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Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): Welcome to your first Church Commissioners' Question Time, Mr. Speaker. It is a non-partisan Question Time, we are protected from on high, and you will enjoy it as much as we do.
The commissioners who, as the honourable Gentleman knows, are substantial property owners in their own right, are liaising on this matter with the Archbishops Council which, I am happy to say, is taking a lead on the matter.
Mr. Fabricant: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the sight of mobile phone masts in rural areas, let alone in towns, is pretty abhorrent to most people? Is he also aware that a mobile phone antenna can be inserted into the top of a steeple internally so that it is not seen from the outside and can generate over £5,000 for the church concerned? When will the hon. Gentleman make recommendations to churches that their steeples be used for mobile phone masts, to hide them from the general public and generate money for the Church, thus scoring a double whammy?
Mr. Bell: The Church will be grateful for that double whammy, which will allow it to render a public service to mobile phone operators, which need to cover 80 per cent. of the country, and perhaps also to gain revenue from that. The hon. Gentleman made the point even better than I can. The Church has taken a lead on the matter through the Archbishops Council and we are hopeful of positive results for parish churches throughout the land.
Will the hon. Gentleman tell us if he has any information on when the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions will publish the guidelines on mobile phone masts which were promised for the end of July this year?
Mr. Bell: I am always grateful to have questions to the Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions pushed on to me, and am happy to answer the hon. Lady. Eighty-seven per cent. of our country should be covered by mobile phone operators by October next year. The Church will play its part in assisting those schemes and I hope that it will do so in the interests of our people, our parishes and our churches.
Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): The Church continues to make representations on that issue to the Government at the highest level. A survey will shortly be published giving up-to-date figures for the total VAT burden borne by the Church, particularly in relation to the on-going repair bills payable for the maintenance of churches
Miss McIntosh: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the figure that has been put on the cost is £40 million per annum, which is £40 million more than the churches receive in grants from the Government? Is he aware that, today, The Daily Telegraph gave what could be the contents of the Budget statement? Is there any truth in the
Mr. Bell: I had thought it was my campaign, but I am happy to have the hon. Lady as a joint campaigner on this issue. I have read today's newspapers and what might or might not be in the pre-Budget report of the Chancellor of the Exchequer on Wednesday. I will hold my breath on that--it is somewhat bated--as will the House. I take the opportunity to thank the hon. Lady and all right hon. and hon. Members who have supported the campaign over many years.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): My hon. Friend is very persuasive and I am sure that he will have another go at the Chancellor, as we are getting to the point where small communities are expected to carry very large debts in relation to their churches. I hope that he will be able to get a response from the Government. They must be sympathetic, particularly to rural areas, which are faced with frightening debts.
Mr. Bell: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support. As I said, I have read the newspaper reports. The campaign has been a long one. The imposition of VAT at 17.5 per cent. on church repairs absorbs a large amount of locally raised resources--and for no local benefit. A great injustice will be righted if the Chancellor makes the statement on Wednesday that we hope he will.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that some of us have been campaigning for a reduction for nearly 30 years, and Minister after Minister has given us a dusty answer? Will he try to persuade the Chancellor that he would earn well-deserved brownie points if he made the announcement that has been forecast this morning? It is a monstrous scandal that churches are paying back in VAT more than they receive in grant, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) said.
Mr. Bell: The hon. Gentleman has been campaigning on this issue since 1972. He and I have attended Ministers of the Crown as part of delegations. I am grateful for his support. I have said that Church Commissioners questions is a non-partisan occasion, I would add that, if the Chancellor listens to us, and I think he will, he will be the first Chancellor to have done so in 30 years.
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): Is it not important that the Treasury recognise that such a move would win widespread support; that churches throughout the country perform not only a religious role, but, increasingly,
Mr. Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his continuing support for the campaign. He makes several valid points. One is that the churches play an important role in communities in rural areas. Church repairs are to uphold and to maintain our traditions and heritage in local churches, which are a tourist attraction. I hope that those arguments alone will be sufficiently persuasive for the Chancellor on Wednesday.
Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): The formula for determining the full basic rate of clergy pension is two thirds of the previous year's national minimum stipend for incumbents. In addition, a lump sum of three times the pension is payable on retirement. As housing is provided while clergy are working, the formula recognises that clergy in retirement need to meet the cost of housing.
Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that considered reply. Given that since 1998 pensions on service have been funded by parishes themselves and that large numbers of parishes have been forced against their will to lose the services of sound and able-bodied clergymen for no other or better reason than that they have reached the age of 70, does the hon. Gentleman not agree that it would make financial sense and strike a blow against the evil of ageism if clergymen were able to continue beyond the age of 70--or, indeed, for as long as their parishioners wanted them?
Mr. Bell: I certainly appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point about ageism. All the points that the hon. Gentleman has made will be taken into account by the Archbishops Council--which has started a review of clergy stipends and is consulting widely within the Church as a part of that process. I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman's remarks are incorporated in that review.
Mr. Bell: Yes. For the past three years, since my hon. Friend was first elected to the House, that point has been raised on the Floor of the House, and many hon. Members have supported that position. The point is being taken into account by various bodies within the Church, and I am hopeful that, over a longer period, we shall have the result that my hon. Friend would like.