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25. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering)
(Con): What assessment the Electoral Commission has made of the likely impact on voter turnout of the process of planning for the 2007 local authority elections. 
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Peter Viggers (Gosport) : The Commission advises me that it has undertaken no such assessment and has no plans to do so. However, research into public attitudes to voting at this year's local elections in England is planned as part of the commission's ongoing research programme on public participation.
Mr. Hollobone: Does my hon. Friend share my concern, and will he convey my concern to the commission, that the Government's enthusiasm for the imminent reorganisation of local government could well impact on the electoral turnout in the 2007 elections if people are under the misapprehension that their vote will not be important because the authorities will not be around for that much longer?
Peter Viggers: Individuals would indeed be under a misapprehension if they thought that the Government had said that they intended to cancel the local government elections scheduled for 2007, as they have said no such thing. Decisions on local government governance are primarily a matter for the Government, although under current legislation the Secretary of State must seek the commission's advice before changing the structure of local government in any particular two-tier area.
Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I am pleased to note that Liverpool has been identified as one of the areas where the Electoral Commission will conduct a pilot study to encourage voter turnout. Will that work include engaging with local communities?
Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman share with the commission my view that a key reason for low turnout in local elections is the fact that many people do not believe that local councils have the power to address local needs, because a high proportion of the money spent by local councils comes from central Government with strings attached? Would it not be better if we increased the proportion of money spent and raised locally with a corresponding reduction in national income tax?
Peter Viggers: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point in his own way, but it would not be appropriate for me to enter into dialogue with him on the subject. However, he will agree that local government does indeed have considerable decision-making capacity, and I urge him to encourage others to vote in local government elections.
Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): May I ask the hon. Gentleman to ask the Electoral Commission to look at the reduction in the number of polling stations up and down the country over the years, as it could be a factor contributing to low turnouts, particularly at local elections?
The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): Seventy-four churches have been declared redundant in the last three years. The underlying annual figure for church closures is 25 to 30 and we have no evidence to suggest that the number of church closures in 2006 will exceed the norm.
Mr. Bone: Does the hon. Gentleman share the concern that I feel every time I see a church that is now a café or an office or, even worse, derelict? Will the Church Commissioners use every endeavour to save as many churches as possible?
Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It is always a matter of sadness when a church closes butI accept that the hon. Gentleman's question does not go as wide as thismany churches are opening. He may have an interest in St. Barnabas, Peterborough, which is an unlisted church that was closed two years ago. The city council proposes to acquire the building and curtilage for a wide variety of civic and community uses. The redundancy scheme providing for that was made yesterday, and we hope to complete the sale by the end of the month.
Peter Viggers (Gosport)
: The commission informs me that as the next general election approaches, it will again run a dedicated public awareness campaign to encourage eligible overseas residents to participate. The number of overseas voters registered doubled between 2004 and 2005, but I must add that the numbers registered remain extremely small.
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Mr. Evans: Is not the fact that the number remains extremely small part of the problem? Helena Kennedy produced a report last week on the need to encourage more people to vote and, indeed, suggested lowering the age of eligibility to 16. Millions of people, however, are eligible to vote but do not know that they are, so we ought to spread the word now to encourage people to register. Indeed, we should make it far easier for people who are eligible to complete the process of registration.
Peter Viggers: There are some 15 million British citizens overseas, of whom a considerable number are eligible to register as they have lived overseas for fewer than 15 years. There are 45 constituencies without any overseas registered voters at all, but there are four overseas voters registered in the Ribble Valley constituency. If I were the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton), with a majority of 163, I would contemplate the fact that 150 overseas voters are registered in that constituency. Individual Members may wish to take those facts and figures into account.
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): Could the Commission advise Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions to tell British citizens overseas with whom they are in contact that they can register?
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other bodies have been assiduous. They have produced an overseas voter leaflet and distributed it in conjunction with the FCO, they have advertised in newspapers read by British citizens overseas, there has been public relations activity and information has been provided online, but I shall certainly consider the point raised by my hon. Friend.
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The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): The Church is a diverse body and much of the work on marriage preparation and support is provided through organisations and clergy and laity throughout the land. The Church nationally funds a marriage and family life adviser.
Andrew Selous: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that answer, and I particularly commend the support that I have received from the diocese of St. Albans and my own bishop, the Bishop of Bedford, in this important area, but can the hon. Gentleman tell the House what proportion of funding and what importance centrally the Church places on this aspect of its work?
Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The figures are not to hand, but I shall be glad to send them to him. I have, however, read with interest about the launch of a community marriage policy in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. His search for local volunteers to act as a couples mentor is welcomed, and he will know that he can find thousands of such mentors in the form of parish priests across the country.
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