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CHURCH COMMISSIONERS

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

Church Schools

34. Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): If he will make a statement on the role of the commissioners in respect of Church schools. [82613]

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Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): Responsibility for the management of Church of England schools lies with the individual governing bodies of the schools, supported by diocesan boards of education and local education authorities. Nationally, they are represented by the Church of England Board of Education, which, working with the National Society for the Promotion of Religious Education, provides a range of support services for dioceses and schools.

Mr. Pike: My hon. Friend will know that there are some 5,000 Church schools in England, and about one in eight of our children attend Church of England schools. Lancashire has more Church schools than any other county in England. Can my hon. Friend tell me how value added tax on repairs is dealt with differently in Church schools and county schools?

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing the House's attention to the number of Church schools in Lancashire. The current estimate of the Church's contribution to capital works in Church school buildings is £20 million a year. A significant proportion of the work undertaken is subject to VAT. Equivalent work in county schools is not subject to VAT, and I hope that the Government are listening to the campaign of the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) to get rid of VAT on Church repairs.

Several hon. Members rose--

Madam Speaker: I shall have to call the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh).

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that no VAT is charged on the building of new Church schools or new churches? Does he agree that the Government should apply for the new derogation that is about to be agreed by Finance Ministers, which would allow for VAT not to be charged on Church repairs for up to three years?

Mr. Bell: Yes. I support the hon. Lady's campaign in relation to VAT on Church repairs. I have pointed out to the House that, since 1972 at least, successive Governments have ignored any pleas on that issue. The hon. Lady raised the issue of the Council of Ministers in Europe and a new derogation. I am sure that the Church Commissioners would like to support that, and see what the Government have to say.

Ethical Investment

35. Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): What plans the commissioners have to dispose of their shares in GEC. [82614]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): None. The Church's ethical investment working group, which makes recommendations on ethical investment policy, has made no such recommendation. The hon. Gentleman has no doubt seen inaccurate press reports, which the newspapers have since corrected.

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Mr. Howarth: I am most grateful for that answer, but the hon. Gentleman knows that the Church has a policy of not investing in companies that manufacture arms. I hope that he can assure the House today that, although the Church fully supports the concept of the just war, it also supports the excellent British people who work for a first-class British company such as British Aerospace, which is in the front line of the defence not only of the freedoms of the people of this country, but of the war against aggressors overseas. Does he agree that there is every reason why the Church should invest in such an honourable company? Moreover, had it invested in British Aerospace earlier, it would have made much more money to fund the stipends, the bishops and the clergy.

Mr. Bell: I will not be tempted to go down the route of the stipends, the bishops and the clergy at this moment. I have visited British Aerospace factories and can testify to the sterling work done there and the contribution that British Aerospace makes to the nation. The Church accepts the right of nations to defend themselves and engage in peacekeeping activities. It therefore accepts the legitimacy of an indigenous defence industry supplying equipment under Government licence. The national Church investing bodies, however, have never held shares in British Aerospace.

Millennium Celebrations

36. Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): What plans the Church Commissioners have to celebrate the millennium. [82615]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): Among other things, hundreds of local congregations are making plans for activities and events under the three themes: "a new start with God", "a new start at home" and "a new start for the world's poor". Every parish in England will be encouraged to distribute millennium candles to their parishioners. There is a schools arts project called JC2000, which was originated by the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe). The Open Churches Trust is encouraging every church bell in the land to be rung on new year's day, followed by a time of prayer. That will be a joyful message and a joyful occasion.

Sir Sydney Chapman: I welcome all those initiatives. Will the Second Church Estates Commissioner say a little more about his involvement in trying to secure funding for a Christian section of the spirit zone of the millennium dome? Does he agree that Christianity should, at the very least, form the core and substantial part of that spirit zone?

Mr. Bell: I am pleased to announce to the House--where all good announcements should be made--that, under my guidance as Second Church Estates Commissioner and that of Sir Tim Sainsbury and others, a number of Christian sources have provided the majority of the funding for the zone. An official announcement will be made by the New Millennium Experience Company in the near future. Those who visit the zone will be impressed by its thoughtful but inspiring vision of Christianity, and it will dovetail with all the other millennium celebrations that the Church is planning.

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Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): It is right and proper that the millennium should be a Christian celebration, and that, as my hon. Friend said, the Church Commissioners are organising events. What co-operation has there been with people in the many communities who, as well as the Churches, are planning to celebrate the millennium? The Church Commissioners and the parishioners should liaise with local authorities and other community groups who are organising millennium celebrations. We should bring the Christian and local dimensions together in those celebrations.

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the fact that we are not an exclusive society. We have a strong Christian ethic--this is a Christian society--and we fully recognise the major faiths of other communities, as they recognise ours. There has been great co-operation between all faiths, certainly on the spirit zone of the millennium dome. That co-operation is being repeated up and down the land.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent): I know that the hon. Gentleman shares my delight that more than 12,000 schools in the United Kingdom have signed up to the millennium arts festival for schools, JC2000. Does he also share my slight concern that, so far, the parishes and other elements of the Church of England either have had little opportunity to assist us in this work or, if they have been given the opportunity, have not availed themselves of it?

Mr. Bell: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his campaign for JC2000. It has at least 10,000 schools behind it, and that number is increasing by the day. Local education authorities up and down the land are being encouraged to participate. The hon. Gentleman must bear in mind the fact that there is a massive organisation for the millennium celebrations, and assets and funds will have to be shared out carefully.

Ethical Investment

37. Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): If he will make a statement on the ethical investment policies of the Church Commissioners. [82616]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): The Commissioners try to invest in companies that will successfully develop their business in the interests of their beneficiaries, but that also have responsible employment practices and are conscientious about issues of corporate governance, environmental performance and human rights, and are sensitive to the communities in which they operate.

Mrs. Dunwoody: That is a clear statement of their ethics. Does it not follow that the Church will have to take some hard decisions on large companies, especially firms such as GEC? The Church will have to measure its desire for profit against the actions of companies that manufacture arms.

Mr. Bell: The Church Commissioners have £29 million invested in GEC, which has our strong support. However, when it hived off a division making equipment for offensive rather than defensive action, we made a clear statement that we would not take up the new shares in

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British Aerospace. The Church understands the varied views held by its membership on this difficult situation. As my hon. Friend says, it is clear that wholehearted support for every defence stock would be unacceptable to many Church members.

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