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2.20 am

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent): On 15 October 1964, the electors of Barkston Ash conferred upon the House an extraordinary benefit, by sending to it my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison). From that time, whether at Barkston Ash or at Selby, he has adorned the House. I was a long way from the House in 1964, but when I came, I found him--as I am sure that every new Member has--a friend, a counsellor, and a help. As a former chairman of the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship, I pay tribute to him not only for his great personal qualities, but for the extraordinary Christian witness that he has given the House throughout his time here. We are grateful for that.

I am being allowed a word or two to present to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State a scheme of which she has already heard something. To celebrate the millennium, a group of us believed that we should challenge every school in the United Kingdom to stage in the school year 1999-2000 an original dramatic production illustrative of some element of the life of Christ. We expect that this will be widely taken up by schools, and we have already secured the whole-hearted support of the Church of England, through all of whose committees the plan has gone.

I have written to Cardinal Hume, who I understand is likely to be very receptive. We have support from the Headmasters Conference, the Secondary Heads Association, the chief inspector of Ofsted, Nick Tate of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, and a host of other people. So far, nobody has thought that it was a poor idea.

The idea is that schools should enter a festival at local level, drawing in, if they wish, their local communities to help them to produce it. They would be assessed by their

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local communities, and those that seemed to have particular merit would be entered for a regional festival round. I have reason to suppose that the Independent Television Network will cover that round and help us, although it is premature to say that. Our hope is that a distinctive group of productions will feature in the festival celebrations in Greenwich.

All this is highly tentative at the moment. We have considerable expectations and hope, but we have nothing assured. We are seeking funding from the Millennium Commission. I suspect that the funding we need is not very great by comparison with that of many other projects.

The purpose is to involve schools throughout the nation in studying one of the gospels--many of them, perhaps, almost for the first time--to give them an opportunity to demonstrate their understanding that the millennium is the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ, and to give tangible recognition throughout the nation of the fact that this is a celebration not only of the birth of Christ but of 2,000 years of Christian history, which has shaped the nation.

At the moment, the project goes under the working title of Superstar 2000, but whether we shall keep it, I am not certain. I very much hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who has already shown a friendly face to the suggestion, will smile upon our endeavour, and perhaps give us some practical advice and help on how we may carry it forward.

2.24 am

The Secretary of State for National Heritage (Mrs. Virginia Bottomley): It is an honour and a privilege to respond to this Adjournment debate introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison). He will know that I do so out of respect for his phenomenal service to this place in the past 33 years, as well as out of support for the themes that he has raised today. He has served as a Minister in many Departments. I know not only of the respect in which he is held in the House, but, having had the honour to visit his constituency, of the affection and admiration that his constituents have for him and, indeed, for his wife Sylvia Mary.

As we approach the millennium, we are busy ensuring that the steps we take and the huge resource at our disposal--£1.6 billion through the national lottery allocated to the Millennium Commission--is used wisely and well, and forms a lasting legacy that will build communities, promote regeneration and reinforce the spiritual dimension in our communities.

My right hon. Friend will know that I am not the dictator of the Millennium Commission. I am its humble chairman, and it is composed of nine independent commissioners, who take a range of views. Overall, we have sought to establish a pattern in which the themes have been regeneration, in its literal sense--environmental projects--and in the community sense. Those are the themes that bind people together and give them a sense of belonging and continuity at a time of great change.

My right hon. Friend rightly points out that I have on a number of occasions sought to reinforce the message that the millennium is a Christian anniversary. It marks 2,000 years since the birth of Christ. It is a key landmark

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in the history of the Church. He will be aware that the Pope has declared the year 2000 a holy year for the Roman Catholic Church. Thirty-five million pilgrims are expected in Rome. The Pope will lead a party of Christian leaders of all denominations up Mount Sinai for a dedicated act of worship.

Apart from Rome, we are further advanced than elsewhere in our plans and preparations. I was able in my speech at Crosby hall to set out the timetable so far, the dates already in the diary, the key messages, and our commitment to provide more information as we approach that crucial date. We have set up working groups with the different Churches and faith groups and with local authorities. We have established liaison with the royal household, and set up working parties to deal with overseas issues and with the media. We believe that this is a moment in time when people will want not only to celebrate but to reflect--a moment to take stock, a moment for renewal and regeneration, whether seen from a secular or spiritual perspective.

My right hon. Friend referred to some of the figures from the Millennium Commission. So far, the Commission has awarded £844 million to capital projects across the United Kingdom. That includes some £10.3 million to nine specifically Christian projects, which will provide benefits not only to Christian congregations but to the wider community.

The commission recently published its shortlist of third round projects, which will go forward for detailed appraisal. It contained an additional eight Church projects, seeking a total of £20.4 million pounds in grant. Of course, there have also been many initiatives which have been led by the Churches but which are not specifically Christian. An example I visited recently is the national discovery park in Liverpool, which, led by the Dean of Liverpool, received an offer of £27 million. I commend the dean for his activities.

Other faith groups have been recognised. All are agreed that the message of the millennium should be inclusive, not exclusive. I admire the way in which all the faith groups have wanted the spiritual dimension of the millennium to be recognised, albeit with a respect and understanding for faiths other than the Christian faith. For example, we have committed £4.9 million to two projects put forward by Hindu organisations which are designed to foster multicultural awareness and inter-faith understanding.

I could gladly give my right hon. Friend a full list of Christian projects for which the Millennium Commission grant has been approved or shortlisted. Several are particularly exciting. I am most interested in the Thornbury centre in Bradford. A grant of £1.2 million has been committed to providing a new community centre built on the site of a former church.

The centre will greatly enhance the appearance of a large housing estate in an area of considerable economic disadvantage, and will provide a new focus for the local community. It will include facilities for recreation, vocational training, flexible worship, conferences and exhibitions, as well as a community restaurant. Elaine Appleby, who works there, is typical of the social entrepreneurs whom we want to support, where possible, with millennium resources. I have visited similar

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initiatives--St. Martha's in Nottingham and St. Mark's in Godalming in my own constituency--that enable Churches to perform their work in the 21st century.

There are, however, many other ways in which the Millennium Commission has sought to support Churches. Four hundred churches are to be floodlit for the millennium with a £2.3 million grant. Bells will be supported--not only the bell tower at Basildon: £3 million has been committed to the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers' proposal for ringing in the new millennium. The money will pay for the founding of new bells and the restoration of old bells and belfries in 100 churches, so that, at noon on the first day of 2000, there can be a stirring peal of church bells throughout the land, which is a splendid way to greet the millennium year.

My right hon. Friend referred particularly to the millennium Christian village project in Battersea. He will know that I have great personal sympathy for that project. The commissioners nevertheless took the view that, although the project would have a regenerative impact in Battersea, and would certainly have provided valuable Christian support for young people, it was not possible to support it in this round.

I have to tell my right hon. Friend that, in the third round of applications, 1,011 projects submitted bids; of those, only 119 were selected for the long list. It will not be possible for the commission to support even those 119, once they have been through their detailed appraisal. My right hon. Friend can therefore see that the competition for funding was certainly intense.

I wrote to my right hon. Friend on 6 March, saying:

I share the disappointment of those involved in the project, but I should like to address my right hon. Friend's point in respect of a possible fourth round.

Certainly I and many other commissioners hope that it will be possible to have a fourth round. It would not be wise to make a formal announcement until we are clearer about the resources coming through in the long term, but I will certainly reflect to my fellow commissioners his request that the theme of faith, family and young people should be supported.

In many other areas of the national lottery, such as sport and arts, we have indeed been moving towards investing in young people as much as in old buildings, and the new heritage legislation will enable us to involve young people and use lottery money for that purpose. Youth is one of the themes that the Millennium Commission has sought to endorse, as is science, along with the main regeneration theme.

Let me inform my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby of some of the many other ways in which lottery money has already been helping Christian projects. So far, the score is about 238 awards, totalling about £30 million. The Arts Council gave £1.2 million to the Royal School

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of Church Music. Many organs are being restored. The heritage lottery fund has made 150 grants, totalling £17.8 million and, this week, another 22 more awards, totalling £4 million, were made. Churches throughout the country are benefiting from that opportunity.

I especially welcome the largest grant--£2.5 million to Canterbury cathedral for an education centre, to tie in with the great focus on our Christian heritage that English Heritage is celebrating this year as we move towards the millennium.

On a smaller scale, churches throughout the country are receiving assistance with bells and with restoration. A new visitor centre is to be built at Westminster cathedral. All Saints, Putney, where I worshipped as a child, received £96,000 for the Burne-Jones/William Morris stained-glass windows. The church of St. John the Evangelist, close to the House at Waterloo, received £217,000. St. Peter and St. Paul's church at Watlington received money for its bells. So it goes on.

It is a wonderful opportunity to release congregations from the need to raise money for the restoration of their buildings, so that they may raise money for their mission--for their work in the community, which they often very much welcome.

Many of our cathedrals have received help, not only Canterbury but Chester, York Minster, St. Edmundsbury, Southwark, Bradford, Peterborough: all have received money or are shortlisted for help.

My hon. Friends know that I want to build communities as well as buildings. That is why it is so important that the Millennium Commission has set aside £200 million for millennium awards for people who invest in their communities.

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I take to heart the message of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe)--we do need to involve and inspire young people in the millennium, and excite them about it. I shall talk further about the sources of assistance that might be able to make a contribution, either through the Millennium Commission's festival programme or perhaps through the Arts Council, which, like the sports and heritage lottery boards, is likely to fund initiatives in its field of endeavour that chime with the aims and objectives of the millennium.

All those organisations regard the millennium not only as the moment for enjoyment, for a street party, for a celebration, for knowing our neighbours and friends, but as a moment of more lasting significance. We have set in train discussions with Church leaders who reinforce that message. Details are being settled of national millennium services, international events and a regional programme.

We believe, however, that Christian precepts should underpin all our work implicitly, if not explicitly. The millennium is a Christian anniversary. The impressive activities that churches are already planning give ample testimony to the fact that we endorse that message. The wide range of Church-based and Church-backed initiatives already being supported by the Millennium Commission and other funding bodies are an excellent start. I believe that, in the run-up to the millennium and during the millennium year, the Christian faith, heritage and culture of the United Kingdom are being, and will continue to be, cherished and celebrated.

Question put and agreed to.

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