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Electoral Commission Committee

Volume 403: debated on Monday 7 April 2003

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

Voting Age

22.

What representations the Electoral Commission has received on reducing the voting age to 16. [107083]

Mr. Peter Viggers
(representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission)

The votes at 16 campaign has made such representations to the Commission. It is also aware of support for moves to reduce the minimum voting age on the part of several parliamentarians, political parties and other bodies.

Will the hon. Gentleman try to ensure that, through the representations that it receives, the Electoral Commission tries to listen to the voices of young people on this issue? Those young people are asking why they can pay tax, get married and join the armed forces at 16, if they cannot vote.

Yes, indeed. The Commission is aware that there has been strong support expressed in some quarters that the voting age should be reduced. The purpose of the fundamental review that the Commission now has in hand is to gauge how wide that support is.

Has my hon. Friend, whose presence answering questions I warmly welcome, received any even more stupid representations in regard to votes at 14?

Yes. [Laughter.] I say "yes" to acknowledge that I have heard the question. The Commission has put in hand a wide-ranging survey, which was announced on 27 February. Its timetable is to consult over the summer and early autumn of 2003, with publication of a final report, with recommendations, in early 2004. It is, perhaps, worth reporting, if one is seeking to improve the turnout at general elections, that the overall turnout in the 2001 general election was 59 per cent., but the estimated turnout among 18 to 24-year-olds was 39 per cent.

Ward Boundaries

23.

When the Electoral Commission last met the Boundary Commission to discuss the review of ward boundaries in metropolitan authorities; and if he will make a statement. [107084]

Mr. Peter Viggers
(representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

Responsibility for reviews of ward boundaries in metropolitan authorities falls to the boundary committee for England. The Electoral Commission has not met the committee to discuss this matter.

May I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the guidance issued in the periodic electoral review, which states that the Electoral Commission and the boundary committee for England

"must have regard to the desirability of fixing identifiable electoral area boundaries"
and ensure that community interests are safeguarded? It is, therefore, apparent from the directive that both organisations have responsibility for this issue. I would like to draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to problems that are developing in some of the metropolitan areas in which boundary reviews are taking place. In Wakefield, for example, there are two communities with a vast distance between them. The M62 passes through the area, which also has a railway container depot and a vast industrial area, and a railway going along the division between the two communities. There is also no natural identifiable boundary. There has been a tremendous increase in community interest in this issue. Will the hon. Gentleman take this matter on board and ensure that such proposals will be examined in detail, and that the community interest is given priority when it comes to identifying ward boundaries?

Yes. Electoral equality is the starting point for the boundary committee's review, but of course it also takes account of other items, including community identity. As to the consultation on the boundary committee's draft recommendations in relation to Wakefield city council, the public consultation period ends today, and I understand that the hon. Gentleman is making representations in that regard.

Church Commissioners

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

Church Repairs

24.

What assessment he has made of the impact that the revision of the sixth VAT directive will have on church repairs. [107085]

As the hon. Lady knows, I led a delegation to the European Parliament on the subject of the sixth VAT directive in December. I have since discussed the matter with representatives of the European Parliament. The Church knows that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Treasury are committed to achieving the changes required to the directive to enable a permanent reduction in the rate of VAT charged on the repair and maintenance of listed places of worship.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that such a revision of the sixth VAT directive would have a very positive impact on church repairs, but we seem to be no closer to achieving it. Will he put a deadline on when such a revision might be achieved?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her persistent efforts in this area, and for keeping the issue on the boil. As she will be aware,

"the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small".
That might be equally true of the European Parliament in relation to the sixth VAT directive.

This is an issue of particular concern to members of one of the churches in my constituency, who have been extremely effective in raising money to repair its roof but are dependent on additional moneys. This issue, which seems to be making no advancement at all, is causing them grave concern. So far as my hon. Friend is aware, will the Government help such organisations to bridge the gap, if time is of the essence in tying up the additional funding that they might receive from other organisations?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for referring to a church in her constituency. As she is aware, the Chancellor reduced VAT on church repairs of listed buildings from 17.5 per cent. to 5 per cent. as a temporary measure. We are aware of and comforted by the fact that the Chancellor will continue that scheme until such time as the sixth VAT directive is passed. I will be grateful if my hon. Friend lets me know of any particular difficulties for her church in relation to those matters, and we will take them up personally.

Pensions

26.

Will he make a statement on pensions provision for the clergy. [107087]

Clergy in office receive a stipend and are housed. When they retire, they make their own housing provisions, but they receive a Church pension in addition to their state pension. The basis for determining the benefits provided by the Church—a lump sum at retirement plus a pension takes account of all those factors. The full service pension from 1 April 2003 is £11,013 per annum. The lump sum is £33,039.

What can the Church Commissioners do to reduce the proportion of retiring clergy who have to rely on means-tested state benefit and to improve pension provision for those clergy?

I am not entirely sure what we can do about those who wish to retire early, as that, if I may say so, is their God given right. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the clergy pension scheme is a defined benefit scheme. Many companies are switching to money purchase schemes that, in effect, switch risk to the employee. The Church has chosen not to do so, which highlights its commitment to adequate remuneration for retired clergy. We are also considering how we can increase the pensions for the clergy.