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Parishioners

31. Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): To ask the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, what initiatives the Church Commissioners are taking to make parishioners better informed of their work. [105969]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): The annual report and accounts of the Church Commissioners are published in April and circulated to more than 1,000 people, including all Members of Parliament, senior officials at diocesan level, those closely involved with church finances and other interested parties. A summary version is circulated to all clergy and receives a wide audience among parishioners through those clergy.

Sir Sydney Chapman: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that information. Is he satisfied that the Church of England communicates in the most effective manner with its parishioners in this age of the internet and electronic commerce? In short, is the Church into web sites and other new-fangled technologies?

Mr. Bell: In time, the commissioners will have their own page on the Church of England web site. Work is in hand, and we plan to make a summary version of the 1999 report available via the internet. Information about the wider Church is available through the Church of England web site. As well as daily telephone and pager correspondence, we handle a substantial number of inquiries by e-mail.

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham): Given the fuss made by a number of ecclesiastical figures about the content of the dome, has my hon. Friend visited the spirit zone, and have the commissioners found out where it is? Has any tally been kept of the number of clerics who have attended the spirit zone, given the fuss that was made?

Mr. Bell: I have twice visited the faith zone--as it is now known--at the dome. I was there with the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Church has been greatly

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inspired by the contents of the dome--both by the Christian elements and by those of other faiths. The dome is a huge joy and achievement; I recommend any right hon. or hon. Members who have not yet done so, to visit not only the dome but the faith zone.

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): Will the Church Commissioners make it plain to parishioners why they are supplying chauffeurs to bishops at the same time that churches are crying out for investment and many clergy are living on a pittance?

Mr. Bell: The question of bishops' expenses and expenditure is the subject of a review. When we receive the results of that review, we shall share them with the House.

Church Buildings

33. Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): What recent representations the Church Commissioners have made to the Chancellor in support of the abolition of VAT levied on repairs or restoration of church buildings. [105970]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): The Church's original submissions to the review of charity taxation highlighted the significant sums paid in VAT on repairs to working, listed church buildings. That burden usually falls on parishes, where most resources for local ministry and for building repairs are found by parish-based giving and fund raising. The imposition of VAT at 17.5 per cent. on church building repairs absorbs a large amount of locally raised funds and resources, for no local benefit.

Mr. Marsden: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that, at the start of the third Christian millennium, it is both depressing and inequitable that £18 million should be paid in VAT on £123 million of church repairs at a time when domestic house repairs are assessed at 5 per cent? Will he urge his hon. Friends and the Church Commissioners to continue to press that point? He might even persuade the Primate of England to divert some of his formidable lobbying attentions from section 28 to consider a far more important issue.

Mr. Bell: I shall not be led to discuss section 28 today. However, the points made by my hon. Friend on VAT on church repairs are being raised with my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary--as are those that I mentioned in my response to the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh). We are seeking a meeting with my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary.

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) for confirming that £18 million of the £123 million that the Church spent on repairs was paid in VAT alone.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): From correspondence, the hon. Gentleman is aware of the problems with the major restoration of the parish church in Wem. We have trouble with SITA in organising a refund of the landfill tax. Will the hon. Gentleman personally organise a meeting of all the interested parties, so that that long-standing problem can be resolved?

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting that question on behalf of his constituents. I shall be glad to look into the matter and, if possible, arrange the meeting that he suggests.

Religious Broadcasting

34. Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter): What recent representations he has received regarding religious broadcasting. [105971]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): I am aware of the great concern among Church people and others as to the amount, content and scheduling of religious programmes. The General Synod is due to debate that matter at its February meeting.

Mr. Bradshaw: Is my hon. Friend aware that more people in this country attend acts of worship than football matches? Does he agree that that balance is not reflected in the priorities of broadcasters, which seem to be dominated by a laddish sports culture? Will he use all his powers to ensure that the depth and breadth of spirituality in Britain is properly reflected by the broadcast media?

Mr. Bell: About 8 million people attend Church services throughout the year. Religious broadcasting helps to reflect the diversity of religious faith and experience to be found in our nation. As the recent report on the upper House made clear, religious and spiritual matters form an integral part of our nation's life; I trust that, in future, broadcasters will continue to make provision for that specialised coverage.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the broadcasters pay far more attention to religion and religious services than do the printed media? Can we encourage the latter to ensure that they report more of what is said by clergy of all denominations, rather than merely waiting for scandal or excitement?

Mr. Bell: We should like to see newspaper coverage that is based on the facts and on the best aspects of the Church and other Churches, not on the negativism that we see so often in our newspapers.

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Point of Order

3.30 pm

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Has there been any indication that the House will hear a statement by a Minister from the Department of Trade and Industry on the allegations in today's newspapers about tobacco smuggling and British American Tobacco--in particular, that its financial director, Mr. Keith Dunt, has been heavily involved in co-ordinating smuggling and tax evasion?

Madam Speaker: I have not been informed by Ministers that they seek to make a statement on that issue today.

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Orders of the Day

Utilities Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Madam Speaker: I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Stephen Byers): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

As hon. Members will know, the Government are committed to modernisation and reform in a whole range of important areas of public life. The Utilities Bill is part of that agenda of modernisation and reform. It will modernise and reform the utilities markets and it will deliver efficiency and fairness, bringing together social justice and fairness--two sides of the same coin. It puts consumers first and provides a basis for effective competition and a stable framework of regulation for the future. It will deliver essential reform of the structure and framework that was introduced by Conservative Members at the time of privatisation.

The Conservatives' approach to the utilities owed more to dogma than to a real desire to raise standards for the consumers or to extend choice. The current ramshackle legislation does not effectively serve consumers, the business community or the utility companies themselves. It is simply not acceptable that consumers and business users should suffer from a rigged electricity market, but that is exactly what we have at present.

It is not acceptable that consumers have no way of telling whether directors' pay in companies enjoying a monopoly position is linked in any way to service standards. Indeed, the Conservatives' approach on privatisation to the directors of the former public utilities was a Conservative version of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" However, the directors of the privatised utilities certainly did not need to ring a friend--or, perhaps, they had rung a friend before.

It is not acceptable that consumer bodies are so closely linked to the regulators offices that they even have to issue their press notices on headed notepaper from the regulators themselves. It is also not acceptable that decisions that shape the vital telecommunications and energy markets can be taken purely on the say so of an individual regulator.

Fair and open utility markets are essential for business and domestic users alike. If we are to be at the forefront of the digital economy, businesses and consumers need access to cheap, fast and reliable telecommunications. They do not have that at present. If we are to have a fair society, we must ensure that everyone has heat and light in their homes and access to new technology. At the start of the 21st century, it is simply not acceptable that too many people struggle to keep warm in their own homes.

The Conservative Government's approach to the utilities was to privatise them quickly, and that was driven by dogma to such an extent that precious national assets were sold at a knock-down price without real concern for the industry and the structures that were put in place.


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