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House of Commons

Thursday 18 June 2009

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


The Clerk at the Table having informed the House of the unavoidable absence of the Speaker from this day’s sitting, the Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker (Standing Order No. 3).

Oral Answers to Questions

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for South-West Devon, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Electoral Systems

1. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What recent assessment the Electoral Commission has made of the potential effects on levels of voting of the use of different electoral systems; and if he will make a statement. [280570]

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): The Electoral Commission informs me that, although it collects turnout figures after each election, it has not undertaken research on the impact on turnout of different electoral systems. However, the commission does provide information to electors, through its public awareness campaigns, on the way in which different electoral systems work, and on how they may cast their vote.

John Robertson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his answer. I have always felt that the Electoral Commission should look in more detail at the different electoral systems, particularly as we have so many in the United Kingdom as a whole. What was the turnout when electronic voting was used, and with postal voting?

Mr. Streeter: The Electoral Commission is certainly prepared to carry out the research that the hon. Gentleman has in mind if the Government ask it to do so. I am afraid that I do not have figures on turnout using electronic voting and postal voting, but the number of people who vote by post has increased significantly since 2000, and now roughly 15 per cent. of those who exercise their vote do so by postal means.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Is it not a fact that we have elected two Jew-hating racists to represent us in the European Parliament—we have done so in the form of British National party electors—even though in Yorkshire the BNP got fewer votes than it did in 2004? What is the reason? In the 2004 European Parliament elections, there was an all-postal ballot and almost twice as many people voted. I understand that
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there are some fiddles in postal voting, but we must look much more seriously at encouraging all-postal ballots, because that is the best way to prevent the fascists from being elected to represent our nation.

Mr. Streeter: The Electoral Commission certainly supports a thorough modernisation of electoral processes in this country and has made recommendations to the Government, but the electoral systems that we employ in this country are very much a matter for this House, not the Electoral Commission.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Is it not a fact that people vote in large numbers when these two circumstances apply: first, they think that the body that is being elected matters to them; and, secondly, they think that their vote will actually make a difference—that their vote counts? Are not those the issues that we, not the Electoral Commission, ought to consider so that we make our electoral system fit for purpose?

Mr. Streeter: There are, of course, a number of issues that affect voter turnout at all elections. It might interest the House to know that the probable figure for turnout at the European elections this year was 34 per cent., which was down on the figure of 38.5 per cent. five years previously. However, a number of issues affect voter turnout, and the hon. Gentleman is quite right that, although some are for the Electoral Commission to consider, many are for this House and the political parties in it.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): May I suggest to my hon. Friend that it would be useful for the Electoral Commission to carry out a full investigation into, and produce a report on, the recent European elections? Most of us believe that the prospect of voting for a list puts people off voting, but that people do like to vote for an individual elected representative. As the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) just said, a system that allows an extremist party to be elected with a small number of votes is not a system that we should encourage.

Mr. Streeter: The Electoral Commission is carrying out a survey of the effectiveness of the recent elections to the European Parliament, and I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that a number of factors have to be taken into account. However, the electoral system that we put in place for future European Parliaments, or for any election in the United Kingdom, is a matter for this House, not for the Electoral Commission.

Church Commissioners

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

Surface Water Drainage Charges

2. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What assessment he has made of the effect on the Church’s finances of the new system of charging for surface water run-off on church property. [280571]

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The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): I estimate that surface water charges by area will cost the Church of England at least £5 million and a further £10 million for highways drainage contributions. The effect of these cost increases on individual parish churches and cathedrals will vary, but I assure the hon. Lady that every church will face an increase.

Miss McIntosh: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that answer. Does he agree that there should be a moratorium on the imposition of those charges until a complete impact assessment has been made? Will he support the early-day motion to that effect which stands in my name and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends? Will he also look at the formula that Yorkshire Water, which serves my constituency, has come up with? It causes the least damage where the introduction of those charges applies.

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Lady. We will certainly look at any proposal or scheme seeking to ensure that the least possible damage is done to churches as a result of water charges. We have heard some encouraging noises from Ofwat and the Government, but we hope for something more tangible and, from the Church’s point of view, for a broad, permanent exemption. That is what we are seeking to achieve with Ofwat.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, of which I am a member, is undertaking a review of Ofwat’s charging policies, and we had the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), before us yesterday. He made it quite clear that Ofwat has not only a brief but a duty to ensure that charging systems are fair and avoid creating hardship. May I suggest to the Second Church Estates Commissioner, that the Church Commissioners make strong representations to ensure that Ofwat delivers on what he described as encouraging noises?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who will know that we have had discussions with Government and Ofwat representatives. Those discussions are continuing. Our difficulty appears to be that water companies, with the possible exception of the Yorkshire water authority, are charging churches and other voluntary bodies as if they were big businesses. We are seeking to argue that that cannot be morally or ethically right and that it is not a balanced approach. The Government respond, but whether they do so sufficiently and significantly is another matter.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): May I, too, urge the hon. Gentleman to make strenuous representations on this matter with both Ofwat and Ministers? As he has just said, the issue involves not only the churches but other voluntary bodies such as scouting organisations. Such bodies are very important to our national life, are not big businesses and cannot afford the charges. If the charges go ahead and they are not able to operate, that will diminish our national life.

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Lady. She will be happy to know that at yesterday’s annual general meeting of the Church Commissioners, I raised that specific point. I said that it was encouraging that the
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Church, through the Synod and the Archbishops Council, was working with scouting and other organisations. The Archbishops Council has led the way in this matter on behalf of the Church, along with the Church Commissioners, but the House has to give, as I think it has done, a strong message to Ofwat in addition to all the other representations that have been made.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he has said, but urge him to redouble his efforts. As he may be aware, I have seen and corresponded with the chief executive of Ofwat. Although charming and courteous, he has not delivered as he should have. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is extraordinary that the body set up to protect the public is creating this appalling problem? Will he once again approach the chief executive and the appropriate Ministers?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Among other things, Ofwat is misdirecting itself on these issues. It seems to be suggesting that the new charging regime is an ecologically sound policy. Let me say that the Church takes environmental issues seriously, and that we do not necessarily accept that argument. I refer the hon. Gentleman to my statement in Hansard on 5 February at column 972, in which I asked the Government to intervene robustly on behalf of the churches and other organisations. I will be happy to repeat that request to the Government.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for South-West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Early Voting

3. Mrs. Linda Riordan (Halifax) (Lab/Co-op): What recent discussions the Electoral Commission has had with the Ministry of Justice on proposals for the introduction of early voting in elections. [280572]

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): The Electoral Commission informs me that it believes that giving people the option of voting in person in advance of polling day would improve access to the electoral process. In May 2009, the chair of the Electoral Commission wrote to the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), reiterating the commission’s view on early voting in the context of a wider strategy for the future of elections. It also responded to the Government’s 2008 consultation on weekend voting.

Mrs. Riordan: Two weeks ago, voter apathy and electoral disengagement hit an all-time low; turnout plummeted to 16 per cent. in my region of Yorkshire. I recently met the Minister of State, to discuss my plans to introduce early voting in the UK. There was early voting in the recent American election, in which voters
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flocked to the polls over a two-week period. Clearly, one day’s access to the polls is not enough in today’s society. Will the Electoral Commission therefore discuss plans to introduce early voting?

Mr. Streeter: The Electoral Commission informs me that it is not opposed in principle to moving polling day to the weekend. However, it does not support such a change at present because there is a lack of compelling evidence to show that such an arrangement would be more convenient or accessible for electors, and increase turnout. As has been said, there are a number of reasons voters do not turn up to vote at elections, many of which relate to the political parties and our conduct in the House. All of us—not only the Electoral Commission—should consider how to increase voter turnout in this country.

Church Commissioners

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


4. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): What assessment the Church Commissioners have made of the cost to parishes of dealing with bat populations in churches in the last five years. [280573]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): We do not collect the figures, but I know that a significant number of churches—mainly rural ones—are coping successfully with bats, as they have done for centuries. Cleaning and protecting contents costs volunteers time and money; in some cases even that is not enough, and the bats cause damage and create hygiene problems.

Mr. Robathan: Before I get swamped with letters about this, let me make it clear to all those outside the House that I like bats, I love seeing bats flying and I want bat populations to flourish. However, there is a serious issue about the damage that is being done by bats, particularly to historic and beautiful old churches and other buildings. Could the Church Commissioners get together with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, English Nature, Natural England and English Heritage to come up with a holistic approach? Bats do not have to live in belfries; they can go and live elsewhere. They are natural animals; they do not need us to produce churches for them. This needs sorting out, because it is costing parishes a great deal of money and damaging our historic structures.

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. He is a great authority on bats. I can share with the House the fact that he is also a great authority on newts—but the Church Commissioners are not responsible for newts, although they may be responsible for bats in the belfry. He mentioned DEFRA, English Heritage and Natural England, but he omitted to mention the Bat Conservation Trust. We are working with all those organisations to strike a sensible balance. I will be pleased to feed in the points that he makes, which are very pertinent to these discussions. In the
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past, we have had a good deal of success in accommodating bats, but the fact that we continue to raise the issue in this House reflects the fact that it is a problem in churches up and down the land.

Public Accounts Commission

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—

Contingencies (Underspend)

5. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What the Public Accounts Commission’s most recent assessment is of the likelihood of an underspend on contingencies in the National Audit Office estimate for 2009-10, as referred to in HM Treasury’s note to the commission of 10 March 2009. [280574]

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): When the commission took evidence on the National Audit Office resource estimate on 17 March 2009, the NAO told us that it hoped to be able to surrender some of the contingency included in the revised budget for the repair and refurbishment of its headquarters, and it has confirmed that that remains the position.

Mr. Hollobone: I thank my hon. Friend for his helpful answer. The NAO estimate for 2009-10 is 3 per cent. above that of the previous year at a time of negative inflation. Clearly, it aspires to achieve cost reductions across its range of activities. When will it be made clear to this House that those cost savings might begin to be reflected in the total support that the NAO seeks from Parliament?

Mr. Leigh: For every £1 of taxpayers’ money that the NAO spends, it saves £9 for the taxpayer. Considerable extra work has been given to the NAO by the Public Accounts Commission. My hon. Friend is asking about the contingency fund and expenditure on the NAO’s new headquarters. It tells me that it is seeking to achieve a £1 million underspend against a revised project budget, and the project will be delivered on time in November. It is a success story that we should be proud of.

Church Commissioners

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

Economic Downturn (Assistance)

6. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to assist the Church during the economic downturn. [280576]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): Despite the economic downturn, the commissioners plan to maintain the level of their distributions in cash terms this year and into next year.

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Ben Chapman: Will my hon. Friend assure me that when the commissioners look at expenditure in cash terms there will be a keen prioritisation and selection of expenditure categories, because that is going to be vital? Will the selection of those priorities will reflect the needs of the 21st century Church?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Supporting the Church’s ministry, particularly in areas of need and opportunity, is the priority that the Church sets itself. We want to spend our sums wisely. This summer we are holding a series of conferences with our beneficiaries, and that detailed engagement will help us to assess the priorities to which he refers; we then seek to help the growth of the Church.

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