Draft Grants to the Churches Conservation Trust Order 2003

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Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): We support this mechanism for getting money to where it is needed. It is vital that we do what we can to preserve and enhance our ecclesiastical heritage. However, I have two questions, one of which might require a written reply.

This draft order, like the previous one, which was introduced in 2000, is for three years. Are there mechanisms in place to review it within the three-year period in circumstances that are obviously beyond the Minister's control? For example, if inflation returns or other disasters occur, it might be necessary to reconsider the situation, so is there a review mechanism?

My second point relates to an interesting issue raised with me by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). The Historic Chapels Trust does a similar job to that of the Churches Conservation Trust in relation to disused nonconformist and Roman Catholic chapels of historical and architectural significance. Together with the Churches Conservation Trust, it won concessions on value added tax—hon. Members may recall their campaign—and Scottish and Welsh trusts won a similar concession. However, the trusts face a similar problem arising from the Licensing Bill.

The Government plan to exempt churches from expensive and bureaucratic licensing procedures for concerts in places of worship, but they have not so far made specific proposals to include the Churches Conservation Trust in the Licensing Bill exemption. There is a danger that the money granted today will return to the Treasury in the form of charges under the Bill. Has the Minister raised that issue with colleagues?

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If not, will he do so and give us his view? Those are my points, but we shall support the order.

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Bob Russell (Colchester): Following on the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders), we need to be clear whether the Chancellor is giving with one hand on VAT and taking with the other. Ministers and others must also consider, albeit not today, how the nonconformist Churches and other faiths—not only Christian faiths—can be brought under the same umbrella. While it is right and proper for us to support the order, we should move on from the thought that only the Anglican church should benefit from this largesse.

We should put on record our appreciation to everybody involved in the Churches Conservation Trust. As the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) said, perhaps if there were more resources more could be done. Many historic buildings in our communities would benefit from such assistance.

I am particularly keen on the trust because there are already three buildings under its jurisdiction in my constituency—one would expect that in Britain's oldest recorded town—so perhaps I am putting out the begging bowl for more. Will the Minister tell me in his reply today, or later in writing, whether there is a route back for a church whereby it can again become a regular parish church or place of worship? Suppose the community has departed, the church is redundant but has been restored to perhaps its best condition in centuries, and then the closure of a port and massive urban regeneration brings more people into the area than historically lived there. There in their midst is a closed church. Is there a mechanism, if the community desires it, to bring that church back into active use?

I am not sure who has legal ownership of the buildings. If ownership is no longer with the diocese, does it still have any say over the use to which a church, once closed, can be put? I ask that because the Greek Orthodox community in my constituency would like to take over a closed church, but is apparently having difficulties in so doing. Is there something in the rules and regulations that enables the former owners to prevent a different denomination or faith from coming in?

Those are pertinent questions, which I hope the Minister will answer in writing, if not in his response today.

2.52 pm

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): I add my expressions of pleasure at speaking under your chairmanship, Mr. Beard. I declare an interest in that I am chairman of the Churches Conservation Trust, although I think that I have not put it in the Register of Members' Interests—I shall go and do so immediately after the Committee rises. If I take a slightly different angle from the other speakers in this debate, it is because I am the chairman of that body.

Thanks to taxpayers' money and to support from the Church Commissioners, this country now has the finest collection of ecclesiastical buildings anywhere in

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the world, and it has put them under one stewardship. The taxpayers and the Church have done that not only because they believe that the buildings are of great beauty, but because they are part of the English memory. For them to be carelessly destroyed would be a huge act of vandalism.

I shall comment later on some of the issues that have been raised, but the debate gives me an opportunity not only to congratulate the staff who conserve our buildings and ensure that they are open to the public, but in the House of Commons to express to the huge number of volunteers my respect for their extraordinary effort. I also put on the record our thanks to them, whether they are paid or unpaid, for that effort.

Let me pick up the comments so deftly put by the Opposition speakers. We must accept that we are discussing a standstill budget. Although the Secretary of State, when the public expenditure round was agreed, wrote to all the organisations that he helps to fund saying what a generous settlement had been made, we had a standstill budget. However, the Secretary of State said that money was being kept back for modernisation, and I assure the Minister that when money becomes available for which organisations can apply, the trust will be one of the first to do so.

We will happily work under the heading of modernisation, because we must think well beyond the bounds that the trust has sought to maintain up to now in carrying out its functions. I therefore welcome the care that the Government have taken in limiting taxpayers' money given to us. They have said that there is an offer of new money, but that nothing will come to us automatically: it will depend on the quality of our plans. The debate that took place in General Synod earlier showed that this is the last time that its members will approve their side of the agreement.

The full effects of the squandering of historic assets by previous Church Commissioners on the financial running of the Church are now becoming only too plain. Had they not lost that £800 million by thinking that they could pull off a fast move in American property, the Church today would have an extra £50 million a year in income. The effects of that folly of a decade ago are beginning to show in the Church's daily operations. I therefore do not expect Synod to approve its side of the motion again.

When the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) mentioned Churches that are not established Churches being outside the fund, there was considerable agreement among Labour Back Benchers about what appears to be unfairness. Therefore, the modernisation proposals that we take to the Government must not only rethink our role, but do so in a way that takes into account other Christian denominations, so that the best of their buildings can be treated as well as redundant Anglican buildings have been in the past.

To end on a personal note, we are always pleased to hear from other groups that might wish to use our churches. One of the hon. Gentleman's local churches, St. Martin's, which I think was used as a restaurant for

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a time, was most weirdly painted in ways that did not enhance the building. There clearly are problems surrounding who gain leases on buildings and how they treat them. However, it was good news that there might be somebody in the market for the three churches in his constituency.

I am grateful for this opportunity to speak. I want, through the Government, to thank taxpayers for their support. May I also convey, through my hon. Friend the Second Church Estates Commissioner, our thanks to the Church. My right hon. Friend the Minister will add another first to the many firsts of his parliamentary career: I do not think that in three years' time another Minister will move a similar motion to the one moved today.

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Second Church Estates Commissioner (Mr. Stuart Bell): I add my own expressions of satisfaction that I am in this Committee under your chairmanship, Mr. Beard. I can agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead in this respect: I will probably not be in another Committee with you for the next three years, as I do not normally sit on these Committees.

Let me tell the Committee a story about Winston Churchill, who used to walk the grounds of 10 Downing street, dictating to his secretary. He used to start with ''Mr. Speaker, sir, I didn't intend to speak today, but,'' and then he gave his set speech. I did not intend to speak today, but came simply to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead referred to the Church Commissioners, it might be useful to put some points on record, although I will not speak of dissatisfaction, because I was hardly dissatisfied with the Minister's statement.

The figure of £800 million for the supposed loss some years ago is not correct. The Church Commissioners never lost that amount on property. However, that figure has got into the system, and like all figures that get into the system, it is impossible to get out, as we have heard today. When I became Church Estates Commissioner in 1997, the commissioners' assets were £3 billion. Under my stewardship, they increased to £4.5 billion. Victory has 1,000 fathers, and why should I not be one of them? Assets have decreased a little, to about £4.3 billion, because of the fall in the stock markets, but they are sufficient for a lengthy period.

I therefore do not associate myself with the views expressed by my right hon. Friend that this is the last time that the commissioners will grant money to the Churches Conservation Trust. The money is the Church Commissioners' money, not Synod's money. I am very glad that that grant has been approved today, but I do not believe that it represents the last contribution that the Church Commissioners will make.

On the wider issue of Church and state, although we have many debates about the Church being established or disestablished, Church and state come together under this order. The Church makes its contribution through the Church Commissioners; the

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state makes its contribution through the taxpayer and my right hon. Friend. Thus, we see how the established Church works in harmony and, in this case, in the interests of our stock of redundant churches.

I end on a happy note by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead on his work as chairman of the Churches Conservation Trust. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister. He might not be in his post in two or three years' time, but I am sure that whoever is in his post then will introduce a similar order.

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