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8.41 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): I shall be brief. I thank the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) for the way in which he has presented the Measure. As he says, it is modest, but important. There is scarcely a town or village in England where the church is

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not one of the most prominent buildings, and in many cases it is the most prominent and the building of greatest historical and architectural interest. One can trace the social history of our country through its parish churches. It is vital that they should be properly conserved and that there should be proper controls on internal and external alterations and additions. They must be subject to regular architectural inspection. I speak as a churchwarden who has some responsibility for a lovely old church. The Measure will help. I commend it to the House and thank the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he has introduced it. I hope that we shall give it a swift passage on to the statute books.

8.42 pm

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart): I do not intend to vote against the Measure, although I was tempted to vote against the previous one when I came in for the end of that debate. It is absurd that, in the last six months of the 20th century, the House of Commons still devotes three hours to debating one Church. It never debates any other religion. Most other religions would rightly bitterly resent any interference by this House in the running of their affairs, yet the Church of England is still given time to debate its reforms, which have to be brought here for approval. That is totally wrong. It is the Church of England and this, as we are so often reminded by Conservative Members, is the Parliament of the United Kingdom, not just England.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): It is always a pleasure to see a Scottish Member intervening in the affairs of England, even though he has his own Parliament now. If the hon. Gentleman had taken the trouble to read the Measure and attend the debate, he would understand that the purpose of the Ecclesiastical Committee is not to be the voice of the Church of England, but to ensure that Church of England legislation does not bear down oppressively on all the citizens of the United Kingdom, including his constituents.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): I should like to say to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton)--

Mr. Maxton: You are not going to let me go far down that road.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: It is not a question of going far down it. The hon. Gentleman cannot go down that road at all, because it is outwith the terms of the Measure. He can speak only about the Measure.

Mr. Maxton: To finish my point, the House should not be debating the issue. The Church of England should be disestablished.

The Measure adds more churches and religious buildings, including school chapels and others, to the list of those to be protected. Last week, the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport took evidence from English Heritage. It transpires that English Heritage spent £40 million on preserving churches, and that is only a small fraction of the state money that it receives. Although the Measure has no direct financial implications, does the

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fact that extra buildings are being added to the list mean that, eventually, the Church of England will come back to the Department looking for more money?

Sir Patrick Cormack: The hon. Gentleman has not read the Measure or, if he has read it, he has not understood it. Buildings are not being added to the list; it is merely a question of whether they maintain the ecclesiastical exemption to which very high standards are applied, or whether they opt for the secular system, to put it very simply and crudely. It is not a matter of adding vast numbers of buildings to the list.

I am extremely surprised that the hon. Gentleman, who is normally exceptionally civilised and enjoys the cultured and sensible things of life, should be making such an iconoclastic speech.

Mr. Maxton: I am making an iconoclastic speech because I do not believe that taxpayers' money--whether it is lottery money or from anywhere else--should be spent in over-large amounts on one particular religion.

As I have said in the House, I am an atheist and anti-clerical and I do not believe that religion should play the large part that it does in the House or elsewhere. In my opinion, we spend far too much time and money on preserving something that I personally do not believe in. Will my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) say whether the Measure has any direct or indirect financial implications?

8.46 pm

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster): It would be wrong to say that I was provoked to speak by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton); nor would it be appropriate to say that the working of the Holy Spirit has brought my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) and myself to the Chamber on this occasion, but he will remember, as I do, that, when the Department for Culture, Media and Sport was set up, he and I inherited the issue of the ecclesiastical exemption.

I remember the order being delayed by my raising questions about exactly the bodies that are referred to in clause (1)(2) and I am indebted to the Second Church Estates Commissioner for having introduced the Measure when I was here for other purposes so that I am brought wholly up to date with the narrative. Although it was

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extremely interesting to hear the views of the hon. Member for Cathcart, they were not strictly germane to the Measure that we are discussing.

8.48 pm

Mr. Stuart Bell: I always appreciate the interventions of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) which remind me of my last conversation with an atheist, who told me, "I am an atheist, thank God." I appreciate our various conversations on these important subjects and I am happy that he has intervened in the debate and put the record straight. Of course, the Measure places no financial obligations on the state.

Mr. Key: Although it is hardly germane to our debate, as the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) has intervened, let me say for the record that the Earl of Cathcart was buried today at Middle Woodford church in my constituency.

Mr. Bell: These debates have the potential of developing very widely, and, as you are in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we are allowed to enjoy a short diversion.

I can say sincerely that the Measure places no financial obligation on the state. As I said at the beginning of the debate, it does not compel anyone to take action unless they so wish. It is a matter entirely for the additional bodies. If they wish to participate, they can, and if they do not wish to participate, they are under no obligation to do so.

The entire process has been carried forward in partnership with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and English Heritage. It allows those who so wish to have their place of worship placed within the categories that I described earlier and entered on a list kept by the Council for the Care of Churches, which is the central Church advisory body. That will assist those places of worship, if they so wish, to have proper use, care and conservation of their buildings. This is a positive but small Measure which will try to maintain the heritage that we all enjoy, in our own different ways, of our chapels, churches and places of worship.

Question put and agreed to.


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The Speaker's Absence

Motion made, and Question proposed,

8.50 pm

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart): I rise briefly to make this point. Of course, I have no intention of objecting to the Speaker attending the opening of the Scottish Parliament next Thursday. It is entirely appropriate that she should do so on what will be an historic occasion. However, I find it slightly odd that, again, at the end of the 20th century, the House should have to pass a motion to allow our Speaker to have one day's leave of absence to attend such an occasion.

The last time this happened was when Madam Speaker received an honorary degree from my old university, Oxford, and the House had to pass a motion to allow her to do so. I am asking my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who is the Chairman of the Modernisation Committee, whether she should take this minor custom of the House to the Committee and see whether we should abolish it, and allow the Deputy Speaker automatically to take the Chair whenever Madam Speaker has to leave to attend certain occasions.

8.51 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): For the second time this evening, I find myself in total disagreement with the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton). I warmly endorse the motion. It is right and proper that Madam Speaker should accept this invitation, but it is right also that we should keep this convention within the House. There is a similar convention in the other place--the Lord Chancellor

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always has to seek leave of absence if he does something. It is right and proper that that should be the case, and I hope that the Speaker has a wonderful day.

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