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Spirit Zone

31. Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): If he will make a statement on the progress of preparations for the spirit zone. [46346]

The Minister without Portfolio (Mr. Peter Mandelson): Details of the design for the spirit zone of the millennium experience were made public on 24 February this year. Since then, the New Millennium Experience Company has been working closely with

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the Lambeth Consultation Group, which comprises representatives of the main Churches and other faith groups, to ensure that the zone reflects the spiritual values identified by the Lambeth group. Copies of the group's document setting out its approach have been placed in the Library of the House.

Mr. Loughton: Will the Minister suggest how a Christian visitor to the dome--celebrating, after all, the birthday of Christ--may enjoy spiritual contemplation in the spirit zone with the roar of the Blackwall tunnel below, the clamour of the Cirque du Soleil just yards away six times a day, and not a crucifix in sight?

Mr. Mandelson: The Lambeth group, on which the Churches are represented, has agreed the design brief and the approach that is being taken by the company to the construction of the zone and to the millennium experience. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman, from his close examination of the proposals, is disappointed, but, when he comes to the dome, as I hope that he and his family will, he will be as excited as other Christians and members of other religious faiths. If, however, he does not want to come to the dome, he might bear it in mind that the Churches are organising a full programme of events in that year, focused on Pentecost 2000 on 10 and 11 June, and the millennium affirmation, which it is also sponsoring. There will also be national church services to mark the passing of the millennium. If that is not enough, the New Millennium Experience Company has already said that there will be a place in the dome for private prayer.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart): Has the British Humanist Association been involved in the discussions in relation to the spirit zone, to ensure that the growing number of people who have no belief in any religion, but who do believe there is a spiritual nature to mankind, are involved in the spirit level?

Mr. Mandelson: My hon. Friend touches on an important point, which is that, although the dome should reflect the important contribution that the Christian Church has made to our history and society, we also want the millennium experience to be open to members of all faiths and of none. I am sorry that some Conservative Members do not share that view. They think that it should be an exclusive event--only for those who go to church. It will be enjoyable and appealing to those who go to church, but it will also be appealing to those of all faiths and of none, and that is precisely what it should be.

CHURCH COMMISSIONERS

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

Overseas Investments

35. Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth): What is the value of the commissioners' assets invested abroad. [46351]

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Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): The commissioners have £350 million invested in overseas equities, representing approximately 10 per cent. of their total assets.

Mr. Jenkins: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. As he must be aware, newspaper reports in recent months have shown quite heavy losses in the far east. What is the extent of those losses to the Church's holdings? Will he take a message from me to the Church Commissioners? Will he remind them of the old adage, "In God we trust. Others pay cash"?

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his supplementary question. In 1997, a total return of 10.6 per cent. was achieved on overseas equities, which compared favourably with the UK pension fund universal return of 7.5 per cent. That result has contributed to the commissioners' overall performance, which placed it in the top 1 per cent. when compared with other UK pension funds.

In relation to the far east, we are all aware that we live in a global economy, and one with a thatched roof. If there is a fire in the far east Asia part of the roof, it has some impact. However, I am happy to say that the impact on the Church Commissioners' money has been very limited. Our assets have moved from £2.1 billion in 1992 to £3.5 billion in 1997.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): After a bad experience quite a long time ago, have not the Church Commissioners done a remarkable job in the past few years? Should we not all be pleased about the turnaround in their fortunes, which is a great tribute to the integrity and effort of the people who look after the money for them? Will the hon. Gentleman--just to reassure the hon. Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins), who clearly does not understand--confirm that a portfolio of that size, by its nature, has to be invested throughout the world? I am sure that the Church Commissioners have taken whatever steps they need to take to respond to the crisis in the far east.

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments, which will be greatly welcomed by the Church Commissioners and their staff, who spend an enormous amount of time investing £3.5 billion. The valuation loss from our far eastern equities has been proportionately minor compared with those of other institutional funds because of our relatively low exposure to those areas.

Spirit Zone

36. Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): What steps the Commissioners are taking to finance the spirit zone in the millennium dome. [46352]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): The commissioners will not be providing finance for the spirit zone. They are required by law to use their income for the stipends, pensions and housing of the clergy of the Church of England. However, I have made it clear to the New Millennium Experience Company that, as Second Church Estates Commissioner,

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I am willing, with others, to assist the company in opening discussions with potential sponsors who see the importance of that essential element for the zone's success.

Mr. Pike: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Press reports have said that several million pounds are needed to finance the spirit zone in the millennium dome. Is he confident that the money will be raised through sponsorship and that the zone will be ready when the dome opens?

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that supplementary. My hon. Friend the Minister without Portfolio, the New Millennium Experience Company and the Churches, through the Lambeth Consultation Group, have demonstrated their determination to have a spirit zone in the dome and to make it a success. For what it is worth, I add my determination and commitment to ensuring that the spirit zone and other Church events referred to by my hon. Friend the Minister without Portfolio will be a success.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that many of my constituents have expressed concern that, while previous generations have built soaring cathedrals, we are building the dome? Given that we are officially a Christian country, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that there will be a place in the millennium experience for the celebration of the anniversary that the millennium is all about?

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that supplementary. The Church has gone to great lengths to ensure a full Christian dimension in the spirit zone. The Archbishop of Canterbury went to see the millennium dome and missed the England-Romania game--greater love hath no man. He is content with the Christian element of the spirit zone, as is the Lambeth group. When it is fully revealed to the public and to the hon. Gentleman's constituents, I am sure that they, too, will be content.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Will the hon. Gentleman assure us that the Church Commissioners will use the opportunity of the millennium for a review of the assets of the Church of England? In some places, we have five churches where one would do. We have vicarages and houses that are inappropriate for our generation. Church plants are often made away from where the people are. One of the most useful things that we can do to get across the message of the Christian faith is to ensure that the money that we are spending is used wisely, economically and, above all, in the right place.

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. As the House knows, we passed the draft National Institutions Measure two weeks ago, creating an Archbishops Council. No doubt, the council will wish to consider the hon. Gentleman's question to see whether the Church's finances can be better focused and streamlined. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are many sources of finance in the Church. No doubt, the Archbishops Council will want to consider his suggestion.

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