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

Church Repairs

34. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): To ask the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church

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Commissioners, what recent representations he has received on the reduction of VAT on church repairs through a grants equivalent. [26156]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): I have not received any particular representations following the successful launch of the listed places of worship grant scheme.

Miss McIntosh: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that English Heritage is planning to reduce its grant by the amount that the recipient of those grants receives from the Treasury? Is he not alarmed, as I am, by that development? Will he make representations to the Treasury to ensure that that unwelcome development does not continue and become an accepted practice? Will he continue to make representations stating that we should seek to reduce VAT for church repairs under the directive?

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her support, and may I say how pleased I was to see her on the Front Bench a few moments ago? As she knows, the scheme provides a grant that equates to part of the VAT paid, rather than being a reduction in the VAT rate. She mentions the on-going discussions in the European Union, and the European directive on a formal reduction in the rate. Those discussions are continuing. I will ensure that the Treasury is made aware that English Heritage is withdrawing or reducing some of its grant.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough): I welcome the scheme. Any way that we can reduce Church costs in that

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way is welcome. Will my hon. Friend estimate what sort of expenditure is likely to occur in the foreseeable future? Is there any evidence that repair work has been held back, awaiting that decision, so that there may well be a quick rush in the first year or two? If so, is the scheme likely to be cash-limited, in which case a number of applications may well be turned down because there is a closed list?

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. There is no real indication that schemes to repair churches have been held back or withdrawn, given the fact that, of course, the VAT directive is some way off and is being modified, but the total cost of repair work in the Church of England amounts to £120 million and the VAT on the listed building work is about £10 million, so bringing the Government scheme into action as quickly as possible will avoid the problem to which my hon. Friend refers and help us to get a move on with church repairs.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Given the figures that the hon. Gentleman mentions—the VAT on repairs cost the Church £10 million—will he or the Church Commissioners strongly press the Treasury to obtain a derogation from the sixth directive on VAT on the basis that a reduced or zero rate of VAT should be applied to the repair of community buildings?

Mr. Bell: Many of those representations have already been made in the European Union, but, as the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), will know, they did not receive an echo back. That is why the directive is being considered with a view to its being overhauled and brought into line more with the hon. Gentleman's request.

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Volcanic Eruptions (Democratic Republic of Congo)

3.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the volcanic eruptions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Last Thursday at about 10 o'clock in the morning, the Nyiragongo volcano near Goma in the DRC erupted. That evening the quantity and rate of lava flow from the volcano increased, and further fissures opened up in Goma itself. Much of the town was engulfed and destroyed.

Early reports suggest that about 100 people have lost their lives, but the death toll may rise further. Hundreds of thousands of people have had to flee their homes. Many crossed to Rwanda in the east to seek shelter in and around the town of Gisenyi. Others fled west in the direction of Sake inside the DRC. Some who were trapped in the town and under threat from the heat and from noxious gasses have been helped to safety.

The volcano continues to erupt and the whole area, including Gisenyi, is subject to continuing earth tremors. There are also concerns that the gasses disturbed—especially deep in Lake Kivu—could threaten the lives of civilians who remain in or return to the area.

In spite of these dangers, many of those displaced are now moving back into Goma itself. Those affected naturally want to find out the extent of the destruction of their homes and property and to see what the chances of returning may be. It also appears that many would rather be in the DRC than seek refuge in Rwanda. Irrespective of where people choose to locate themselves, there is an urgent need for water and sanitation, health care, shelter and food. Cholera is a particularly serious threat.

The response of the international community and of the Rwandan Government has been as follows. The Rwandan Government have already provided assistance to civilians trapped by the lava flows. The United Nations has redeployed resources from the DRC and staff from Geneva to lead the relief operation. MONUC, the United Nations peacekeeping operation in DRC, has made its logistical capacity available. The International Committee of the Red Cross and major international non- governmental organisations based in the area are already working to help those affected. The major relief agencies have a presence and a capacity on both sides of the Rwanda-DRC border, and will be able to offer support where it is most needed, although the challenge is and will remain considerable.

Appeals have been made to donors for help. The Department for International Development has set aside £2 million to help fund the relief operation through Oxfam and Merlin, a UK emergency medical response agency. The British Red Cross will also respond to the UN appeal. Oxfam has been asked by the UN to take on the role of providing water and sanitation, and a flight with equipment and supplies left RAF Manston on Saturday evening. This was paid for by DFID funding. Merlin will provide health care to those affected. The organisation has considerable experience in the DRC and a large team of Congolese professionals already present on the ground. The Red Cross will continue to deliver emergency help in Goma and Gisenyi.

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As the situation changes, DFID will continue to provide support to agencies already on the ground and we stand ready to consider further help as necessary. Earlier this year, the International Committee of the Red Cross received £5.5 million from DFID for its programme in the DRC, including a significant element for humanitarian assistance.

The two countries involved have already suffered a great deal from the conflict that has affected the region. This human catastrophe is another burden for the people of Goma to bear and I am sure that the whole House will wish to express its sympathies to all who have been affected and who have lost loved ones.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): I thank the Minister for faxing a copy of the statement to my office. That was extremely helpful.

I express our condolences to the many families who have lost loved ones in this natural disaster and welcome the £2 million announced in immediate aid to the victims of the volcano. There is a question, however, about the flow of refugees. If they are now returning to Goma, as reports suggest, will the aid be in the right place at the right time?

The return of people to Goma makes us ask about the state of the refugee camps in Rwanda and people's experiences of them. Can the Minister comment on the number of people who have arrived in refugee camps and on the standards within them? As many people have decided to return home, what is being done to provide aid to them in their homes, if they still have them, given the lack of water or electricity in Goma? We commend Oxfam on being asked by the United Nations to help with water sanitisation, but is the Minister satisfied that adequate measures are in hand to improve water sanitisation, given that both water treatment plants in Goma have been destroyed?

The redeployment of the peacekeeping staff, to whom the Minister referred, to logistical support prompts the question of how best to uphold the rule of law. Can he confirm the reports of Congolese troops taking part in the looting? Does he agree that the compounded disaster of the petrol station shows that more measures need to be taken to protect the population who have decided to remain in Goma?

Lessons learned from previous humanitarian intervention in these areas show the need for better co-ordination between donors and the numerous agencies, especially in the areas of civil conflict. It was not totally clear from the statement who is responsible for co-ordinating that and what role, if any, the Government of the DRC will have, given that that is a rebel- controlled area.

The volcanic eruption was, to a certain extent, predictable. Is the new technology for measuring long episodes of seismic activity feasible in the long term, to improve our response to such disasters? Volcanologists warn of the very real danger of carbon dioxide poisoning where the pockets of gas are released by lava flows into the lakes. Has any measurement of that risk taken place? Finally, it is reported that the Foreign Secretary will visit the country later this week. What role will he have in the humanitarian effort?

The region around Goma has suffered so many manmade problems that this natural disaster must be particularly hard to bear. An effective humanitarian

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response can at least prevent the preventable aspects of the disaster, and we should refine our model for working in volcanic regions from the experiences of those who work to mitigate the impact today.

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