is His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, and my friend the Dean of Westminster is a member. The trust was launched earlier this year in Poet’s Corner in Westminster abbey, with speeches by the Bishop of London and Lord Bragg. You will wish to know, Mr. Speaker, as it is a very important point, that the Bible was written and translated in a room in Westminster abbey. It is a very august room; we had a meeting there with the Archbishop of Canterbury not long ago. Anyone who is interested in the history of that particular version of the Bible ought to pay a visit sometime; they will be very impressed.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The King James Bible owes much to William Tyndale’s New Testament of 1526 and Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer of 1549—two of the greatest works in our national literature. They were fundamental in shaping the culture and philosophy of all English-speaking nations. Does my hon. Friend agree that without those books English would not be the predominant world language, with its amazing vitality, splendour and versatility, and that our Government should therefore fund a rather more substantial celebration in three years’ time?

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Sir Stuart Bell: I am happy to take up my hon. Friend’s point about the Government providing additional funding. As the pre-Budget report will be produced in two weeks’ time, perhaps we can make a Budget submission on that point. My hon. Friend referred to 1526 and onwards, and the contribution that the authorised version made to our literature. That contribution is enormous, and may go on for ever. As for the future, he will be happy to know that the trust is busy commissioning new music and literature, developing educational school projects, publishing new texts, including a green Bible, and undertaking a host of other activities. It is working ecumenically and it will involve museums, galleries, libraries, the media, publishers and, of course, the Church, so the strands that began in 1526 continue to this day.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): If these particular splendid words are to endure for ever, would it not be a very good idea to ensure that every child attending a Church of England school is given a copy, not of a green Bible, but of the King James Bible, to commemorate the anniversary?

Sir Stuart Bell: That is an interesting suggestion. May I divert the House briefly, Mr. Speaker? Mr. Randolph Churchill’s mouth could never be kept closed, so, during the war, to keep him quiet for a while, he was bet a couple of crates of brandy that he could not read the authorised version of the Bible from cover to cover. Even Randolph Churchill failed in that task; he lost his bet. I would be happy for schoolchildren to have a copy of the authorised version, but I would not recommend that they tried to read it from cover to cover.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Commonwealth Citizens

3. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What recent assessment the Electoral Commission has made of the effectiveness of the procedures for registering Commonwealth citizens on the electoral register. [225233]

Sir Peter Viggers (Gosport): The Electoral Commission informs me that it has issued guidance to electoral registration officers that includes advice on the registration of qualifying Commonwealth citizens. It has not, however, undertaken any specific assessment of the effectiveness of procedures for registering Commonwealth citizens on the electoral register.

Mr. Hollobone: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I am worried that many Commonwealth citizens in this country without indefinite leave to remain may inadvertently be putting themselves on the electoral register because of a failure to understand the rules. I accessed the Electoral Commission website yesterday and downloaded a standard electoral registration form. The declaration at point 3 is that the person registering is a citizen of a Commonwealth country. That, however,
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is not sufficient for somebody to be eligible for the register. Will the Electoral Commission review the procedures for the form?

Sir Peter Viggers: My hon. Friend is well known for being particularly assiduous and having a good eye for detail, and on this occasion he has put his finger on a specific and significant point. The “About my vote” website carries a marginal note that states:

However, yesterday I printed the application form to test it and saw that that marginal note is not repeated in the printed form. I could well understand someone printing out the form without the marginal note and entering on the register someone who was not qualified to vote. I have drawn the point to the Electoral Commission’s attention. It is grateful for the point, and it will take up the issue and change the form. We are grateful to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): I wonder whether you, Mr. Speaker, and the hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers) have read schedule 1 to the new Political Parties and Elections Bill, which relates to the Electoral Commission. Under the Bill, the Electoral Commission, on receipt of any allegation about any donation that it decides can thus be investigated, has extraordinary powers to order a break-in at any home of any candidate or agent for a council or parliamentary seat, and to order the removal of all that person’s records. That will be an extraordinary interference in democratic politics and involve every single candidate, past and future, for council or parliamentary seats—and their agents and associates. The House has to consider that very seriously. Frankly, any letter of complaint to the Electoral Commission would mean that the home of everybody involved in politics could be ransacked on the pleasure of that obscure body.

Mr. Speaker: Order. Perhaps one day the right hon. Gentleman will speak to the core of the question. Supplementaries are always interesting, but not always relevant.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I was wondering whether the attention of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission had been drawn to a certain episode in my constituency. An election court there has decided that the Conservative candidate in a recent election and his cohorts stuffed the electoral register with ineligible, and in some cases arguably non-existent, people—many of whom were Commonwealth citizens; that, Mr. Speaker, is how the episode connects to the original question.

I remember vividly a Polish woman at the electoral court pointing out that five Pakistanis were not living in her one-bedroom flat. She said to the judge, “I might be Polish, but I am not stupid!” It struck me that it was important that we take action to prevent such ballot-stuffing—“roll-stuffing”, the judge called it—from happening in other constituencies. Has the hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers) discussed that problem, and does he have a view on how we can prevent it from happening elsewhere?

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Sir Peter Viggers: Yes, indeed: since 2003 the Electoral Commission has taken the view—and expressed it forcefully—that individual registration would help to clarify and firm up the accuracy of the register and make it less likely that circumstances such as those in Slough that the hon. Lady has described will occur. That is the central thrust of the Electoral Commission’s view on how we can improve the register in practice.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman realise that many people have concerns directly opposite to those of the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone)? There must be millions of eligible Commonwealth citizens in the United Kingdom. My experience of general and local elections—we have one of the latter in our borough today—is that I might find out when I knock on a door and discover a South African, Australian, New Zealander, Ugandan or whoever that they do not realise that they have the right to vote, although they have an absolute qualification without any argument. Will the hon. Gentleman consider whether we need a much better system for assessing how many people are in that category and for making sure that they know? Perhaps notices about people’s entitlements could be given to them as they arrive and their passports are checked at immigration.

Sir Peter Viggers: The Electoral Commission is running a campaign, which I think, without reference to the notes, is costing £300,000—some 4 per cent. of its budget—to encourage Commonwealth citizens who are eligible to vote in the United Kingdom but who have not yet registered to register.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) and the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) one would think that there were far too many people on the electoral roll who should not be there. However, in my experience of delivering surveys in my constituency, one goes down a road where the electoral roll says that there are 100 houses, but there are 120 houses, so in fact a huge number of people are missing from the electoral roll. Has that issue been addressed?

Sir Peter Viggers: Yes; a significant number of people are not registered who could be registered, and some are registered who should not be registered. The Electoral Commission has studied this in some detail over the years and has come back to the central view that the best way ahead is individual registration—removing the responsibility for registration from the head of household, who can make mistakes or not act, and putting responsibility on to individual voters.


The Solicitor-General was asked—

Domestic Violence

4. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): What progress the Crown Prosecution Service has made in increasing the proportion of successful prosecutions in domestic violence cases. [225237]

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