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Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): I am advised by the Electoral Commission that it has received numerous representations suggesting how participation in elections might be increased from a broad range of individuals and organisations.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. Does he share my deep concern about the low turnout that we may experience in the European and local elections that are to be held on 10 June? Does he also share my concern about the potential for misuse, manipulation and corruption through postal balloting? What is the Electoral Commission going to do to protect us from manipulation of the postal ballots?
Mr. Viggers: The expansion of postal voting since 2000 has allowed large numbers of voters to participate in elections at a time that is convenient for them, but my hon. Friend is right to focus on safeguards. In its publication "The Shape of Elections to Come", the Electoral Commission set out a range of measures that it believes should be implemented. Some of those measures have been introduced, but others have not, including the key proposal of individual registration of voters.
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): Increased participation in absolute terms, if not percentage terms, could be improved by electoral registration, which was the last point that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. What is the Electoral Commission doing to increase registration to overcome the problems? Perhaps it could extend the provisions on rolling registration, which the Government introduced in 2000.
It is the view of the Electoral Commission that individual registration and ensuring
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that the register of voters is accurate are key to our democracy. As I said, the key point in the view of the Electoral Commission is individual registration, but the hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, and it will be noted.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Has the hon. Gentleman had the opportunity to read the seventh report of the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning and Local Government, which investigated postal voting? The report, which would have been valuable to the House during its consideration of the recent Bill introducing all-postal pilots, makes some very good suggestions for countering fraud, including not only individual voter registration, which he mentioned, but increased resources for electoral officers, the establishment of a national database and dissemination to police forces of information on electoral offences. Can the Electoral Commission now work with the Select Committee to develop those recommendations and, it is to be hoped, to persuade the Government to introduce them?
Mr. Viggers: Yes, the Electoral Commission believes that the Select Committee report is indeed valuable. As for the commission's own activities, following consultation with returning officers and political parties, it has recently released a draft code of conduct for candidates and party workers relating to postal voting. The code will be finalised later this year, following assessment of its use in the June elections.
Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): All the Church Commissioners' investments are managed according to their statutory responsibility to ensure the best long-term return from a diversified investment portfolio.
Sir Sydney Chapman : I am grateful to the Second Church Estates Commissioner for that policy statement, but in relation to developing the estates, can he give some specific examples to show what part the commissioners are playing in improving the housing stock of this country by their policy?
Sir Stuart Bell:
Middleton house in Pimlico was upgraded and repaired in April 2003, and part of the Waterloo estate was completed in March this year. Work in Vauxhall began last autumn. Work differs between the estates, but, generally, the work that we carry out involves new or repaired roofs, windows,
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external repairs and improved communal areas. Some £19 million has been spent or committed to those three estates, and there is other ongoing work.
25. Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): If he will ask the commission to take steps to ensure that as part of the current boundary review process, all parliamentary constituencies are as near to 70,000 constituents as possible. 
Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): The Electoral Commission does not have any responsibility for the process of reviewing parliamentary constituency boundaries. Section 16 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 provides for the function to be transferred from the respective boundary commissions to the Electoral Commission, but this provision has not yet been implemented.
In view of the statutory duty of the boundary commission to ensure that all parliamentary constituencies are as near to 70,000 people as possible, can my hon. Friend explain how the playing field has become totally lopsided, and why 48 per cent. of parliamentary seats are either below 65,000 people or above 75,000? Is this a matter that he could take up with
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the boundary commission? Does he think that it is a coincidence that 43 per cent. of all the seats with fewer than 65,000 people are held by Labour incumbents?
Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the Church Commissioners' website is part of a Church of England family of sites, which currently receives some 3 million hits a month.
Mr. Key : I look forward to hearing that that figure has jumped to 6 million, because the Church of England lags some way behind other churches in this respect. I hope not only that adequate resources will be provided centrally for the Church Commissioners' website, but that every encouragement will be given to all dioceses to use their websites much more effectively than at present.
Sir Stuart Bell: The hon. Gentleman makes an encouraging suggestion. I can tell him that the commissioners' website continues to develop. In 2003, guidance on the commissioners' residential lettings policy and available properties was added. I shall carry the hon. Gentleman's recommendation back to the Church, and I hope that he will see something exciting and interesting in the months to come.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): Right hon. and hon. Members will be aware of the incident that took place in Iraq today. I am sure that they will understand that since the families of those involved are in the process of being informed, I cannot add any detail to the Foreign Secretary's statement in Brussels earlier today. However, I am sure that the House will join me in extending our condolences to the families of the two individuals who were killed and our best wishes for a speedy recovery to the person who was injured. British civilians are doing a valuable job in bringing stability to Iraq, and it is deeply shocking that they should be attacked in this way by the enemies of peace and democracy.
In the armed forces personnel debate on 13 May, I informed the House that I intended shortly to make a statement in response to the report of the Surrey police into the four tragic deaths at Princess Royal barracks, which was published on 5 March this year. I am grateful for this opportunity to do so.
It weighs heavily with me as to why we are here today. Between 1995 and 2002, four young people died tragically before their time. For the families of Privates Sean Benton, Cheryl James, Geoff Gray and James Collinson, these have been long and difficult years. I recognise that I cannot experience their grief, but I understand it and again pass my condolences on to them. The Army shares their sorrow. I also recognise that in some respects the families have not been as well treated as they should have been. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has apologised unreservedly for those failings, and I repeat these sentiments today.
I am grateful to the chief constable of the Surrey police for his report, which made the clear recommendation that the Ministry of Defence should consider a broader investigation into first, whether the risks identified at Deepcut are replicated across the wider Army Training and Recruiting Agency and how those may relate to the issues of self-harm, suicide and undetermined deaths; secondly, how the Army's care regime may be improved further; and thirdly, how independent oversight might help the Army to define and maintain appropriate standards of care for young soldiers.
"if Army systems of accountability continue to be developed, then systemic and cultural change may be achieved and sustained."
That refers to the report by the deputy Adjutant General and the creation of the Army learning accounta systematic mechanism to learn and apply lessons that was put in place in 2002 following the tragic death of Private Collinson. In addition, on 3 October 2002, I commissioned the director of operational capability to conduct an audit of initial training across the armed forces. That was a hard-hitting, cross-cutting report that generated rigorous self-examination and was followed by a reappraisal last summer.
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Those reports generated a comprehensive action plan against which progress could be measured. I can report that of the 58 recommendations, 48 are implemented and progressing satisfactorily and the remaining 10 are being addressed. They include improvements in staff to trainee ratios and improved welfare facilities. As right hon. and hon. Members will be aware, both those documents have been placed in the Library, as will be the report of the further re-appraisal planned for the autumn.
That commitment to improvement continues. I can announce today that I have committed further investment of more than £23 million to the training system. That will provide further instructor training, further improvement of supervisory ratios and increased opportunities for the use of recreational facilities and other welfare projects.
I believe that the work put in train as a result of the director of operational capability's appraisals and the deputy Adjutant General's report through the Army learning account, of which 25 of 26 actions have been completed, is significant. The publication of those reports and the supporting papers to the Surrey police report reflect our commitment to openness, improvement and accountability in the delivery of initial training across the armed forces.
The calls for a broader inquiry and independent oversight are difficult issues that I have had to consider carefully. The armed forces are rightly renowned for their ability. The performance of our servicemen and women in the most demanding operational situations is ample evidence of that. Such performance rests on rigorous training, which encourages character development, the acceptance of responsibility, discipline and the determination to succeed in adversity. However, I also recognise the need for public reassurance that the training is properly conducted and that the young men and women who join our armed forces are properly supported during that formative stage in their lives.
For that reason, we have decided to appoint the adult learning inspectoratethe ALIto conduct independent inspection and oversight of the armed forces' training establishments. As hon. Members know, the ALI has a statutory responsibility to examine and report on the quality of education and training for adults and young people. It is entirely independent of the Ministry of Defence and is a widely respected body.
A memorandum of understanding will be drawn up with the ALI for an annual rolling programme of independent inspections to include the initial training establishments. The first inspection will begin in the autumn this year. I have asked for the first inspection to focus on initial training across all three services and to look specifically at care and welfare. It will include Deepcut. There will be no no-go areas. The inspectorate will report to Ministers by Easter next year and that report will be published. That will be followed by a rolling programme of inspections, which will cover all aspects of service training, including initial training and the environment in which it is conducted. It will include delivery of the training as well as the care and welfare of trainees. For the first time, all aspects of our training will be benchmarked against national standards and good practice. This will help reduce risks faced by young trainees not only in the Army but in all three services.
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We must ensure that improvements are sustained. The ALI's recommendations will be tracked centrally in the Ministry of Defence. The inspectorate will be empowered to revisit areas to check on implementation of agreed recommendations and to ensure that progress is maintained. Throughout the process, its staff will have direct access to me if they have concerns that their recommendations are not being properly considered.
I believe that the ALI's involvement will enable us to build substantially on the work that we have already done, ensure continued and sustained improvements and enhance the transparency of what we are doing. It will complement the quality training provided by the armed forces and provide wider reassurance. It represents a positive and prompt response to the Surrey police recommendations.
I am aware also of the calls by the families and others for a public inquiry into the four deaths. I understand why the families and others feel strongly about a public inquiry, but we need to be clear about what a public inquiry would seek to achieve. I recognise that the families want to know exactly what happened to their loved ones and why.
In the first three cases, there have been investigations, coroner's inquests and subsequent intensive police reinvestigations. The Surrey police found no evidence to indicate any prospect of a prosecution directly related to the deaths. Private James Collinson's case, from the start the subject of an investigation by the Surrey police, has yet to be heard by the coroner. The coroner's inquiry will be held in public and is the proper place to examine the circumstances of sudden deaths.
The courts have made it clear that the coroner can and should make sure that the jury reaches a conclusion on all the central issues of a case and that the court considers relevant wider factors. We will of course co-operate fully in the forthcoming inquest, as we have done with other inquests.
I have weighed all these factors carefully. I do not underestimate the depth of feeling and the passion of the families who lost loved ones at Deepcut, but I am not persuaded, given the intensive investigations and inquiries, and the new measures that I have put in place, of what more a public inquiry would achieve. I know that this will be disappointing to the families but I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will recognise the openness and robustness of the approach that I am reporting to the House today.
I have made no secret of the fact that improvement was needed in the initial training regime, and we have now given the initial training system across all three services a thorough audit and overhaul. The audit led to substantive, sustained measures to improve it. With the closer engagement of the adult learning inspectorate, further audits will take place. This will ensure accountability and external oversight for the future. We have the finest armed forces, and they consistently act as a force for good in the world. The bravery and achievement of our service people on operations is testament to that. That would not be the case if the system that trained them was fundamentally flawedquite the reverse. The gallantry shown by our personnel on operations bears testament to the underlying quality
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of the people we recruit, of the training that they receive and of those who provide the training. Like all large systems, this one needs improvement and regular maintenance, and I am determined that it will receive both.
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