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Redundant Churches

32. Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): If he will make a statement on the use of redundant churches. [153856]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): The procedure for settling the future of redundant Church of England churches gives priority to any diocese seeking and achieving suitable alternative uses. Use by another Christian body or for wider community purposes is generally regarded as the most suitable use for former churches.

Mr. Paterson: What powers does a bishop have to overrule a parochial church council that has closed a church and done nothing with it even though the congregation wants to reopen it?

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for referring to the relationship between a parish council and a bishop as regards church closures. If he has a particular church in mind and will write to me, I will be very glad to answer his questions.

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European Council (Stockholm)

3.30 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Special European Council held in Stockholm from 22 to 24 March.

At Stockholm, there was from all our partners sympathy over the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Britain and support for the measures that we are taking to contain and eradicate the disease. With your permission, Mr. Speaker, tomorrow, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will make a statement to the House on the latest developments.

The purpose of the Council was to take forward the process of economic reform that was launched last year at Lisbon. That involved setting performance targets for the first time; benchmarking both between the nations of the European Union and in relation to our main competitors outside Europe; and a massive programme of liberalisation in opening up our markets.

As American growth slows, that policy is even more vital for growth and jobs in the future. Since March 2000, 2.5 million new jobs have been created in the European Union. In the United Kingdom we have created more than 1 million new jobs since 1997. Those figures will be welcomed in the House, in the country and across the European Union.

European Union spending on information and communications technology as a proportion of gross domestic product has, for the first time, outstripped that of the United States. In Europe, the proportion of homes with access to the internet has doubled to 28 per cent. For the United Kingdom, however, the figure is now 41 per cent. We must, however, go further.

Prior to the summit, we had already agreed rules for electronic commerce, so that a company registered in its home state can operate on the basis of those rules anywhere in the European Union; rules allowing businesses to operate as a European company; a programme for liberalisation of rail freight; and the final steps in telecommunications liberalisation, in a manner which will bring cheaper bills and cheaper internet access. That is good news for consumers across Europe.

At Stockholm, we agreed, first, to liberalise financial services, in a comprehensive plan that includes a single European company prospectus, common accounting standards, a far quicker procedure for changing financial services rules, and completing the single market in wholesale and retail financial services. The City and the Confederation of British Industry have rightly welcomed that breakthrough as good for jobs in the UK and the rest of the EU.

Secondly, we have made a commitment to open up the electricity and gas markets across the European Union. Most member states support the Commission's proposed timetable of full energy liberalisation by 2005, with intermediate targets for commercial liberalisation of 2003 for electricity and 2004 for gas. That proposal goes forward. There is widespread support for it in the Council and, crucially, it can be agreed by qualified majority vote. While I regret that we could not go further at Stockholm, the prospects for agreement at European level remain good. Our aim is for the Council of Ministers to reach agreement before the end of the year.

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Thirdly, we agreed to reform competition policy and eliminate unfair state aids. We expect that, in 18 months, British consumers will benefit from, for example, changes to the so-called car block exemption in which our aim will be to secure a decrease in UK car prices.

Fourthly, we agreed to finalise plans this year to deliver a Europe-wide patent. Currently, it can take almost four years for a patent to be agreed right across the European Union. That is twice the time that it takes in the United States, and at five times the cost.

We also hope to agree, in June, the single European sky policy, which will improve air traffic management in Europe, enhancing safety and reducing delays. A 25 per cent. reduction in delays, for example, would save Europe's air transport industry and the public 2 billion euros a year.

Additionally, the Council took further steps on employment, especially for women and over-50s; on vocational skills; and on new technologies, including third- generation mobile communications and biotechnology.

On trade, we renewed our commitment to work towards a new WTO round later this year--an issue that we shall pursue when President Bush meets EU Heads of Government in Sweden in June. Taken together, these changes are further steps along the way to an efficient and competitive European economy.

President Putin met members of the European Council in Stockholm, and I had a good separate bilateral meeting with him. Discussion focused on economic issues. We expressed our support for continued Russian economic reform and for Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organisation. We also underlined the importance of further steps by Russia to improve the investment climate.

There were other conversations on the margins of the summit: some private, some public, some supposed to be private that ended up public--our own special contribution to the transparency of the Council process.

President Trajkovski of Macedonia joined us in Stockholm at a critical moment for his country. We offered him our support and condemned the activity of the armed Albanian extremists. Macedonia has started to build a multi-ethnic society and it is in all our interests that the country succeeds and does not polarise into separate Slav and Albanian communities. The United Kingdom has acted quickly to help shore up democracy and peace in Macedonia.

In Kosovo, NATO has diverted an extra 500 KFOR personnel to the Kosovo-Macedonia border, and I can announce today two further new steps. First, we are creating a new UK-Scandinavian battle group of some 400 troops from within our existing contingents for deployment by the KFOR commander to help secure part of the Kosovo-Macedonian border. Secondly, to reinforce KFOR's capacity to control Kosovo's borders, we are sending out a unit of Phoenix unmanned aerial vehicles with a 120-strong support team to provide extra aerial reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering assets to KFOR. The unit will be operational next month.

The European Union also reaffirmed strongly at Stockholm our joint commitment to the Nice treaty and its ratification. Failure to ratify would put at risk the entire enlargement process. While we must, of course, go further in pursuing the policies of economic reform, the fact that this is now the clear economic focus of the EU is in itself

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a huge advance. The agenda for it is being led by the UK, and once again it shows the advantages of constructive engagement and the folly of a policy of isolation.

That is the approach that we took at Stockholm. It is a policy that is delivering economic reform in Europe and jobs for this country. It is the policy that I propose to pursue with the support of this House and of the country.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): First and foremost, I join the Prime Minister in acknowledging the concern expressed by EU leaders about the severity of the situation facing the countryside in Britain and tens of thousands of businesses--a subject to which I shall return shortly.

There are several conclusions of the Council that I would like to welcome. We welcome the clear statement of support for Macedonia and the integrity of its borders. With Lord Robertson and Mr. Solana now visiting the area, does the Prime Minister recognise the need not only to express support for Macedonia and to take the measures that he has outlined, but for a co-ordinated approach to the Balkans region as a whole?

I also welcome those aspects of the summit conclusions that further open up the single market, including the progress made on financial services liberalisation, but will the Prime Minister acknowledge that the high hopes of many in the Government following Lisbon a year ago have largely been dashed, and that the Government made several mistakes in the run-up to Stockholm? The first was to spin things that could not be delivered--not an unfamiliar problem with this Government. Does he recall promising the House a year ago

Does not such rhetoric make the reality since then all the more disappointing? Why has there been so little progress on the liberalisation of energy markets--an issue vital to British businesses--with all mention of clear deadlines blocked and removed from the communique? Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that he told Mr. Jospin at the weekend that he would find the outcome very difficult to sell to his constituents back in Britain?

The Prime Minister's second mistake was to agree to yet more red tape, including the so-called tax package. It is intended to lead to tax harmonisation, as confirmed by the Belgian Finance Minister this morning. On the works council directive, to which the Government say that they are opposed, and on which the Prime Minister signed away our veto, did he place it on the agenda and make the position of the United Kingdom clear? Last week, the Minister for the Cabinet Office assured the House that the Prime Minister intended to secure agreement on introducing a rigorous business impact assessment system and the setting of an 18-month deadline, but that has not appeared in the conclusions of the summit. Did the right hon. Gentleman put that on the agenda and did he make the United Kingdom's position clear?

Was not the Prime Minister's third mistake the decision to take with him the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz)? The Minister for Europe travelled with the Prime Minister but then kept a low profile and, according

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to officials, had nothing in his diary. The one thing he did, we learn, was to host a lunch for European Ministers. As a senior Government official said:

We also know that the Prime Minister confided to Commissioner Prodi that he had 10 days in which to decide about something. We know that he could not possibly have been talking about a general election. We know that because his press secretary was at the same time telling journalists that the Prime Minister was not remotely focused on a general election, and that the only people who were talking about general elections were those in the media.

Let us take the Prime Minister's word for it that Mr. Prodi's query was about the timing of the county council elections--a big issue of concern in the European Commission, as we know. That being so, the Prime Minister has set himself a deadline of next Monday by which to make a decision about the local elections. Can we presume that this week he will bring forward the legislation that we called for last week to enable any decision about county council elections in areas affected by foot and mouth to be taken this week?

The severity of the foot and mouth crisis was widely acknowledged at Stockholm. I know that both sides of the House welcome the assistance of vets from other European countries. Given that there is still a massive shortage of vets, what further discussions did the Prime Minister have with his European counterparts over the weekend so that we can bring more desperately needed vets into Britain from the rest of the European Union?

The foot and mouth crisis is clearly not yet under control. What contingency plans have been drawn up for a vaccination and slaughter programme, such as the one floated on Friday by the Minister of Agriculture for use as a last resort? As such a programme may, one day, have to be used as a last resort, did the Prime Minister discuss with other countries the availability of the right kind of vaccine in the rest of Europe, given the limited supply in Europe as a whole? What did he do in Stockholm to obtain those supplies from other European countries as a precaution?

European countries know that the most important thing is to deal with this crisis domestically. Does the Prime Minister agree that the Government will be in a stronger position to give them that assurance if they implement vigorously the measures that they have announced and others have been calling for in recent weeks? I know that we will have the statement of the Minister of Agriculture tomorrow. However, in persuading other European countries of our determination in this respect, will the Prime Minister comment on the fact that we are seeing today in Cumbria what a valuable contribution the Army can make? Now that they are at last deployed, will he assure us that he will allow the Army commanders to draw on whatever resources they need to do the job, and to do so in other parts of the United Kingdom as well?

Will the right hon. Gentleman also assure other European countries that, although delays in slaughter are still a major problem--since last Thursday, the backlog has risen by more than 40 per cent. to 227,000--he agrees with the Government's chief scientist that slaughtering should take place within 24 hours of the disease being identified?

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Eleven days ago, the Government announced a precautionary cull in Cumbria. When will that cull start, and will it be extended to other areas of the outbreak, as the chief scientist recommended? [Interruption.] Hon. Members may not want me to ask the Prime Minister about the crisis, but it is affecting the whole country and was discussed at Stockholm. We are entitled to ask about it.

As the Government's effort requires urgency and co-ordination, will the Prime Minister form a crisis Cabinet? Would that not be the best way to resolve the interdepartmental turf wars that have obviously arisen? The Government say that they will do all those things, but their efforts have lacked urgency and co-ordination. The message to the Government from across the country about the use of the Army, the speed of slaughter and carrying out the cull is, "Stop dithering, and get on with it." In doing all that, would the Government not signal, at last, that their absolute and overriding priority is to get on top of the situation and get a grip on eradicating the disease?

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