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House of Commons

Thursday 11 March 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-

Voter Registration (Young People)

1. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What estimate the Electoral Commission has made of the number of people under 25 years old who are not registered to vote. [321505]

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): The Electoral Commission informs me that it published its most recent national estimate for under-registration in England and Wales in 2005. This found that 16 per cent. of eligible 18 to 24-year-olds were not registered. However, recent research published by the commission found that in a small number of case study areas approximately 56 per cent. of those under 25 years old were missing from the registers. The commission plans further research on that issue.

Mr. Hollobone: Does my hon. Friend share my serious concern and alarm, given that the implication of those shocking statistics is that hundreds of young people in Kettering, thousands of young people throughout Northamptonshire and tens of thousands of young people throughout our country will not be able to take part in voting for a change of Government at the next general election because they are not on the electoral register?

Mr. Streeter: My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that, and the Electoral Commission informs me that it is planning a campaign, which will take place before the next general election, with a range of activities targeted at young people. The campaign will include online advertising on sites that the group uses, such as Facebook, along with advertising on television and radio and in magazines. Registration is an urgent matter, and my hon. Friend is right to draw the House's attention to it.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): I welcome the measures that the hon. Gentleman has just mentioned, but does he agree that registering people to vote is far
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too important to be done on the cheap, and that there is no substitute in many parts of the country and with many target groups for knocking on doors, finding out who lives there and making sure that they are registered to vote?

Mr. Streeter: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and that is the responsibility of electoral returning officers throughout the country. The Electoral Commission is introducing better and clearer guidelines for them on the activity that it expects. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that we must find those young people and make sure that they are put on the electoral register so that they are at least given the opportunity to vote come polling day.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): One very worrying thing about young people not voting is that they are the people on whom the decisions will have the longest-term effect. When I go into schools I find that enthusiasm for politics is great among the younger age group, so will the Electoral Commission consider conducting research on whether a reduction in the voting age to 16 might engage people in the political system while they are at school and before they get lost?

Mr. Streeter: It is an interesting point, but I am afraid that at the most recent general election only 37 per cent. of those aged 18 to 25 could be bothered to vote, and until that percentage increases the case for 16-year-olds being given the right to vote has not been made.

Voter Participation

2. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What steps the Electoral Commission plans to take to maximise voter participation at the forthcoming general election. [321506]

Mr. Streeter: The commission informs me that, to encourage voter registration ahead of the general election, it will run a multi-media campaign using television, radio, press and online advertising. That activity will be targeted at the groups that are less likely to be registered, including young people, students, certain ethnic minority communities, service personnel and UK citizens living overseas.

John Robertson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his answer, but does he agree that although it is not illegal not to vote, it is illegal not to give the registration officer the necessary information? Have we not have reached the point at which we should marry up the two?

Mr. Streeter: The House would have to consider that issue, and it would involve a change in the law. The Electoral Commission is always in the marketplace for interesting ideas, and I shall make sure it is aware of the hon. Gentleman's representations, but in the end it will be a matter for this House.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): I draw my hon. Friend's attention to column 288 at yesterday's Prime Minister's questions, when it was pointed out that the Army Families Federation has carried out trials showing that the majority of troops serving overseas will be unable to vote. In order to maximise voter participation,
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will my hon. Friend speak again to the Electoral Commission and take on board the point that I have made before, which is that there should be one registration when people join the armed forces and an encouragement to cast proxy votes, so that when they serve their country abroad, which involves the possibility of dying for their country, they have the opportunity to vote?

Mr. Streeter: That is a very important matter, and the Electoral Commission is extremely alive to it. The commission is working closely with the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Defence, Royal Mail, the British Forces Post Office and electoral administrators to ensure that everything is done to improve the situation. Given the tight time scales involved in exercising a postal vote once a general election is called, my hon. Friend makes an extremely important point that proxy voting may be the right answer. The commission is certainly aware of that.

Public Accounts Commission

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked-

DFID Audit

3. Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): How many days National Audit Office staff spent in developing countries when auditing the expenditure of the Department for International Development in 2009. [321508]

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): I have been asked to reply.

During 2009, National Audit Office staff spent a total of 183 days in developing countries as part of the NAO's financial and value for money audit work relating to DFID. That total includes days spent in developing countries both by NAO employees and by employees of audit firms that the NAO engaged to assist it with its audit of DFID's annual resource accounts.

Hugh Bayley: That amounts to barely two days per country in which DFID has programmes-programmes that involve billions of pounds. Today the International Development Committee published its annual report on DFID's performance and said that although it welcomes the continued rise in DFID's budget, it is concerned that DFID's staff is being reduced, making it harder to ensure that money is well spent in the field. Will the hon. Gentleman ask the Public Accounts Commission to get the Comptroller and Auditor General to look at the problem, write a report and consider whether additional audit staff are needed to ensure that DFID money is well spent in the field?

Mr. Leigh: Constitutionally, the Comptroller and Auditor General is, quite rightly, completely independent in what he determines to study for the Public Accounts Commission and the Public Accounts Committee. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, which I shall relay to the Comptroller and Auditor General. To be completely clear, the NAO has worked recently-this year-in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Malawi, Ghana, Kenya and India, so it takes very seriously the work of DFID and will continue its work.

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Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Through the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter), I request that the National Audit Office look particularly-[Hon. Members: "Wrong one!"] I am terribly sorry-I mean the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee; forgive me. Will the hon. Gentleman look specifically at how DFID money in Sierra Leone is spent? An hon. Member and other friends have just come back from there with the most alarming stories of diversion of DFID aid into the pockets of Ministers down there, and we really need to get Sierra Leone under full transparent audit.

Mr. Leigh: That is an extremely good point. I shall of course relay the right hon. Gentleman's point of view to the Comptroller and Auditor General, and I am sure he would be very happy to undertake a study in Sierra Leone if that were indeed appropriate.

Church Commissioners

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

Church Music

4. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): What the policy is of the Church Commissioners on encouraging the use of music as part of church and cathedral worship. [321509]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): The Church's Liturgical Commission promotes and develops understanding of liturgy and its use in the Church. The commission sees music as an integral part of the Church's worship, not an optional extra.

Michael Fabricant: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Lichfield cathedral is the only cathedral to boast an entire orchestra, which, three times a year, gives public performances of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and so on, but also, on other occasions, performs for worship? Through you, Mr. Speaker, may I invite the entire House here today to come to one of these concerts in Lichfield cathedral, although Members will have to pay for their own tickets?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that kind invitation. He may be aware that the Lichfield cathedral choir heads off to America after Easter, but the cathedral frequently welcomes impressive visiting choirs. If his invitation is to hear the cathedral choir in New York, I am sure that the House would be very happy to accept.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I endorse everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) says about our diocesan cathedral. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that cathedral music is one of the great glories of our English heritage? It is terribly important that cathedral choir schools are able to continue, so can he assure us that they are getting all the support that they need?

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Sir Stuart Bell: As we are talking about cathedrals, I echo the views of the hon. Gentleman. He is of course aware that the Liturgical Commission takes a strong interest in these things. We are aware of all the traditions of the Church in relation to church music. We understand the transformative potential of music within Church of England worship; it is part and parcel, if I may say so, of our heritage, our religion, and our beliefs. It gives us all great satisfaction to hear cathedral music.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Investigatory Powers

5. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): What recent assessment has been made of the adequacy of the Electoral Commission's investigatory powers. [321510]

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): The hon. Gentleman will know that Parliament recently agreed to strengthen the commission's existing powers through the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009. However, these new powers will not come into effect until secondary legislation is agreed by Parliament. The commission informs me that it welcomes the cross-party support that is to occur early in the new Parliament.

Mr. Prentice: What does that say about today's Conservative party, which told the Electoral Commission that it would not- [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I cannot have other Members acting as arbiters on the appropriateness or otherwise of what Members are saying. Let us hear Mr. Prentice.

Mr. Prentice: As I was saying, what does it say about today's Conservative party that officials and staff of the Conservative party refused to co-operate with the Electoral Commission during its investigation into Bearwood Corporate Services? That is all documented in the press releases and supporting reports from the Electoral Commission. Will the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) advise me whether he thinks the powers of the Electoral Commission should be enhanced to compel the attendance of witnesses when matters concerning possible breaches of electoral law are being discussed?

Mr. Streeter: Parliament has already acted on that, as I said in my answer. The hon. Gentleman, who is an experienced Member of the House, will know that the Speaker's Committee does not go into individual cases, but if he would like to look at what the Electoral Commission's website says about the particular case he has raised, he will see that after a thorough investigation, the donations in question were deemed permissible. I am sure he will be good enough to welcome that.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Can my hon. Friend say whether the investigatory powers of the Electoral Commission include an ability to prevent political parties in the House from seeking to influence how particular Members vote, particularly on matters relating to their area or their constituency? It seems that the power of the Whips and the political parties is such
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that it deters people from voting, because they say, "It doesn't matter which party we vote for; we can't get somebody who will represent us."

Mr. Streeter: My hon. Friend makes an important point, but I am glad to say that it has absolutely nothing to do with the Electoral Commission.

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): Given that the Electoral Commission is currently undertaking a review of ward boundaries in Stoke-on-Trent, will the hon. Gentleman assure me that it has sufficient resources to ensure that there is full public participation in deciding on the boundaries of the new local wards?

Mr. Streeter: That is of course a matter for the local government boundary committee, which is about to become a stand-alone agency, but I can reassure the hon. Lady that the matter will be conducted in its usual thorough way, including hearing the views of local people.

Church Commissioners

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

English Heritage (Church Repairs)

6. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What discussions the Church Commissioners have had with English Heritage on grant funding for church repairs in 2010-11. [321511]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): Church officials meet regularly with English Heritage, which, together with the Heritage Lottery Fund, offers grants for urgent repairs to listed places of worship. The scheme continues to be oversubscribed and is due to end in March 2011, so we expect to have discussions with English Heritage this year about its continuation.

Miss McIntosh: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that reply, but it is extremely alarming that from the end of March next year there is no guarantee of funds being available. Will he also confirm that the amount of funding has been severely reduced in recent years, meaning that fewer churches are eligible for it?

Sir Stuart Bell: The Church itself has spent £110 million on current repairs, due in no small measure to the listed places of worship grant scheme, which saw VAT reduced to 5 per cent. The Church can be grateful that the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, now the Prime Minister, pushed that through. We are looking to continue discussions with the European Commission and others to ensure that it is continued. As to the fact that grant money has been reduced, that is regrettably the case.

Dean of Derby

7. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): How many applications the diocese of Derby has received for the vacant post of dean of Derby. [321512]

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Sir Stuart Bell: The panel tasked with appointing the new dean of Derby was pleased to receive a very healthy number of inquiries and many good-quality applications following its advertisement. Some 30 applications were considered at the long-listing stage.

Robert Key: Given that the Church of England ordains about 400 priests a year, of whom half are women, was the hon. Gentleman as surprised as I was that not one of the applicants was a woman priest? Does he think that reflects badly on the recruitment process, and that there is some perceived institutional barrier to women making progress in the Church of England?

Sir Stuart Bell: I might in the narrow context of female deans, but the hon. Gentleman will know that the number of women archdeacons is steadily increasing. There are currently 15 of them-14 per cent. of the posts filled. We have two excellent female deans, at the hon. Gentleman's own cathedral in Salisbury and at Leicester cathedral. I agree with him, however, that we ought to do more and that there ought not to be a glass ceiling.

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