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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 405: debated on Monday 19 May 2003

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Culture, Media And Sport

The Secretary of State was asked

Iraq

1.

If she will make a statement about cultural objects recently stolen from Iraq. [113826]

The Government deplore the criminal looting and theft of Iraq's cultural heritage. The treasures belong to the Iraqi people and form a vital part of their democratic future. With other countries, we are engaged in a range of measures to safeguard against further theft, to see the return of stolen artefacts and to develop an international database of stolen items. We also support domestic legislation, introduced by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), to create a new criminal offence of dealing in stolen treasure.

I welcome that response, but the Secretary of State will be aware that the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, wrote in the New Statesman this week that he frantically telephoned No. 10, the Secretary of State for Defence and herself before the war to say that measures should be in place to protect Iraq's cultural heritage. He said that the response was nothing in particular and his calls did not lead to any action. Will the Secretary of State give the House an account of the response? Can we now have a co-ordinated worldwide effort to recover the artefacts? Has she spoken to her US counterpart about US citizens, including soldiers, who may have stolen these items? Could they be prosecuted under UK law?

I thank my hon. Friend for his continuing interest in this important issue. Having read the director's interview, rather than the authored piece in the New Statesman, I simply do not recognise the attributed comments from the many conversations that I have had with him, or from the collaboration with the Government that he has so fulsomely praised. Yes, there is an international effort to achieve the restitution of stolen artefacts, to repair the destroyed treasures and to support the Iraqi teams in Baghdad and other parts of the country to restore the cultural heritage. We are wholly committed to that purpose and we will do everything necessary to achieve it. As part of that effort, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary for undertaking to ensure that a new draft resolution under discussion includes proper protection, in the event of sanctions being lifted, for stolen and looted treasure.

In view of the heavy lobbying before the war by powerful organisations representing American collectors for what was euphemistically called a "less retentionist" policy towards treasures in Iraq—and given the vital importance of the treasures in rebuilding the Iraqi tourist industry after the war—what steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that we have a policy of 100 per cent. retention of Iraq's treasures, whether stolen or not?

I hope that the House can unite in affirming that artefacts from the Baghdad, Basra or Mosul museums are the property of the Iraqi people. Where, by whatever route, they have been removed from Iraq—either before or since the conflict—they should be returned. At the international level, action is being taken, particularly through UNESCO, to secure that outcome. Measures are being taken to produce a database of stolen artefacts, and we shall soon have in place domestic legislation that closes an outstanding loophole and makes dealing in stolen or looted artefacts a criminal offence.

What protest has the Secretary of State made to the US Administration about the way in which American troops burst into the great museum in Baghdad, making its contents a prey for looters, organised art thieves and—if precedents following the second world war and the invasion of Grenada are anything to go by—American troops? If that is George Bush's new world order, what hope is there for civilised values?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. In fact, the account of the events that led up to the looting of the Baghdad museum is slightly different from the account that he provides. The account by Donny George, the director of the Baghdad museum, sets out three material facts. First—it is worth recording this—something like 90 per cent. of the 170 artefacts taken from the museum were removed for safekeeping before the action started. Secondly, there was clear evidence of theft by organised criminal gangs of a number of the remaining treasures. Thirdly, of course, there was the despicable looting, and it will be for history to judge whether sufficient steps were taken to protect the museum during those critical days. We are now where we are, though, and I hope that the House will accept the assurances that I have given and the undertakings, given through UNESCO, that the world is united in its determination to repatriate stolen artefacts and to support the Iraqis in the restoration of their cultural heritage—a crucial part of a free Iraq in the future.

I welcome the steps that the Government have taken, and in particular the positive response to the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), but will the Secretary of State pursue further her dialogue with the Treasury about our Customs precautions? In particular, will she urge officials to contrast the steps being taken in America, where a lot of information is coming from the Government about the import or smuggling of cultural artefacts, with our own precautions, as it seems to be assumed that passengers are responsible for acquainting themselves with the regulations? More vigilance is needed.

We will pursue the case for vigilance in any areas where it is shown that loopholes still exist, and I have written to my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to raise precisely the importance of vigilance by Customs and Excise in the event of attempts to import stolen artefacts into this country. Similarly, the British Art Market Foundation and the trade organisations have promised their unstinting collaboration, but where loopholes exist we will seek to close them.

What is the truth or otherwise of reports that the 6,000-year-old ziggurat at Ur has been sprayed with paint? Is not the uncomfortable truth that, whereas British forces have been very disciplined, American forces have often behaved like yobs?

We are in the process of securing reports and feedback from those on the ground about what has happened, not only to Baghdad museum but to other museums and sacred sites. An official from my Department is already based in the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance to help to ensure that that co-operative assessment is undertaken. This is a matter of great concern to many in the House, and I will take all the steps that I can to ensure that, as more information becomes available, I keep the House informed.

I refer the House to my declaration in the Register of Members' Interests. The Secretary of State has talked about establishing a database. Given the fact that the ministerial advisory panel on illicit trade recommended, back in December 2000, that there should be such a database and given the fact that, in March 2001, that was accepted by the then Minister of State, does she not feel that her Department could have done something more between then and now? Can she assure the House that she has sufficient resources and the determination to see this through? Does she not believe that if she had done something earlier we could have done something to avoid this cultural catastrophe in the aftermath in Baghdad?

No, I do not think that the action that the hon. Gentleman outlines would have prevented what Neil MacGregor describes as a catastrophe in Baghdad. Yes, I think that more progress should have been made in establishing the domestic database to which he refers, but we are in negotiation with UNESCO and the other countries represented in UNESCO to secure the establishment of an international database. I simply reiterate that we have moved very fast, both domestically and with other countries, to take the necessary measures to safeguard the Iraqi treasures leaving Iraq and to ensure that we have the necessary mechanisms in place to maximise the chances of their being returned if they turn up here or in any other country that is a member of UNESCO.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a cross-party group of Back Benchers recently visited the British Museum to see some of the Iraqi treasures that it acquired at a period when the policy may have been less retentionist and that, during that visit, the director of the museum expressed particular concern about the lack of co-operation with UNESCO from the Americans in Iraq, especially their refusal to allow access to the site at Ur? Is UNESCO now being granted full access to all cultural sites in Iraq?

I am not aware of any obstacles to UNESCO's access, but as I said earlier, the situation is constantly developing as more facts become clear. I shall ensure that I keep the House informed of both problems and progress, as they occur.

Lottery Funding

2.

What proportion of lottery funding has been spent on projects and good causes in the constituency of Chesham and Amersham in each of the last five years; and if she will make a statement. [113827]

The following figures are the amounts awarded for the hon. Lady's constituency in each of the last five years. In 1999, the amount was £1.775 million; in 2000, it was £423,000; in 2001, £1.272 million; in 2002, £398,000; and in 2003, £380,000. That puts her constituency 134th from the bottom of the per capita table of constituencies.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but is he aware that smaller charities in Chesham and Amersham find increasingly that bureaucracy and the length of time that it takes to leap through the hoops set up by the various distributing bodies are a positive disincentive to applying for lottery funding? Will he consider our proposal, which would give a fair deal to smaller charities by allowing players to specify a local charity on their lottery ticket, or by turning it into a gift token that could be given to a local charity of the player's choice? I hope that the Secretary of State is giving the Minister the inspiration that he needs to answer my question.

I do not need inspiration, as it was my right hon. Friend's idea and we put it out for consultation some months ago. Indeed, we have pronounced on the matter on several occasions and we shall report to the House in due course. While I am on my feet, I can point out that the hon. Lady's constituents did far better under Labour than under the previous Administration; between 1995 and 1998, the figures were considerably lower.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's remarks, but does he accept that one of the problems is that people purchasing lottery tickets in Chesham and Amersham, as elsewhere, are losing confidence that the money for good causes will actually reach genuine good causes? Our proposal is that people should be able to indicate specific local charities, rather than the tick-box scheme that the Government were suggesting, so that people can have complete confidence that they know where the money is going. I hope that he will give that proposal some consideration.

We will give the proposal consideration, just as we have given consideration to the wide-ranging consultation and the responses to it. As I said, we shall report back, and I hope that hon. Members will engage in constructive debate. I think that all Members appreciate the institution of the lottery for the role that it plays, so I hope that we can have constructive dialogue and discussion about how to proceed when we make our report to the House.

Libraries

3.

What action she is taking to encourage public lending libraries to open at times suitable for (a) working people and (b) parents of school age children. [113828]

On 10 February, we published the first ever national strategy for public libraries, "Framework for the Future". The whole thrust of that strategy is that local authorities must ensure that they meet the needs of their local communities and that consultation takes place. Opening times are always a prime concern of users.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Norfolk county council has recently announced a package to increase access for working people at some libraries in the county, which is welcome. However, will he join me in condemning that same council for announcing the imminent closure of Bradwell parish council library, which will take away access not only for working people but for the elderly, the young and the disabled? Bradwell parish council has set up a steering committee in an attempt to reopen the library, but the county council appears constantly to be moving the goalposts. For example, the county council has informed us that it has removed not only the computers and books but the shelving, too, leaving the building an empty shell.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in making a last-minute plea—

I answered a similar question from my hon. Friend previously. I must repeat what I said then: the responsibility for the operations of libraries is with the local authority. We have looked at the case that he has raised, and it is not in contravention of its legal responsibilities. We are trying, however, through "Framework for the Future", to make sure that we can respond to the needs of his constituents and others in ensuring that the library service is flexible and meets their requirements. I hope that the county council will revisit its decision.

Does the Minister agree that public lending libraries now do a great deal more than lend books? Evesham public library, for example, is home to one of the Learn Direct centres, which is intended to help mothers of school age children who may wish to return to work and retrain. Against that background, will he do all that he can to ensure that county councils and other library authorities throughout the country understand the importance of offering the kind of hours that enable such people to attend?

I very much agree with what the hon. Gentleman says, which is absolutely true. Many local authorities have taken the opportunity offered by the ideas in "Framework for the Future" and are using them extremely creatively. For example, in Stockton-on-Tees, the library service is helping to break the cycle of offending by working with inmates and their families on reading skills. That is very important in enabling them to come back into society. A number of libraries are now opening on a Sunday, too, to fit in with the communities that they serve. Many good examples exist, and I hope that libraries examine those, as they are doing through the various professional bodies, so that we have not only libraries in the conventional sense but major resource centres for the communities that they serve.

Arts Funding

4.

What support her Department is giving to arts centres and theatres in smaller towns in the north-west. [113829]

My hon. Friend knows that this Government have done more to support the arts in this country than any of our predecessors. He also knows that Arts Council England North West will see its overall allocation increase from £20.8 million to £28.4 million by 2005–06, which is an increase of 37 per cent. That new money will benefit a wide range of artists, organisations and communities across the region, including those in Burnley.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does he accept, however, that it is important that not only big cities but small non-unitary authorities, such as Burnley, have arts centres and theatres? We find it difficult to preserve what we have: an excellent theatre, the Mechanics, and the Mid-Pennine Arts Centre. With small budgets, non-unitary authorities have extreme difficulties in that regard.

Yes, there is a problem, and it is often a problem of knowing how to frame bids and having the aspirations to bid in the first place. Knowing what support is available, and ensuring that the expertise exists to help excellent small theatres such as those in my hon. Friend's constituency to make those bids is a real problem, which we recognise. We are making sure that the organisation is aware of those deficiencies in some areas and that it does all that it can to help people to make those bids.

Will the Minister go further and share my concern that in many places, in small towns such as Macclesfield and Burnley and the surrounding areas of those towns, a huge wealth of artistic talent exists that is not able to display itself because of the lack of adequate theatres to put on amateur productions? Cannot the Government act directly, or through the lottery, to provide more funds for the establishment of adequate theatres, so that the United Kingdom can display its huge wealth of talent?

That was a passionate defence of some of the excellent theatres in the north-west. I remind the hon. Gentleman, however, that there has never been as much money for theatres, whether in the regions, in rural areas, in small towns or big cities, as is available at the moment. Combined with that is the fact that many of those theatre companies have recognised that they have a great task in trying to tap the talent, about which he has spoken so eloquently, in our schools and in our communities generally. That is where much of the money is being directed. It is not simply about being able to put on great performances in theatres, or even about the upkeep of the theatres themselves. It is also about trying to nurture that talent so that the next generation of actors, directors and writers can emerge. If we do not do that, we kill great theatre at birth.

Will my hon. Friend offer his full support to Friends of the Winter Gardens theatre in Morecambe, who have been campaigning for years to restore the town's theatre? Does he accept that it is important for a seaside resort to have a theatre? I know that he is aware of the Winter Gardens theatre, because he visited it when he visited Morecambe recently.

The theatre is a magnificent building and has been kept in that state mainly by the work of volunteers. I know that my hon. Friend has been active in that respect. The theatre is also in a unique position, with a magnificent view across to Lakeland. Nevertheless, all funding agencies have to be extremely careful about the allocation of large amounts of capital money, in view of the record of buildings being financed in the absence of plans to build up audiences and make performances sustainable. If the theatre in Morecambe could be rejuvenated in every sense, it could be one of the great attractions of a town that has been one of the north-west's great resorts over the years. I know that my hon. Friend is speaking to a great many people about how it can be part of a more holistic approach to redeveloping that resort, which she has the privilege to represent.

Licensed Premises (Children)

5.

What recent discussions she has had with child welfare organisations about children's access to licensed premises. [113830]

In March I convened two meetings with children's organisations, including the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Children's Society, and the police, to discuss children's access to licensed premises and the implications of the Licensing Bill. Officials from my Department held a further meeting with the relevant organisations. The outcome of those meetings was an agreed way forward on an issue that everybody regards as sensitive. That is reflected in the Bill as currently drafted, and also in the statutory guidance that will accompany the Bill. In practical and effective form, it achieves a means of protecting children from harm—one of the four key objectives of the Licensing Bill.

Traditionally, many political and social clubs, including Labour clubs in my constituency, welcome families with children on Sundays. I am sure my right hon. Friend knows that some of those clubs are in financial difficulty. Is she aware that the statement that she has just made will be welcomed by those clubs if it means that that tradition is not in jeopardy?

I can assure my hon. Friend that that tradition is not in jeopardy. It would be extraordinarily unlikely that, for any pub or club where there have not been any problems in the past, there would be any greater restriction on the terms of licensing in the future. I hope that he will be reassured by that.

As a modern and socially liberal Tory, may I put it to the right hon. Lady that it is modernisation and social liberalism taken to absurd lengths to suppose that children should be allowed to enter licensed premises entirely unsupervised?

I think that the hon. Gentleman is making a long journey to cross the Floor of the Chamber. He will be welcome on the Government Benches whenever he chooses to join us.

It seems that the hon. Gentleman misunderstands the present situation. Any child of five or over can enter, unsupervised, any licensed premises as long as that child does not go into the bar area. Some of the absurdities of the existing regime that we are seeking to address include, for instance, the circumstance where a young child can go unsupervised into a pub and then be bought by an adult a gin and tonic, a whisky, or anything else that would be unsuitable to be consumed by a young child. Such instances do not happen more often because at present, and in future, admission of children into a pub is at the licensee's discretion.

We have worked hard with children's charities and with the police to develop the right sort of statutory framework that addresses the need for different approaches in different circumstances. There needs to be a different regime to protect children in pubs or clubs in the middle of Soho, as opposed to children who may live next door to a country pub. The regime that we have proposed reflects precisely that discretion and that flexibility.

In the Licensing Bill as it stands, and as the Secretary of State has said, the presumption is in favour of allowing children of any age unaccompanied access to licensed premises unless the licensee is either unwilling or unable to guarantee their protection from harm. Should it not be the other way round?

The hon. Gentleman must understand that in the licence application the licensee must make it clear how he will protect children if they come into his pub or other licensed premises. In the statutory guidance, as I have already stated, we have proposed four different sorts of premises, ranging from those where there should be a presumption by the licensing authority that unsupervised children will not be allowed access, to those where there is an expectation that children will be welcome. It is precisely that sort of flexible approach that will ensure that children are properly protected.

Press Complaints Commission

6.

If she will make a statement on her meeting with the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission to discuss its work. [113831]

I met Sir Christopher Meyer, the new chairman of the PCC, on 7 April, and we discussed a number of ways in which the PCC might improve self-regulation. Sir Christopher has recently announced a list of eight proposals, which I am glad to say broadly concur with the issues that we discussed, including areas for reform. He has made clear his open-mindedness on the case for reform and his wish to canvass opinion on that and other suggested areas for improvement.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the efforts that she has made. Did she tell Sir Christopher that the PCC will continue to fail to inspire public confidence until such time as it changes the committee that writes the code so that we no longer have it made up of 100 per cent. newspaper employees? Secondly, does she agree that the commission should develop a proactive stance so that members of the public can begin to have a reasonable expectation that what they read in news columns will have at least some accuracy and some impartiality, with creative literature being kept to the comment columns?

I thank my hon. Friend and pay tribute to him for his staunch and long-standing defence of press freedom, and for the way in which he has campaigned over many years.

My discussion with Sir Christopher Meyer was broadly in the terms that my hon. Friend suggests. It took place within a context that recognises clearly that self-regulation is just that. The Government have no intention of seeking to interfere with the self-regulation of the press—that is a matter for the press—but in parallel with that, as my hon. Friend describes, is the importance of public confidence and trust in self-regulation. Sir Christopher took both those points seriously.

Creative Partnerships Scheme

7.

What plans she has to extend the creative partnerships scheme. [113832]

The creative partnerships programme is giving children and teachers in 16 pilot areas in England the opportunity to develop their creative talents by working on sustained projects with creative professionals. The programme has been warmly welcomed both by schools and the cultural community, and more areas are eager to join in. We have pledged to double the size of the programme by 2006, and investment in creative partnerships is set to grow from £25 million in the current year to about £50 million in 2005–06.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. As he knows, Barnsley is at the forefront in putting creativity at the very centre of the educational experience for children. May I very quickly tell him about three projects in my constituency? At Worsborough primary school, children are designing a learning environment extending from the classroom to the playground; at Hoyland, children are working with the Barnsley performing arts department to increase and improve communication; and at Springvale in Penistone, a multi-faceted approach has been taken in which children are working with film, sculpture and storytelling to explore the ideas and life of a man called Saunders, a 17th century mathematician from the area. That clearly shows that creativity at the centre of educational experience is worth while. Will my hon. Friend therefore work with the Department for Education and Skills to ensure that creativity is bedded down in the curriculum so that it can give all children the benefit of such experience?

I am glad to hear that my hon. Friend is so enthusiastic about those projects, which are very important. I heard some sneers from the Opposition Benches as he spoke, but the creative industries in this country are responsible for hundreds of thousands of jobs and for earning billions of pounds of revenue. Opposition Members might sneer at that because they are living in the 19th century, not the 20th century. [HON. MEMBERS: "21st."] We are in the 21st century; they are not even in the 20th. Like my constituency, Barnsley has suffered enormously as a result of the decline of heavy industry, but is rebuilding its own future. It is doing much of that on the basis of creative industries. I congratulate teachers, pupils and parents in his constituency on embracing this great programme and taking it forward very successfully.

What about some lessons in creative brevity?

I was waiting for somebody to say that, but I did not think that it would be the hon. Gentleman. The cheap cracks are always the ones that get into the news, and I expect that that is why he made that one.

Bearing in mind the success of Barnsley, will my hon. Friend consider rolling out the project to areas such as Bassetlaw, which are crying out to redress the balance in terms of the lack of creative input in schools over recent decades and could happily mirror the brilliant success of the partnership in Barnsley?

I have no doubt that the brilliance of Yorkshire will carry that success forward out of Barnsley and into Bassetlaw.

Olympic Games

8.

If she will make a statement on the Government's policy on a London bid for the Olympic games. [113833]

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I made a statement to the House last Thursday announcing the Government's wholehearted backing for an Olympic bid to bring the games to London in 2012.

I welcome that and I think that we are all looking forward to a successful Olympic bid, but there will be huge opportunities across the rest of Britain, as countries competing in the Olympics will need training camps. What will the Secretary of State do to ensure that those camps are spread across the UK? May I recommend Herefordshire and Worcestershire as excellent places where they may be situated?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Had he been in the House for my statement last Thursday, he would have heard me say that we want the whole country to benefit from the Olympics. One of the practical ways in which the whole country can benefit is to locate training camps in different parts of the United Kingdom for athletes before the games, which will benefit their communities afterwards.

May I inform my right hon. Friend that not all Members are jumping for joy at the idea of an Olympic bid? Many of us are concerned that areas such as the north-west will lose out because of the bid, so can she assure me that sports funding will be maintained in those regions during the course of the bid?

The opinion polling that the Government undertook before announcing the Olympic bid showed a wide measure of support, including in the north-west, for bidding for the Olympics. However, my hon. Friend has underlined the important point that although the games would be held in London they must be games for the whole United Kingdom. That is why, in our costing of the Olympics, we took care to ensure that, in addition to the development of elite facilities in London, all parts of the country would benefit from facilities for their grass-roots sports.

May I reiterate the support of the Conservative party for the bid? Can the Secretary of State say anything further about the cross-party ministerial group that I suggested to her some weeks ago? Is she prepared to authorise briefings to shadow Ministers about the bid, and when does she expect to introduce legislation specifically to provide for a new lottery game? If the House gave its support to such a game, that would demonstrate to the country and the world at large that our bid is a serious one.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We will introduce at the earliest opportunity legislation for a new lottery game, some details of which Camelot have announced today. The hon. Gentleman or one of his hon. Friends raised the issue of a cross-ministerial group with me on Thursday but I am sure that he accepts that in the intervening three days I have had a heavy reading load, provided by the Treasury, of 18 studies on the euro. However, as a matter of priority, I shall certainly turn my attention to the important issue of ensuring that cross-party support for the Olympic bid is maintained as much as possible.

I am delighted that we are going ahead with the bid, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her decision. Given that we have the only royal harbour in the country and also have expertise in hosting world championship sailing events, can she assure me that she has already pencilled in Ramsgate for the sailing?

In the event that the Secretary of State has not yet done that, how will decisions be made about the ancillary events? Will that be done behind closed doors or will there be an opportunity for the public to express their own ideas and for local communities to make bids?

I thank my hon. Friend, and am struck by the number of hon. Members who have world-class sailing facilities in their constituencies. I am sure that my hon. Friend will ensure that the facilities in his constituency are considered, when the time comes, as part of the array of Olympic facilities that will have to be put in place. He made an important point about the transparency of decisions, which will be an important part of ensuring that the games are not just for London but involve the constituents of right hon. and hon. Members across the country.

Libraries

9.

What plans she has for improvements in library services. [113834]

I note in passing that my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) asks that the sailing should be in the royal docks.

We want to help library services transform themselves to meet the needs of the public and prospective users in the 21st century. Many public libraries are developing new ideas and offer an excellent service. As I said earlier, we want to spread good practice. Public libraries now offer computer and internet access for everyone, and are ideally placed to help deliver improvements in reading and other skills. As I said when answering an earlier question, they can be major resource centres for the communities in which they are located.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. I acknowledge the progress that has been made, especially in providing internet access, but coming as I do from a town that had one of the first public libraries in the country, I still believe that libraries are primarily about books. Does he agree that owing to years of underinvestment, most of the book stock is in a very dilapidated and unattractive condition? What can be done to encourage more investment in providing a good book stock in libraries to encourage all the people who are attracted in to do more reading?

It is up to local authorities to dispense the moneys that are available. Some £780 million is invested annually into our library service, and it is incumbent on local authorities to make judgments on where that money should go. I accept what my hon. Friend says. However, within the resources that they have available, some libraries are trying to ensure that they present a first-class service—for example, by using the internet and other developments to access books that are out of publication. As I say, three-quarters of a billion pounds annually is invested into our library service.

Church Commissioners

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

Redundant Churches

21.

How many redundant churches there are in the Greater London area. [113816]

Since 1969, a total of 131 churches have been declared redundant in the diocese of London, 72 in the diocese of Southwark, 27 in the diocese of Chelmsford and five in the diocese of Rochester.

I note my hon. Friend's reply. In many parts of London—certainly in my constituency—there are religious groups that are extremely popular within our communities, but the sad fact is that it is often very difficult for them to find suitable premises to follow their beliefs and to develop their congregations. Will my hon. Friend stress to the Church Commissioners that instead of letting empty and redundant churches stay in that condition for long periods, they should offer them to our religious groups? That would be greatly appreciated by those groups, by their local communities and most certainly by the local Members of Parliament.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He will be happy to know that more than 900 former churches have been found new uses. More than two-thirds of those continue to serve the community by providing facilities for worship, social facilities, educational opportunities or low-cost housing. Uses by another Christian body or for wider community purposes are generally regarded as the most suitable. I shall be happy to consider whether we can be helpful in that respect in my hon. Friend's constituency.

Employment Tribunals

22.

If he will make a statement about the use of employment tribunals for clergy. [113817]

At present, the jurisdiction of employment tribunals does not apply to the majority of clergy, because they have the status of office holders in law and are not employees.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that reply. Can he give me an assurance that employment tribunals will not get dragged into ruling on doctrinal matters in disputes between clergy and churches? Can he also assure me that clergy will not have to stay in parishes where there has been a clear case of pastoral breakdown, which would be inappropriate both for the parish and for the clergy concerned?

The question of pastoral breakdown is probably not for the Church Commissioners, but I shall refer the hon. Gentleman's question and view to the Archbishops Council. On the point about employment tribunals and any review of employment law, the Employment Appeal Tribunal and the Court of Appeal took the view in the past that clergy were ecclesiastical office holders, not employees. We welcome the review under the auspices of the Department of Trade and Industry. The cure of souls in parishes and employment rights are not mutually exclusive, and the Church will do what it can to bring the two together.

Employment tribunals are only one aspect of the Employment Rights Act 1996 that does not apply to the clergy. Many hon. Members believe that that should be corrected as soon as possible. When is the McClean committee, which the Archbishops Council set up, likely to report? Will the hon. Gentleman accept that many of us would like it to be soon?

My hon. Friend knows that I pay close attention to those matters. I also take account of the campaign that he has maintained since 1997. The McClean committee will provide its conclusions soon; it has already been made a submission to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. I am confident that we will reach some conclusions that take into account the unique role of a parish priest and employment rights and tribunals.

I welcome my hon. Friend's answer. Does he agree that an excessively rigid contractual relationship for the clergy could damage the sense of vocation and duty that is so important to many ministers?

That is certainly the case, and the Church is dealing with that problem through its review group and subsequently the Department of Trade and Industry.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Turnout

24.

What recent representations the Electoral Commission has received on voter turnout at elections. [113819]

In conducting its statutory reviews of the conduct and administration of elections, the commission has received representations from a range of organisations, academics and individuals on turnout and what might be done to improve it.

Is the hon. Gentleman and the commission aware that on Wednesday, the Hansard Society is holding a seminar to examine the difference in attitudes between people who are interested in politics but do not watch "Big Brother" and those who watch "Big Brother" but have no interest in politics to ascertain whether there are any lessons on turnout in the fact that fewer people voted in the recent local elections than in many reality TV game shows? Do the Electoral Commission or the hon. Gentleman have any views on whether we have anything to learn from reality TV game shows in trying to improve turnout in elections?

An interesting question. In its statutory report on the 2001 general election, in which it tried to learn lessons from the turnout, the commission presented the view that the main responsibility for persuading the public of the relevance of voting must rest with politicians. They must make it interesting and attractive for individuals to vote.

Before we follow the route of reality TV shows, in which one can vote once or 100 times for the same contestant, can we consider improving voter turnout through more traditional means, including postal votes and holding elections on other days such as Saturdays and Sundays and siting polling stations in non-traditional places such as supermarkets? Surely that would help improve the turnout, which was low in the recent Welsh Assembly elections.

Indeed, the purpose of the pilots that took place in local government elections is to test the way in which different voting systems can encourage turnout and thereby participation. The commission believes that changes in process have a role in making voting more convenient. However, it is important to be realistic about what that can achieve on turnout, given that many other factors have an impact on that.

Will the hon. Gentleman draw to the Electoral Commission's attention the experiment in Chester-le-Street and Derwentside in the recent local elections? Turnout increased by 20 per cent. through a postal ballot. An experiment in electronic counting meant that the count was covered in less than half an hour. Will the hon. Gentleman ensure that the Electoral Commission evaluates the experiments?

The Electoral Commission will present its conclusions on the pilots that were held in the May elections. It will publish the results on 31 July.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the integrity of the electoral process is even more important than the turnout, and will he bear in mind that large-scale postal voting is open to abuse?

Obviously the risk of abuse is one factor that the commission takes into account, but there has been no evidence of widespread abuse.

Postal Voting

25.

What comparative research has been commissioned by the Electoral Commission on the levels of postal voting in (a) local and (b) parliamentary elections (i) in this country and (ii) overseas. [113821]

The commission has examined levels of postal voting at local and parliamentary elections, and its report "Absent voting in Great Britain" was published in March. A copy has been placed in the Library. No detailed research into comparisons with overseas levels of postal voting has been undertaken, partly because the legal framework of postal voting varies significantly between countries.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that since the publication of that report in March the May local elections have shown a dramatic increase in turnout, from around 30 per cent. to 50 per cent. in areas with all-postal ballots—including Derwentside, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones)?

Although the level of postal voting has nearly doubled, from about 4 per cent. to 8 per cent., there is scope for a far greater increase—in some countries it is over 30 per cent.—through the simple expedient of allowing people to vote wherever they are in the country on polling day, at a local post office.

The hon. Gentleman has made some good points. There has been a significant increase in the uptake of postal voting since it first became available in Great Britain early in 2001. At the 2001 general election, the number of postal votes issued was almost double the number issued at the 1997 election, as the hon. Gentleman said—rising from less than 1 million to more than 1.75 million. At the 2002 local elections some 7.7 per cent. of the electorate cast their votes by post. That is almost double the proportion of such votes in England in the 2001 general election, and probably three times the proportion at the previous local elections.

I unreservedly welcome the greater availability of postal voting, but will the commission bear in mind that all postal ballots deny the electorate the opportunity to choose how to convey their votes? Some will want the privacy that they may not necessarily have in their own homes. Can my hon. Friend assure us that the commission will not just take account of a higher turnout?

I am confident that the commission will bear that in mind. A number of factors are involved: for instance, any move to all-postal voting would no doubt change the pace of a general election, which would no longer reach a climax at the end of the campaign.

I hope the Electoral Commission will not go over the top with postal voting. There should be as common a system as possible in the United Kingdom, but in Northern Ireland, because of fraud problems, there has been a move towards photo-identity cards at polling stations. Should that not be taken into account within the general pattern?

Indeed. Let me repeat the timing of the Electoral Commission's plans. It will produce its report on the local election pilots on 31 July. That will give the House, and all who are interested, an opportunity to consider carefully whether it is appropriate to table the primary legislation that will be needed if changes are to be made.

Can my hon. Friend assure us—or, if that is not possible, pass the question to the appropriate quarters—that come the next general election, whatever method or process is used will be uniform throughout the 659 parliamentary divisions in the United Kingdom?

Parliamentary Constituencies

26.

What plans the Commission has to discuss with the boundary commissions the population sizes of parliamentary constituencies. [113822]

None, because, as the hon. Gentleman will know, the commission has no responsibility for the matter at present. Section 16 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 provides for the transfer of the boundary commissions' functions to the commission, but those provisions have not yet been implemented.

The commission will eventually have this power, though. We should look forward 10 years. Is it not about time that—in the review that follows what is now being enacted—we did away with the disproportionate effect that the geographical criterion has on our constituency boundaries? Surely there should be just one commission for the United Kingdom, rather than four for the four nations. How can we justify the existence of constituencies with 100,000 voters along with others with only 21,000 or 33,000? Surely everyone's vote should be of equal value in the ballot box. We really should not have the disparities that are caused by some spurious geographical consideration. If a person represents a large area, he should be given more sledge teams and dogs.

Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could apply for an Adjournment debate.

As I have already explained, the Electoral Commission currently has no responsibility in this field, but that did not prevent the hon. Gentleman from making his point forcefully in his usual way.

On the population of constituencies, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the identification of constituency boundaries is most important, so that the electorate can identify with certain boundaries and therefore take a greater interest in the activity of the constituency in question? Does he therefore accept that the Boundary Commission should take greater cognisance of constituency boundaries when reviewing constituencies?

The hon. Gentleman has expressed his point of view on this issue before, and I know that we all very much value the cohesion of the areas that we represent.

Church Commissioners

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

Church Repairs (Vat)

27.

What recent discussions the Commissioners have had with the Government on revision of the sixth VAT directive. [113823]

As the hon. Lady knows, we have made a detailed submission via the Churches Main Committee to the European Commission and we have had briefings with interested MPs, MEPs and EU officials.

Could the hon. Gentleman possibly move things along a little further, because, as yet, we have had no decision? As he has explained, the churches are being put off by the mountain of bureaucratic paperwork involved in applying for the grants relating to this measure. Will he please press the Chancellor to act quickly to reduce VAT on church repairs?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady's tenacity. All I can say is that, if the European Commission had such tenacity, we would be further along the road than we are now.