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House of Commons

Thursday 21 January 2010

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

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-

General Election Counts

1. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): Whether the Electoral Commission has had discussions with (a) media organisations and (b) political parties on the timing of the election counts for the general election. [312126]

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): The Electoral Commission informs me that it had discussions with the BBC about the timing of election counts in September 2009. The commission further informs me that the timing of election counts was discussed with representatives of the political parties who attended the October 2009 meeting of the parliamentary parties panel.

Mr. Amess: Recalling my re-election to Parliament in 1992, when the count was completed within an hour of the close of poll-I am advised that the result indicated that there would be the re-election of a Conservative Government, and financial stability-does my hon. Friend agree that we should continue with the tradition of counting immediately after the close of poll, in order to bring financial stability and reduce the possibility of electoral fraud?

Mr. Streeter: That is, of course, my personal opinion, but as the House knows full well, whether to count votes on Thursday or Friday is a matter for individual returning officers; that has been our law for more than 100 years. However, the law does require returning officers to count votes as soon as is practicable after the election. The Electoral Commission website indicates which returning officers have so far decided to count on the Friday or are undecided, and I encourage hon. Members in those areas to enter into a dialogue with the returning officer to discuss whether their decision meets that criterion.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): We all welcomed your statement on this issue, Mr. Speaker, and I completely agree with what has been said from the
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Opposition Benches-but will not the real story of election night be the fact that possibly up to 50 seats will have been bought by Lord Ashcroft's money, and what-

Mr. Speaker: Order. The right hon. Gentleman knows that he is far exceeding the boundaries of the question; it was a good try, but I am afraid it did not work.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): As the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) said, the key words are as far as "is practicable". There are constituencies where this is not practicable for geographical reasons, and sometimes simply because of historical practice. What an individual returning officer should not do, however, is delay the count simply because he thinks that verifying or counting postal votes might be a little bit difficult. That is the message the Electoral Commission needs to send out to returning officers.

Mr. Streeter: The hon. Gentleman is right. Throughout our history, several seats at every general election have counted on a Friday; I am sure colleagues on the Opposition Benches will be interested to know that in 1979 121 seats counted on a Friday. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and the Electoral Commission has encouraged returning officers to be clear about why they are making this decision, and be able to justify it to their local community.

Church Commissioners

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

Wireless Audio Equipment

2. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to assist cathedrals and parish churches to retune or replace wireless audio equipment which operates on frequencies within Channel 69 following the clearance of that channel by Ofcom. [312127]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to refer to David Taylor. As you know, he was an assiduous attender at our Question Time. He put pertinent and important questions before the House and assisted our Ecclesiastical Committee, and he will be greatly missed. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]

I can tell the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) that the Church of England has joined an industry-led campaign to press the Government for compensation for affected groups. We are encouraging churches to contact their installation companies for advice and to seek a compensation package.

Robert Key: The Government are making hundreds of millions of pounds out of the spectrum auctions, and as the hon. Gentleman has said, some compensation has been promised. This affects not only churches, cathedrals and voluntary organisations, but organisations right across the creative arts. Should not any compensation include not only the residual value of equipment but replacement value, as churches have been forced off those frequencies by the Government?

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Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. The compensation package takes into account the full cost of the significant disruption, particularly to larger churches that use a number of wireless microphones. I estimate that about one in eight churches will need to retune or replace their equipment, at an average cost of about £500. The Government agree with Ofcom that compensation is due, but the level, and eligibility, still need to be agreed.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): May I tell the hon. Gentleman how much I welcomed support from the Church of England this week for early-day motion 323, in my name and those of 131 other Members? I urge him to use all the resources of the Church Commissioners to put the maximum possible pressure on the Treasury and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to ensure that justice is done in this very important matter.

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I have read his early-day motion 323 on the Save our Sound UK campaign. I agree with his point. The Government recognise the importance of churches in our communities, and I am sure they will recognise that this is an unfortunate anomaly, as they did in relation to our unfair surface water charges last year. I urged the Government to respond robustly then, and I do so now, with the support of the House.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

General Election Counts

3. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What estimate the Electoral Commission has made of the number of general election counts which will commence on polling day. [312128]

6. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): What estimate the Electoral Commission has made of the number of general election counts which will commence on polling day. [312131]

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): The Electoral Commission informs me that it has asked all returning officers to provide information about their current plans for commencing the count at the next UK parliamentary general election. This information has been made available in the House of Commons Library. In summary, as of 7 January returning officers for 586 out of the 650 constituencies had provided information. Of those, returning officers in 330 constituencies plan to start counting on polling day, a further 17 will commence counting on polling day unless the general election is combined with local authority elections, 52 have decided to count on the Friday and 187 were still undecided.

Mr. Bone: Unfortunately, one of the constituencies that plans to count on Friday is Wellingborough. Could my hon. Friend recommend to the Speaker's Committee that the law be changed, so that counts have to be made
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on a Thursday unless there are exceptional circumstances and tin-pot, upstart little town clerks cannot change things?

Mr. Streeter: I wish my hon. Friend would say what he really feels! When the Electoral Commission was set up the House did not give it the power to direct returning officers, and of course, if the law is to be changed that is a matter for this House, not for the Electoral Commission. As we know, returning officers are usually the chief executives of local authorities, and Members of Parliament and councillors up and down the land are usually not without influence in working alongside these hard-working and respectable individuals.

Mr. Swayne: The New Forest constituencies will be doing the right thing, but I hope that the only present occupant of the Treasury Bench, the duty Whip, will have noted the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone). We all appear to be in agreement that either we are going to do something about this or we are not, and we are just going to hope. Perhaps someone on the Treasury Bench could give some instruction as to the meaning of the law: what does "as soon as is practicable" actually mean?

Mr. Streeter: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. It is to be hoped that the guidance that has been given from this House in recent days, including your own very powerful statement on this matter, Mr. Speaker, will influence the 187 returning officers who have not yet decided to take the view that counting on Thursday is the right thing to do. This is not a matter for the Electoral Commission.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) rose-

Mr. Speaker: I shall give the right hon. Gentleman a second bite at the cherry, but I do not expect him to abuse the bite.

Mr. MacShane: My understanding is that if a question contains a reference to an organisation -[Interruption.] No, no, let me ask my question first, and Mr. Speaker may then rule me out of order. May I ask the hon. Member representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission what conversations he has had with the Electoral Commission, not only on the counting of votes, which is so essential, but on the counting of the money that will be used to buy those votes?

Mr. Speaker: Order. I say to the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter)-I think he can guess what I am going to say-that although he will not want to ask me for a ruling on this matter, I shall give him one anyway: he cannot be expected to answer that which is not part of the question. I think that we have dealt with the matter, and the right hon. Gentleman had a go. I call Mr. Andrew Mackay.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): I am obliged to you, Mr. Speaker, because I wish to return to the question. Does the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) agree that the real problem is that, as he has pointed out, most of the returning officers are the chief executives of councils? Understandably, their first priority is to keep costs down and offer good value to council tax payers, so they are choosing to count on Friday, whereas they had previously counted on Thursday.
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We need an absolute instruction from this House that that should not happen, except in exceptional circumstances. Without such an instruction all too many seats will count on a Friday, which will be-

Mr. Speaker: Order. The right hon. Gentleman is an immensely experienced parliamentarian, so he will know that it causes problems for the Hansard writers if a Member is not facing the House.

Mr. Streeter: It is worth reiterating that returning officers are independent under the law of this land, and have been for 100 years and more. Of course the Electoral Commission can and does issue guidance to returning officers, but its primary concern is about accuracy and ensuring public confidence in the outcome of any count that is held.

Electoral Register (Britons Abroad)

4. Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): What estimate the Electoral Commission has made of the number of Britons living abroad who are on the electoral register. [312129]

Mr. Streeter: The Electoral Commission informs me that although it has not made such an estimate itself, the Office for National Statistics collects and publishes annual electoral registration data. The most recent figures are for the electoral registers of 1 December 2008, and they show that there were 13,695 entries for overseas voters on UK electoral registers. The ONS is due to publish figures for the 1 December 2009 electoral registers next month.

Mr. Dunne: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving us those figures, which appear at first sight to reflect a decline of some 2,000 since the previous year. Does he agree that this is a disgraceful performance, and what can he recommend that the Electoral Commission can do to give recommendations to any incoming Government to improve the ability of overseas expatriate citizens to participate in our national election?

Mr. Streeter: It is a matter for the Government and for this House whether the law on how people can register and vote from overseas is changed. The Electoral Commission is committed to increasing the number of eligible people who are registered to vote, and has recently conducted a campaign that resulted in nearly 7,400 overseas voter registration forms being downloaded from the commission's website. The commission plans to run further activity in advance of the general election targeting British citizens living abroad.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): We are grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those answers. First, will he encourage the Electoral Commission to continue to work and to do more, because there are huge numbers of people in all categories, including overseas voters, who are clearly eligible to vote but are not yet on the list? Will he suggest that colleagues from all parties might like an urgent meeting with the commission to discuss maximising activity, and therefore the number of people who are on the register, and therefore eligible to vote in the elections that we know will happen this spring?

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Mr. Streeter: I am sure that the Electoral Commission is amenable to such a meeting. It plans to spend a further £189,500 targeting overseas voters in this financial year, and is committed to ensuring that the number of overseas voters who take part in our elections increases.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab) rose-

Mr. Speaker: Order. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that it is a case of third time unlucky. He cannot expect me to help him out again. I call Mr. Hugh Bayley- [ Interruption. ] I have to say to the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) that the length of time for which he lived abroad is neither here nor there when it comes to the selection of who asks questions- [ Interruption. ] With great respect, the right hon. Gentleman will hear this. He had two opportunities and I am not obliged to offer him a third.

Church Commissioners

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

Fires and Fire Safety

5. Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): How much the Church of England spent on (a) repairs necessary after fires and (b) fire safety measures in churches in the last five years. [312130]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): I am grateful for your protection, Mr. Speaker. This is a matter for individual churches and cathedrals, and the figures are not held centrally. I know, however, that many churches and cathedrals have undertaken work on fire prevention, detection and containment.

Hugh Bayley: After Christmas there was a fire in York minster's stone yard, where the cathedral's greatest window is being stored while it undergoes a £25 million restoration. The window was saved by firemen and minster staff, who carried it to safety. It is a work of art as important as the Sistine chapel ceiling. Will my hon. Friend ask the Church Commissioners to press the Government to protect such works of art from fire and other risks, just as they protect works of art in our national galleries and museums?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this matter. Fortunately no people were harmed in the fire, and the panels of the incomparable great east window were saved. The Church welcomes the recommendation by the Public Accounts Committee that cathedrals should receive direct funding from the Government.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): The hon. Gentleman will be aware that for specialised properties, bodies such as the National Farmers Union have created their own insurance companies. Have the Church Commissioners given any thought, given the nature of churches, to the idea that there should perhaps be a central insurance company to insure more effectively against the risk of fire?

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Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful for the opportunity to reassure the hon. Gentleman. I can tell him that advice on managing the risk of fire is available from Church House, from dioceses and from the Ecclesiastical insurance group, which insures most Church of England churches.

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