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

Hunting With Hounds

29. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): If hunting with hounds is allowed on Church-owned land; and if he will make a statement. [119902]

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Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): The Commissioners' long-standing policy is that we allow our tenants to decide for themselves whether to allow hunts on the land which they rent from us.

Mr. Prentice: That is a very disappointing reply. Why does the Church sit on the fence on this very controversial issue? The Church of England is this country's third largest landowner, yet it prevaricates. Is the Church really neutral on the issue of killing for fun? Is it okay to kill for fun?

Mr. Bell: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his questions. The Commissioners recognise that, both inside the Church and out, there are widely varying and strongly held views on the subject, and that all of those deserve the Commissioners' respect. However, we have existing tenancies that may not be altered unilaterally. Although it may be possible to make provisions on the matter in new tenancies, enforcement of a ban on hunting would be difficult and could undermine our relationships with tenants.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that the Church Commissioners, on behalf of their tenants, have given evidence to the Burns committee on the continuation and beneficial effects on the countryside of hunting?

Mr. Bell: I cannot now give that confirmation to the hon. Lady, but I should be happy to look the matter up and send her a written reply.


The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked--

Government Resources and Accounts Bill

30. Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): What assessment he has made of the effect of the implementation of the Government Resources and Accounts Bill on the work of the Commission. [119903]

31. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): What assessment he has made of the effect of the Government Resources and Accounts Bill on the work of the National Audit Office. [119904]

Mr. Robert Sheldon (Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission): The Public Accounts Commission is responsible for examining the annual estimates of the National Audit Office. The Commission has considered the growing work load of the office, and has approved an additional £1.3 million for 2000-01. That is partly to cover introduction of resource accounting, as set out in the Government Resources and Accounts Bill. The Bill places on the Comptroller and Auditor General a duty to audit and account for the whole of the Government. As the legislation is not expected to come into force until 2005, it is too early to say what its resource implications will be.

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With the Public Accounts Committee, I have made it clear that the Bill requires improvements in relation to the scrutiny of public spending. The improvements dealing with the CAG's access and the audit of executive non-departmental public bodies would involve no net cost increase.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that detailed reply. Does he agree that it is essential that after enactment of the Government Resources and Accounts Bill, parliamentary scrutiny of the money supply and our auditing process will be at least as good as, if not better than, they are now? Does he therefore share my concern that, by the deadline at the end of last year, only 14 of 53 Government accounts were available for audit? Will he ensure, via the Public Accounts Commission, that all possible resources necessary to ensure an orderly transition are granted?

Mr. Sheldon: Of course I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is important that the Bill be improved in several ways, particularly in providing the same rights of access to public spending as the Government have with their own Departments. The CAG should validate the new departmental performance estimates as well. The hon. Gentleman's work for the Public Accounts Committee and the commission is, therefore, well supported generally.

Mr. Bercow: I welcome the fact that all 19 non-departmental public bodies established since 1997 are to be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General, but does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it remains wholly unsatisfactory that just under 60 public bodies, spending approximately £2 billion of taxpayers' money, are not so audited? Does he agree that the CAG should have access to, and the opportunity to audit, all such bodies, as in Scotland, and that the proposed amendments to the Government Resources and Accounts Bill would facilitate the speedy achievement of that important objective?

Mr. Sheldon: Obviously, I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman. This is a matter for the House of Commons, which must understand that the CAG and the National Audit Office produce their accounts on behalf of Parliament as a whole. Members of Parliament should support the work of the commission and the Public Accounts Committee in ensuring that there is proper accountability in the Bill.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): In what year does the right hon. Gentleman expect funding for the National Audit Office to increase to take into consideration the whole of the Government accounts, and how much does he expect the increase to be?

Mr. Sheldon: As we are talking about 2005, it is too early to say. There should be no increase in the cost of auditing the accounts, because they are handled in different ways and there will be an adjustment to ensure that the cost is roughly comparable. For further assessments, we will have to wait for further definitions of what will be involved in 2005 and thereafter.

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

Redundant Churches

32. Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): If he will make a statement on the conditions relating to the disposal of redundant churches. [119905]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): The Commissioners normally impose covenants on a new owner restricting the use of the property to that approved and prohibiting unauthorised architectural changes, the disturbance of any human remains or memorials, and demolition.

Mr. Paterson: Is the Church under any moral obligation to sell a redundant church to the existing congregation, should they wish to buy it?

Mr. Bell: The policy of the Church in relation to redundant churches is well known under the pastoral measure. The Commissioners' approval is required for any purchase of a church. Any change of use would also be a matter for the Church.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, especially in London, many redundant churches are sold and become unavailable to the community? They are often sold to property developers and end up as luxury housing, and any conditions that may have been imposed by the Church Commissioners are not adhered to. Will he ask the Commissioners to ensure that redundant churches that are to be put to religious or community use remain accessible to the community as a whole, and that those that are to be used for housing become affordable, accessible housing, which will end some of the problems of housing inequality in London?

Mr. Bell: Any proposal for a change of use from that already agreed with the Church Commissioners would have to be approved by the Commissioners and would be judged on its merits, but with particular regard to its suitability. About 880 churches have been appropriated for other uses. If my hon. Friend is thinking of a specific church, I would be glad to take up the case on his behalf.

Charitable Giving

33. Sir Sydney Chapman: To ask the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, what assessment the Commissioners have made on the impact on Church income of the new charitable giving arrangements. [119906]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): If half the money currently given in a non-tax-efficient way were given by gift aid, the Church of England might hope to recover about

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another £20 million in tax in the current tax year. Our working assumption is that the new arrangements will take three years to take full effect.

Sir Sydney Chapman: I hope that the arrangements will be speeded up and that more income will come into the Church as a result of the new charitable giving initiatives. How does the hon. Gentleman envisage that he and his fellow Commissioners will be able to help churches with their running costs in the longer term?

Mr. Bell: At present, the Commissioners retain a substantial and rising liability for pensions, because of clergy who were in service before 1998. Pensions for service from 1998 onwards are being paid from the new clergy pensions scheme, so over the period 1998 to 2003 parishes are taking on the cost of pension contributions to

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that scheme, with transitional help from the Commissioners. By 2003, when parishes are paying pension contributions in full, we expect that giving and fundraising will constitute two thirds of the Church's income.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): I am sure that the Church Commissioners welcome the changes that were made to enable Church income to be boosted in that way. What steps are being taken to ensure that people understand how they can benefit from those changes, so that Church income is maximised as speedily as possible?

Mr. Bell: We wish to communicate with the parishes, with parish churches and with parishioners to let them know what the Church is doing, what form the giving should take, and how that might assist the Church in its finances and administration.

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