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Mr. Frank Field : Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on the fact that if disestablishment occurred, the same group of people who managed to lose £800 million of the Church's assets would still be in control ?
Mr. Alison : Disestablishment is a cloud no bigger than a man's hand at present, and may not go anywhere, so the hon. Gentleman's question is to some extent hypothetical. In relation to the £800 million figure that he cited, he will have noted that, in 1993, the value of the assets of the Church Commission increased by £396 million. We are rapidly making good the notional loss which has been recorded in earlier years.
Mr. Harry Greenway : How much of that £396 million was regained from stocks and shares and from the market, and how much from direct giving by the laity ? Can the final £400 million be made up in one way or another ?
Mr. Alison : If I said £396 million, I apologise. The figure should be £296 million. [Interruption.] Hon. Members will allow me a measure of optimism and a firing-from-the-hip apology for having got the figure wrong.
My hon. Friend asked about the increase in the value in so far as that relates to donations. We are talking entirely about the capital valuation of assets, of which about £190 million represents the increase in assets in the stock exchange security and £100 million represents the increase in the value of property and commercial assets.
30. Mr. Simon Hughes : To ask the right hon. Member for Selby, representing the Church Commissioners, what is the Commissioners' policy towards responsible asset management as it affects housing development on land it owns ; and if he will make a statement.
Mr. Alison : The Church Commissioners' duty is to their beneficiaries--the clergy. This requires them always to consider the promotion of the housing and other development potential of land through the normal planning processes. The Commissioners seek, when it is consistent with their responsibilities, to make land available for affordable housing.
Mr. Hughes : May I reinforce the view, exemplified most recently in the row in Wiltshire, where the Church Commissioners plan to build executive homes rather than affordable homes for villagers and other people, that the Church has two duties : first, to provide the money for its clergy and, secondly, to go not always for maximum profit but for the enhancement and building up of communities and family life ? The Church Commissioners can then ensure that they do not make a muddle on this issue as they made a muddle of their investments last year.
Mr. Alison : The hon. Gentleman will have digested, even though it has only just been delivered to him, my earlier comment that when it is consistent with our responsibilities, we make land available for affordable housing. But the Church Commissioners are not a housing charity, and they must bear in mind their primary responsibility to maintain the level of stipends for the clergy and, above all, pensions for retired clergy and their dependants.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. John M. Taylor) : The preparatory work started in July 1992, and has cost£320,000 up to April this year. A budget of £690,000 has been set aside this year to carry out the work needed to launch the agency in April 1995.
Column 548agency, which will make the whole process of the administration of justice much less accountable to both Parliament and the public, is a complete waste of money ?
Mr. Taylor : The Government believe that it will be money well spent. It is directed towards improving the management and systems of the court service and, as a direct result, improving the standard of service that can be afforded to court users, who are the public--our constituents.
Mr. Boateng : Will the Minister show a little more concern for those members of the public who, over the past year, in the county court system alone, have received more than £400,000 by way of compensation for errors and delays ? Is not that just a picture of what is happening everywhere in that service--demoralisation, inefficiency and Government complacency ? Is not it time that he abandoned these hare-brained, ideological schemes and started taking care of the consumer of legal services ?
Mr. Taylor : There are no hare-brained schemes or ideologies. The interests of the consumer are uppermost. There have certainly been some problems in London, but the rate of complaint has fallen rapidly. The Lord Chancellor is acutely conscious of the need to handle complaints in a sensitive and user-friendly way.
The Lord Chancellor is considering the case for legislation in the light of the responses received to the Government's consultation paper on mediation and the ground for divorce. He therefore has no immediate plans for improving mediation services.
Mr. Wicks : But does not the Minister think that improvements could be made to mediation services, even ahead of legislation ? Given that, every year, 160,000 children under 16 have parents who divorce, does he recognise the need for urgency ?
Mr. Taylor : Yes. I recognise the urgency, but, in matters as important and sensitive as this, it is very important to get things right. The hon. Gentleman is an expert in these areas, and I respect that. Moving to mediation as a concept is difficult. Moving away from fault-based divorce and adversarial techniques is, in my view, considerably easier, but they are parallel paths. It would be a great mistake to allow legislation to get to the statute book without having quite defined how we would provide mediation, how we would pay for it and who would be the mediators.
Column 549changes in family law, particularly in divorce law, it is most important that we ensure that, in any divorce, the interests of the children remain paramount ? Will he confirm that, whatever other changes to the law are considered, the long-established legal principle in this country--that the interests of the children are paramount --will remain ?
Mr. Taylor : I am at pains to emphasise to my hon. Friend that the welfare of children will remain paramount. In fact, if it is possible to enhance the superlative, I suggest to him and the House that, under the proposed arrangements, the welfare of the children will be even more important because the parties will be asked to consider what we now inappropriately call "ancillary matters" before they get their decree. The welfare of the children, the future of the children and funding for the children will have to be addressed by the parties. They will have to resolve those issues, perhaps with the aid of mediation.
Mrs. Ewing : But given that many effective voluntary organisations already work in mediation services, is the Minister prepared to ensure that they are given sufficient funding to enable them to complete a task that is very important to the families concerned without having to rely on legislation being introduced ? Beyond that, is it likely that, within the next Parliament, legislation will be introduced to ensure that family mediation services are recognised and given their due worth ?
Mr. Taylor : It is not for me to anticipate what will be in a forthcoming legislative programme, and I do not think that the hon. Lady would expect me to. She will accept, however, although she may not be content with the situation, that local services exist ; that, in many cases, they are very good ; and that they are currently funded by the voluntary and private sectors, with assistance in some areas from the probation service, local authorities and the legal aid fund.
Mr. Ian Bruce : Does my hon. Friend agree that many fathers who face mediation find that their lawyers tell them that the mother's interests always seem to come before the father's, although the children's interests may come before both ? In this age of equality, should not we start to look more closely at the way in which men and fathers are viewed when divorce settlements come about ?
Mr. Taylor : The law is even handed between men and women in the unfortunate circumstance of divorce. My hon. Friend is quite right to identify the fact that the interests of children come before those of the mother and father ; but it is very often the best interests of the children that make the settlement between the parties look as though it is asymmetrical. That asymmetry might well follow arrangements for residence, contact and the like.
Mr. Alison : By divine providence, I return to inform the hon. Gentleman that the Church Commissioners are aware of anxieties about the level of theft from churches. The responsibility for their guardianship rests primarily with the parochial church council and church wardens. The Council for the Care of Churches offers advice on security and has published a booklet entitled "Church Security--a Simple Guide". The Ecclesiastical Insurance Group, as the main insurer of churches and other church buildings, also offers practical advice about security and a number of concessionary schemes.
Mr. Banks : Although I am in no way religious, I find distasteful the fact that people have been stealing from churches. It is a breach of trust and an appalling crime. What discussions have the Church Commissioners had with the various police authorities so that perhaps more specialised policing services can be put in place to track down these thieves ? Naturally, I would not recommend Group 4 to give any advice. Perhaps a police equivalent of the Spanish inquisition would be appropriate.
Mr. Alison : On studying in detail my somewhat extended response to him a moment ago, the hon. Gentleman will discern that the responsibility is highly dispersed and lies with parochial church councils. It is not within the remit of the Church Commissioners to intervene directly. However, we do our best to propagate good advice. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his sensitive reference to the unacceptability of thefts of this sort. He will bear in mind that the founder of the Christian religion issued a warning that we should not lay up for ourselves,
"treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal."
Forewarned is, to some extent, forearmed.
Mr. Dickens : Does my right hon. Friend accept that many of my local churches have been on the receiving end of theft ? Often when many of the images and chattels of a church have been removed the whole character of the church is changed ; many of those items have been there since time immemorial and are respected and greatly thought of by the congregation. Does my right hon. Friend think that we should say to the parochial church councils, "You now, unfortunately, have a duty to lock your churches" ?
Mr. Alison : A great many churches are locked, but some are kept open all the time. There remains a considerable body of valuable antiquities and antiques and other treasured articles in parish churches. However, the overwhelming significance of the value of living individuals in churches remains its particular treasure. I am sure that if my hon. Friend occasionally graced his own parish church with his presence, as I am sure he does, it would make up for the incalculable loss through theft of goods and chattels and treasures.
32. Mr. Ian Bruce : To ask the right hon. Member for Selby, representing the Church Commissioners, what plans the Church Commissioners have to switch investment from up-market homes and offices into affordable homes to rent.
Mr. Alison : The Church Commissioners already provide approximately 1,600 homes at affordable rents in inner London on their Octavia hill estates. They also seek whenever possible to make land on their agricultural estates available for that purpose.
Mr. Bruce : I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. The last report by the Church Commissioners that I read made a great point of the fact that they were investing in up-market houses and not investing new money in affordable homes. As that investment policy was disastrously wrong and made no money for stipends for the clergy, surely they should look again at their policies and give affordable homes a greater boost--and, indeed, do their Christian duty as well as their financial duty.
Mr. Alison : Our primary Christian duty must be to maintain our primary charitable objective, which is to provide a high cash flow to pay the stipends of clergy and pensioners and their dependants. I told the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), who pressed the same point that, where we can, we mitigate the impact of this necessary policy by trying to help with low-cost housing. For example, opportunities have been taken, where planning has enabled us to act within our legal duty, to provide land for affordable housing on a number of sites in Cambridgeshire, Hampshire and Yorkshire as well as in London. We try to bear in mind my
Column 552hon. Friend's point, but we are caught on the horns of a dilemma as to whether, strictly speaking, we can pursue the policies of a housing charity--which we are not.
Mr. Viggers : Bearing in mind the fact that these interesting and lovely buildings are national assets and have moved away from religious use, does my right hon. Friend think that it would be appropriate for the Church Commissioners to ask for a revision of the formula whereby the state pays 70 per cent. of maintenance costs and the Church Commissioners 30 per cent?
Mr. Alison : I do not rule out an approach to secure a revision of the formula, but it would be tempting providence to do so immediately, since the formula has just increased substantially in favour of the Church Commissioners, from 50 to 70 per cent. Before we press for it to rise to 90 per cent., we should digest the advantageous terms that we enjoy at present through the good offices of the Department of the Environment.
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