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Electoral Commission Committee

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

Unregistered Voters

4. Ann McKechin (Glasgow North) (Lab): What discussions the Electoral Commission plans to hold with electoral registration officers in Scotland on the conclusions of its recent report on unregistered voters. [3390]

Mr Gary Streeter (South West Devon): The Electoral Commission is concerned about the levels of voter registration in the United Kingdom, including Scotland, and it has met the electoral registration officers who took part in its recent research. It has met also all electoral registration officers in Scotland to discuss the recent findings and to seek improvements in Scotland's registration levels.

Ann McKechin: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his reply. He will be aware that the report revealed that more than 100,000 of Glasgow's citizens were not registered. That is three times the entire electorate of Orkney and Shetland. Will the Electoral Commission request an urgent meeting with the Secretary of State for Scotland to ensure that proper resources are now provided as a matter of urgency in order to resolve that disgraceful position?

Mr Streeter: I shall certainly pass on the hon. Lady's comments to the Electoral Commission, but it is already working with electoral registration officers in Glasgow. She is right to point out that the recent research demonstrated worrying levels of voter registration, and it seems that that has been going on for some time. Everyone is working hard to try to put that matter right, but the primary focus is on the electoral registration officers in Glasgow. However, I shall pass her comments on to the Electoral Commission.

Close of Polls (Voting)

5. Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): What recent representations the Electoral Commission has received on whether ballot papers may be issued to those within the precincts of polling stations at 10 pm on polling day who signify their intention to vote. [3391]

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Mr Streeter: The Electoral Commission informs me that it has received representations from voters, candidates, political parties, returning officers, Members of Parliament and professional bodies regarding queues at some polling stations on 6 May. In its urgent report, published two weeks after the general election, the commission identified a total of 27 polling stations in 16 constituencies where it was able to confirm that there were problems with queues at the close of poll. At least 1,200 people were affected. The commission has recommended that the law should be changed to make it clear that any elector who is entitled to vote and who is in the queue to enter the polling station at the close of poll will be allowed to vote. This will require primary legislation.

Dr Whitehead: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his answer. He is also aware that the Electoral Commission has indicated that legislation to ensure that voters within the precinct receive a ballot paper could take the form of a one-clause piece of legislation-an amendment to the Representation of the People Act 2000. Will he press the Government to ensure that time is made available for this urgent piece of legislation early in this Session to ensure that those who present themselves for voting at a polling station do indeed get their ballot papers?

Mr Streeter: It is not for me to press the Government on any issue, but I am sure that those who are sitting on the Front Bench today will have heard the hon. Gentleman's representations. This is a matter of concern. The Electoral Commission is of the view that primary legislation is required; and certainly, in its discussions with the Government, it will be urging them to respond in an appropriate manner.

Church Commissioners

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

Listed Places of Worship

6. Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): What recent discussions the Church Commissioners have had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the operation of the listed places of worship scheme. [3392]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Tony Baldry): Members of the Archbishops Council's church buildings division have already had initial, very useful meetings with Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government and with Treasury Ministers, and we hope that those constructive meetings will continue.

Jessica Morden: I have had many representations from local churches whose congregations are struggling to meet the cost of repairs and are dependent on this scheme continuing. In his discussions with the Government, will the hon. Gentleman emphasise that the beauty of the scheme, which was brought in by the previous Government, is that it applies to all listed places of worship, not just those that are eligible for things such as the heritage lottery grant?

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Tony Baldry: The hon. Lady makes a good point. As I said in my reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), as a society we have to take a decision about how we maintain what is a very important part of our national built heritage. There are 16,000 parish churches throughout this country. English Heritage estimates that it would cost £800 million a year to maintain them properly; at present, we are spending only about £100 million, most of which comes from local communities and congregations.

7. Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): When the responsibilities of the Second Church Estates Commissioner in respect of this House were last reviewed. [3393]

Tony Baldry: I am beginning to get to grips with the responsibilities of this post, which was established by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners Act 1850. I would say at this stage that I will try to have the same broad approach to answering questions on behalf of the Church as did my predecessor. I hope that I can be a helpful conduit between the Church and this House, and this House and the Church.

Peter Bottomley: My hon. Friend is admirably suited to following the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell) in this post. Will he pass back to the Synod the fact that we look forward in this House to having bishops chosen on merit, recognising that sex is not merit and that the Synod can throw out proposals that it does not like?

Tony Baldry: As I said in response to an earlier question, it is very important that the General Synod and the Church should hear the voices of this House, and I am sure that they will have heard, and will hear, the voice of my hon. Friend.

Electoral ComMission committee

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

Overseas Donations (Political Parties)

8. John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): What recent representations the Electoral Commission has received on the adequacy of its powers to investigate donations from overseas to political parties. [3394]

Mr Gary Streeter (South West Devon): The Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 strengthens the commission's investigatory powers, subject to the necessary secondary legislation, which is currently before Parliament. The commission has recently consulted on its proposed enforcement policy, which sets out how it intends to exercise those powers, and has received a number of representations in response to the consultation.

John Mann: Michael Ashcroft and his pals spent £250,000 trying to remove me from my seat. [Interruption.] I am pleased to report to the House that Labour increased its majority. Why is the Electoral Commission unable to find out how much of Ashcroft's money comes from
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abroad, why does the Tory party refuse to help it, and why does the commission not have the powers to hold the Tory party accountable for its failure to reveal precisely where the Ashcroft money comes from?

Mr Streeter: In all the hubbub, I could not quite hear whether the hon. Gentleman was saying Lord Ashcroft or Lord Paul.

The hon. Gentleman knows that individual investigatory matters are not brought before the Speaker's Committee. I am aware, however, that he has made a complaint, and the Electoral Commission will respond to it in due course.

Boundary Review (Constituencies)

9. Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): What recent representations the Electoral Commission has received on proposals for the review of parliamentary constituency boundaries. [3395]

Hon. Members: Hurry up.

Mr Streeter: Sorry for the delay, Mr Speaker; I thought we had moved on to the Budget.

The Electoral Commission informs me that it has received a number of representations from the public, elected representatives and others about proposals for the review of parliamentary constituency boundaries. However, as the commission has no statutory responsibilities in relation to those boundaries, any representations that it has received on the proposals have been referred to the relevant parliamentary boundary commission.

Andrew George: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Further to the point made earlier by the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), given the fact that there are variations in registration across the country,
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will the hon. Gentleman make representations to Ministers in view of the impact that those variations will have on future boundaries?

Mr Streeter: I am happy to confirm that I will do precisely that.

Close of Polls (Voting)

10. Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): What recent representations the Electoral Commission has received on issuing ballot papers to voters who arrive at polling stations before the time specified for the close of polls at a general election. [3396]

Mr Streeter: The Electoral Commission informs me that it has received representations from voters, candidates, political parties, returning officers, Members of Parliament and professional bodies regarding queues at some polling stations on 6 May. In its urgent report published two weeks ago after the general election, the commission identified a total of 27 polling stations in 16 constituencies where it was able to confirm that there were problems with queues at the close of the poll.

Simon Hughes: Will the hon. Gentleman ask his Committee to write urgently to the Ministers responsible, so that we can put right the legislation that currently prevents people who turn up to vote in time from being able to do so? That could and ought to be done this year, and with the Committee's support it will be.

Mr Streeter: It is certainly the view of the Electoral Commission that the matter can in part be put right through a change in the law. The commission is encouraging the Government to introduce appropriate primary legislation.

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Speaker's Statement

12.32 pm

Mr Speaker: I will now announce the result of the ballot held today for the election of the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee. Natascha Engel received 202 votes; Sir Alan Haselhurst received 173 votes. Natascha Engel is elected Chair of the Committee, and I congratulate her upon her election.

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Ways and Means

Financial Statement

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Before I call the Chancellor of the Exchequer, it may be for the convenience of hon. Members if I remind them that at the end of the Chancellor's speech, copies of the Budget resolutions will be available to them in the Vote Office. For the benefit of new Members, I add that it is not appropriate, or allowed, to intervene on either the Chancellor or the Leader of the Opposition.

12.33 pm

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr George Osborne): This emergency Budget deals decisively with our country's record debts. It pays for the past, and it plans for the future. It supports a strong, enterprise-led recovery, it rewards work and it protects the most vulnerable in our society. Yes, it is tough, but it is also fair.

This is an emergency Budget, so let me speak plainly about the emergency that we face. The coalition Government have inherited from their predecessors the largest budget deficit of any economy in Europe, with the single exception of Ireland. One pound in every four we spend is being borrowed. What we have not inherited from our predecessors is a credible plan to reduce their record deficit-this at the very moment when fear about the sustainability of sovereign debt is the greatest risk to the recovery of European economies. Questions that were asked about the liquidity and solvency of banking systems are now being asked about the liquidity and solvency of some of the Governments who stand behind those banks. I do not want those questions ever to be asked of this country. That is why we have set a brisk pace since taking office.

In the past seven weeks, we have announced, conducted and completed a review of this year's spending and identified £6 billion of savings. We have announced, established and received the report of the independent Office for Budget Responsibility. The power that the Chancellor has enjoyed for centuries to determine the growth and fiscal forecasts now resides with an independent body immune to the temptations of the political cycle. And we have examined, decided on and in some cases halted the mass of unfunded commitments, IOUs and overcommitted reserves that greeted us on entering office.

This is early, determined action, and it has earned us credibility in international markets. It has meant that our promise to deal decisively with the deficit has been listened to. Market interest rates for Britain have fallen over the past seven weeks, while those of many of our European neighbours have risen. Those lower market interest rates are already supporting our recovery.

But unless we now deliver on that promise of action with concrete measures, that credibility-so hard won in recent weeks-will be lost. The consequence for Britain would be severe: higher interest rates, more business failures, sharper rises in unemployment, and potentially even a catastrophic loss of confidence and the end of the recovery. We cannot let that happen. This Budget is needed to deal with our country's debts. This Budget is needed to give confidence to our economy. This is the unavoidable Budget.

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I am not going to hide hard choices from the British people or bury them in the small print of the Budget documents. The British public are going to hear them straight from me, here at this Dispatch Box. Our policy is to raise from the ruins of an economy built on debt a new, balanced economy, where we save, invest and export; an economy where the state does not take almost half of all our national income, crowding out private endeavour; an economy not overly reliant on the success of one industry, financial services-important as they are-but where all industries grow; an economy where prosperity is shared among all sections of society and all parts of the country. In this Budget, everyone will be asked to contribute. But in return, we make this commitment: everyone will share in the rewards when we succeed. When we say that we are all in this together, we mean it.

The first challenge for this Budget is to set the fiscal mandate-in other words, our overall objective for the public finances. The previous Government had two fiscal rules, one for debt and one for the current Budget. They were supposed to force Chancellors to set aside money in the good years so that they could borrow sustainably when the economy turned down. They completely failed in that task.

As this is the last Budget in which this golden rule will appear, I would like to be the last Chancellor to report on it. We are set to miss the golden rule in this cycle by £485 billion. We now know the intrinsic weakness in backward-looking fiscal rules: past prudence was an excuse for future irresponsibility; and the judge of the rules was the very same Chancellor they were supposed to be restraining. We propose a more credible approach.

Our fiscal mandate will be forward-looking, and the judge of whether we are on course to meet it will be not the Chancellor, but the independent Office for Budget Responsibility. On behalf of the House, I thank Sir Alan Budd and his fellow committee members, Geoffrey Dicks and Graham Parker, for their highly professional effort. In the space of just seven weeks, I believe we have established the Office for Budget Responsibility as a permanent improvement to economic policy making and the transparency of government. The legislation to put the office on a statutory footing will now be drawn up and I hope it will command all-party support.

I now turn to what that fiscal mandate will be. The view of the international community was clearly expressed at the latest G20 meeting, and we will be taking the same message to the G20 summit in Toronto this weekend. Surplus countries should do more to support global demand. So we welcome China's announcement to come off the dollar peg. At the same time, the international community believes countries with high fiscal deficits need to accelerate the pace of fiscal consolidation. That is precisely what we now propose to do. The formal mandate we set is that the structural current deficit should be in balance in the final year of the five-year forecast period, which is 2015-16 in this Budget. This mandate is structural, to give us flexibility to respond to external shocks; current, to protect the most productive public investment; and credible, because the OBR, not the Chancellor, will decide on the output gap.

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