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The Minister of State, Department for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): Perhaps I can encourage the hon. Gentleman. British Ministers have taken construction companies on a series of international trade missions, helping them to win contracts abroad,
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not just in European countries, but in Asian countries, Gulf countries and so on. The details of those visits are public—questions have been asked about them—and some of the contracts that have been signed are public as a result. We will continue to work with the construction industry. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has already met the construction industry and he will continue to do so.

T8. [254335] John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): The recent interim “Digital Britain” report went on about access being very important, but provision is the important part. Does my hon. Friend agree that social tariffs would be one way of including those who are least well off, who have the lowest uptake, such as the people of Glasgow? If the Government go down the social tariff route, will they also talk to the mobile phone companies, which we also need to get on board?

Mr. McFadden: I am sure that my noble Friend Lord Carter will listen carefully to my hon. Friend, who raises an important point in general. As we go through this downturn, we must also look to the industries of the future. The communications revolution and good broadband access throughout the country are critical to our country’s economic future. That is why they are such a high priority for the Government.

T6. [254333] Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Are Ministers content with the operation of the Enterprise Act 2002, particularly in respect of pre-pack companies, which can take over companies that have gone into administration, but which often walk away from the obligations to local traders, the work force and even the Revenue? Does that seem a fair way of operating companies?

Ian Pearson: It is important to recognise that there has been some recent public concern about the use of pre-pack administrations. We will always keep Government policy under review, and that includes the Enterprise Act 2002. Issues have arisen with some pre-packs, but there are also some advantages to pre-packs in terms of maintaining employment. I understand the comments that the hon. Gentleman makes and we will look at the matter closely.

T7. [254334] Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): Further to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) asked, will the Minister, in keeping the matter under review, also consider looking at the regulations that govern administration, so that where companies go into receivership, the administrators can ensure that they safeguard the interests of local creditors, which are often struggling small businesses themselves, and the loyal employees of those companies?

Ian Pearson: It is the job of administrators to act in the best interests of creditors. It is also the job of the administrator to ensure that where a company can continue as a going concern, it does so. There are some lessons we might want to learn that have arisen from recent administrations. Sometimes the communication between the administrator and trade unions that have approved negotiating rights with companies has not been satisfactory. There have also been some suggestions
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that in some administrations there has been a rush to move towards liquidation without allowing sufficient time to explore other options. Again, that is something that we are actively looking at.

Church Commissioners

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

Investment Portfolio

1. Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): What steps the Church Commissioners have taken to protect their investment portfolio since 1 October 2008. [254298]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): In the final few months of 2008, the commissioners established two new mandates with funds raised from UK equity sales in the first half of the year. They were an active global equities mandate and an unconstrained mandate, which invests in a mixture of equities, bonds and cash, as determined by the manager. Both mandates added value in the final quarter of the year and delivered positive returns in a difficult environment.

Mr. Pelling: Obviously some sagacity has been shown in taking money out of equities. I am aware that an important paper is to go to the General Synod this month on the implications of the financial crisis and the recession. Will the management of the funds continue to protect assets and assist the Church in its ministering role?

Sir Stuart Bell: The hon. Gentleman is perfectly right, in the sense that the Church looks at the long term and at inter-generational fairness. The commissioners, in common with similar funds, have been affected by the global economic downturn, but we are not speculating on figures. The audited results will be published in our annual report, but the latest actuarial advice that we have received, which fits in with the hon. Gentleman’s question, is that we will be able to meet our 2008-10 expenditure plans, and that because of the way in which we smooth our non-pensions expenditure, we expect to maintain these distributions in cash terms into 2011 and 2013, further falls in the market notwithstanding.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): I know that the Church Commissioners have regard to an ethical dimension in the investments that they make. In view of the General Synod’s discussions next week on the Church’s response to the financial crisis, will my hon. Friend ensure, through his good offices, that that ethical dimension is maintained, even in these difficult circumstances, when there is always an idea that it might be possible to make a quick buck? The Church should remain above all those elements and ensure that it learns lessons from the General Synod’s discussions next week and builds them into its future investment programmes.

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. We look forward to that debate in the General Synod. In my Father’s house are many mansions, and next week there will be many aspects to the debate on the Government’s economic policy.

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On ethical investment, I can assure my hon. Friend that the two new mandates are not permitted to engage in short selling, but they do have the ability to invest in instruments to protect funds under their management against adverse currency movements. There are no positions in hedge funds or direct exposure to sub-prime assets. Ethical investment has been the cornerstone of the Church of England’s Commissioners for many years, I think going back to the 1940s.

Public Accounts Commission

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked


2. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): For what reasons Tenon was appointed as the National Audit Office’s external auditor for a further year from June 2009. [254299]

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): Following a competition in 2006, the Commission appointed Tenon for three years, with the option of two one-year extensions. The Commission has been satisfied with Tenon’s performance and has decided to exercise the option to extend the appointment for a further year, to July 2010.

Mr. Hollobone: What key recommendations has Tenon made since its appointment?

Mr. Leigh: Tenon has made a number of important recommendations on, for example, business reporting arrangements, the management of fee income and how to deliver work programmes in the most effective way. With all the recommendations accepted, its work has ensured that the National Audit Office, working with the Public Accounts Committee, continues to be a world-class operation that delivers a £9 saving for every £1 spent. That means that £656 million is delivered back to the taxpayer every year.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Are we not back, however, to the central dilemma of Plato’s “Republic”: quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who should audit the auditors? Have we not got a cosy cabal between Tenon and the NAO? Tenon failed to detect—or overlooked or declined to report on—the gold-plated, fur-lined expense arrangements of the former Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir John Bourn. What confidence can we have in its forensic ability to report on the things that matter in relation to the operation of the NAO?

Mr. Leigh: As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have now put in place a completely new governance structure for the National Audit Office. For the first time, there will be an independent chairman working with the Prime Minister. We have appointed Sir Andrew Likierman, who is probably the country’s leading expert on resource accounts, to be the chairman of the NAO, and he will lead a board that will directly oversee the Comptroller and Auditor General in terms of his expenses and all the things that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. At the same time, the board will ensure that the Comptroller
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and Auditor General continues to be fully independent in delivering value-for-money reports. We have also, with the Prime Minister, appointed Amyas Morse—a first-class appointment—who will deliver the kind of improvements that the hon. Gentleman wants.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Electoral Fraud

3. Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): What guidance the Electoral Commission has issued to electoral registration officers on steps they should take in constituencies where fraudulent entries on the electoral register have been revealed by prosecutions. [254300]

Sir Peter Viggers (Gosport): The Electoral Commission informs me that where malpractice has been exposed, it discusses lessons learned in detail with the electoral registration officers. More generally, the commission issues guidance to all electoral registration officers on suggested approaches to adopt in compiling and maintaining complete and accurate registers. This guidance reflects lessons learned from instances where there has been evidence of malpractice.

Fiona Mactaggart: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that reply. There is a particular problem in my constituency, where a criminal case has arisen that is being dealt with in Reading court, and there has been an electoral case demonstrating that people are listed on the register who do not exist, but who have postal votes. I am profoundly concerned that when postal votes are issued, they last five years before they can be removed by the electoral registration officer, and if the person on the register does not exist, there is no way of confirming it. Will the hon. Gentleman discuss with the Electoral Commission whether there is something it can do in these circumstances to ensure that we avoid the fraudulent voting that has occurred in Slough?

Sir Peter Viggers: The commission shares the court’s very serious concerns about the system of voter registration in Great Britain. Since 2003, the commission has called for a reform of the system to provide security where it is needed, which is at the point of registration, and it argues that a system of individual electoral registration with personal identifiers is needed to provide a secure foundation for both registration and postal voting.

Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): What research has the Electoral Commission undertaken on the extent of fraudulent entries on the electoral register? I am thinking about not just the deliberate fraud that the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) mentioned, but the overall accuracy of the electoral register throughout the UK. That seems to me to be a rather fundamental point as we approach a possible general election.

Sir Peter Viggers: Malpractice has been the subject of a study and statistics are available. The amount of malpractice is in fact comparatively small, but it takes only a small amount of malpractice to create a great deal of suspicion and concern about the system generally.
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The United Kingdom is one of only two countries in the world to have a system of household registration, which, as the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) pointed out, provides an opportunity for the head of the household or anyone who interferes with the post to carry out such fraud. The other country that has a system of household registration is Zimbabwe.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): The hon. Gentleman knows that I agree with the Electoral Commission about the need for personal identification, but I think that the point made by the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) about the integrity of the electoral register is extremely important. The issue is not just fraud, but one of attrition, as to whether the electoral registers are kept up to date when people die or move away, for example. What research has been done on that aspect, and what guidance can be given to electoral registration officers to ensure that they keep a fully up-to-date and accurate register, which is essential?

Sir Peter Viggers: Recent legislation has given the Electoral Commission power to issue more guidance to electoral registration officers, and the commission is taking that power. The commission feels strongly that the best way ahead is through individual registration, and its call has been backed by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and, most recently, the Slough electoral petition, in which Richard Mawrey, QC, called for immediate reform of the voter registration process to remove opportunities for electoral malpractice.

Church Commissioners

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

Historic Churches

4. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What recent discussions the Church Commissioners have had with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on funding for the preservation of historic churches. [254301]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): Church of England officials have been meeting officials from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and other Government Departments. Those discussions seek, among other things, to identify national, regional and local sources of funds and ensure that the provision of community services in church buildings qualifies for these sources of funding on an equal basis as in respect of non-church buildings.

Miss McIntosh: I understand that the heritage grant is to be reduced this year, and that the funding of churches and church repairs is reaching crisis point. There has been a spate of thefts of lead from roofs, and churches must pay VAT on repairs. They have thousands of pounds’ worth of commitments and very little by way of grant. What can the hon. Gentleman do, as a matter of urgency, to ensure that the largest possible heritage grant is available for the restoration of churches?

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Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising a matter that is extremely important to the Church. We continue to monitor the heritage fund grant because we are constantly hearing that it may be reduced.

The hon. Lady is, of course, aware of our own efforts and campaigning to ensure that VAT on church repairs is effectively reduced to 5 per cent. She is right to say that we need to inject value into our church repairs. At least £925 million will be needed over the next five years to repair listed places of worship in England, most of which will be raised by congregations and local communities. The hon. Lady’s efforts, and the efforts of the House, to maintain pressure on the Government are most welcome.

Water Charges

5. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): What estimate the Church Commissioners have made of the cost to English parishes of the new area charging regime introduced by water companies; and if he will make a statement. [254302]

Sir Stuart Bell: I estimate that the new charge—and, where applicable, highways drainage contributions—will cost Church of England churches and cathedrals about £15 million or more. Let me add by way of a statement that I consider the new charging regime to be unfair to the churches, small sports clubs and voluntary organisations that enrich our communities. Ministers are considering how to respond to these concerns, and we await their response with interest.

Robert Key: I think that the churches, charities and sports organisations await a ministerial announcement not just with interest but with anger. I wrote to the Minister responsible on 19 December, and his office has informed me today that I should receive a reply to my letter in the next few weeks. Would it not be better if the Second Church Estates Commissioner had a word with Ministers to ensure that they reach some conclusion
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about the need for new legislation—not just tinkering with guidance notes—before the Church of England debates the matter in our Synod next week?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for writing to the Minister personally.

A great deal of pressure has been exerted on the Government, not only by the Church but by the Scout Association, which has campaigned on the issue. Only yesterday a petition from former sports stars Brian Moore and Mike Gatting outlining the impact on sports clubs was received by the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The pressure is on the Government, and what we want is for the Government to respond. If I may use a biblical phrase, let me say: those who have ears, let them hear.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that this matter arises from a rather misguided decision by Ofwat, with which I have been in correspondence for well over six months, and that, as is clear from that correspondence, the individual water companies still have a degree of latitude that would enable them to exempt churches?

Sir Stuart Bell: The hon. Gentleman is right, in that the matter lies with Ofwat; and therein, I suspect, lies the dilemma of Ministers. How do they intervene with Ofwat? How do they intervene on behalf of the Church or in relation to the Scouts Association? How do they intervene on behalf of all the small concerns that are the lifeblood of our country and act in their interests? That is a dilemma for the Government to which they should respond and on which they should reach a conclusion that is favourable to the Church’s interest and also robust. We want no tinkering with the system and no filibustering here or there; we want a clear decision that is in the interests of the organisations to which I have referred.

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