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


33. Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): What the impact on their investment returns of their investment in (a) property and (b) equities has been, in the last five years. [34263]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): Over the five years from 1996 to 2000, the commissioners' UK equities portfolio achieved a return of 17.2 per cent. per annum. Their overseas equities achieved 15 per cent. per annum, and the commissioners' commercial, residential and agricultural property holdings contributed to the outperformance, achieving returns of 15.1 per cent., 28.4 per cent. and 10.9 per cent. per annum respectively over the five years.

Mr. Lansley: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his reply. In assessing the return on equities to the Church Commissioners, can he tell the House what is the loss resulting from the Government's change to advance corporation tax in the first Budget after the 1997 general election? How does it compare with the cash value of any reductions in the obligations which the Church Commissioners are taking on in the years ahead and transferring to the dioceses?

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I should add that the total return from our stock

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exchange and property investments over the five-year period was 15.9 per cent. As for the advance corporation tax, matters relating to it were discussed with the actuary. I am happy to make a study for the hon. Gentleman and let him have a copy.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the serious upset in the dioceses, especially the large rural ones, that any reduction, however small, in the support that the Church Commissioners can give the dioceses is passed straight on to the parishes, which not only have the burden of maintaining the fabric of ancient parish churches, but are now faced with the distinct possibility of not being able to afford a priest?

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He should know that our legal duties are numerous; our commitments are to clergy and bishops, both in cathedrals and areas of need. We have a policy on areas of need and opportunity. If the hon. Gentleman has a particular case in mind, I should be glad to look at it and give him a response.


The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Compulsory Voting

34. Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West): If the Electoral Commission will review compulsory voting in parliamentary elections. [34264]

Mr. A. J. Beith (representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission): I understand from the chairman of the Electoral Commission that it believes that there is merit in opening up the question of compulsory voting for wider debate and that it should be examined in more detail as one of a series of options that may help to contribute to higher rates of participation in elections.

Mr. Thomas: I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his response. Does he recognise that compulsory voting works perfectly well in Australia, Belgium and many other countries? Is it not time to recognise that compulsory voting, albeit with the opportunity to register an abstention, would not put an onerous burden on our citizens, as some would have us believe?

Mr. Beith: The hon. Gentleman must not infer from my reply any enthusiasm on my part for compulsory voting. The commission has decided, as the Select Committee on Home Affairs recommended, to open the matter up for debate, in which the hon. Gentleman has already participated extensively. One of the first steps is to look at the operation of compulsory voting in other countries.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe): Is it not fundamental in a free society that people should not be forced to the polling booths if they do not want to vote?

Mr. Beith: That is a view which a number of us hold, and I am sure that it will be one of the views that the

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Commission considers. In the end, of course, it would be a matter for legislation if compulsory voting were introduced.


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

Housing (Retired Clergy)

35. Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): If the Church Commissioners will take measures to assist retired clergy with housing provision. [34265]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): The Church Commissioners already do so. Housing in retirement is the responsibility of individual clergy, and the level of pension allows for that, but it is the Church Commissioners who provide most of the capital for the Church's scheme of housing assistance for retired clergy, which aims to widen the choice available to them.

Mr. Hoyle: That is an interesting answer. Is my hon. Friend aware of the plight of someone who comes late into the clergy, does not build up a pension fund and does not get assistance? Local authorities have to help with accommodation for retired clergy. I do not think that that is the right way forward. There ought to be a rethink by the Church Commissioners, and more assistance ought to be given.

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He ought to know that clergy stipends and housing for retired clergy are very much on the mind of the Church. Wide-ranging recommendations were made in a report on clergy remuneration, a copy of which is in the House of Commons Library. Those were considered by the General Synod in November 2001 and are now with the dioceses for further discussion. The comments made by my hon. Friend today will be sent to the appropriate quarter and will become part of the consultation process.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I support the suggestion of the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle). Will the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) ask his friends the Church Commissioners to consider how they could use their funds to assist clergy who need help with housing after retirement, and also lay people who are paid by the Church and who often find themselves in similar difficulties when they come to the end of their careers? If the Church Commissioners assessed the position nationally, they could make a positive decision about whether they could help, and that would be very welcome.

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He widens the question somewhat to include those who are lay persons within the Church. As I mentioned earlier, there is a study going on which will be read by the

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General Synod. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion that it should be widened to cover the persons to whom he referred will also be considered.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): Does my hon. Friend accept that many of the retired clergy play an ever-increasing role in enabling the Church to provide services on Sunday and cover for absences for various reasons? Is it not therefore important that we ensure that wherever possible, instead of having to move to different areas, they can continue to live in the area that they know well and which they may have served well for a number of years?

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out the work that many retired clergy do after their retirement. The recommendations to which I referred include the one that there ought to be the possibility of providing capital to help clergy with the cost of a deposit payment on the purchase of a house, which they could let before retirement and later occupy themselves. If such a recommendation were accepted, they could live in the community, probably better. I should say, however, that by that response I have not in any way committed the Church Commissioners.

Church Maintenance

36. Bob Spink (Castle Point): If he will make a statement on the programme of church maintenance and improvement. [34266]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): Programmes of maintenance and improvement to Church of England churches are matters for individual parochial church councils.

Bob Spink: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that answer. Does he agree that we owe it to future generations to maintain our historic and beautiful churches and, if possible, to improve the facilities, such as toilets, in those churches? Could not the Church Commissioners devise a scheme for the future to provide help with maintenance and improvements?

Mr. Bell: The hon. Gentleman is of course aware of the listed places of worship grant scheme recently launched by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which allows listed churches to apply for a grant equivalent to a reduction in VAT to 5 per cent. That was a measure introduced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer last year. It has been acted upon and I am hopeful that it will address the kind of situation to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

John Cryer (Hornchurch): Is my hon. Friend aware that many churches in my constituency have needed a great deal of work and maintenance in the past and will do so in the future, especially St. Nicholas church in Elm Park, which had the roof burned off? The rate of VAT that he mentioned has obviously had implications. Is there any chance of further action on that, or a wider scheme to institute church repairs on a national basis, which would help the churches in my area?

Mr. Bell: My hon. Friend should be aware that in addition to the listed places of worship grant scheme,

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English Heritage and the heritage lottery fund have each contributed grant aid of about £10 million per annum. Clearly that and the relief of VAT on church affairs are not sufficient, but the Church of England, along with other faiths, is continuing to work on this problem. I hope that we will even make some progress within the European Union.

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