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The hon. Member for Middlesbrough was asked—

Westminster Abbey

22. Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): To ask the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, if he will make a statement on the timetable for removal of the temporary builders yard adjacent to Westminster abbey. [158938]

Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): The dean and chapter are working closely with English Heritage and Westminster city council under guidance from the Westminster Abbey Fabric Commission to reduce the size and area of the masons yard, which is required for essential restoration work.

Mr. Gale : As this House appears ready to permit Parliament square to be used as a junkyard for largely unattended protest placards, this question might appear a little churlish, but the last time I did a recce of this particular corner of Westminster abbey—arguably one of the most historic ecclesiastical buildings in the world—I discovered that the yard is no longer used by masons, whose trade is honourable and whose work is essential, but is being used as a storage yard for, as far as I can see, vehicles and other junk from Westminster city council. Will the hon. Gentleman please take that message back to the commissioners, with a view to having the area cleared in time for the tourist season, so that it can be used as a proper facility?

Sir Stuart Bell: I shall certainly check out the use of that space. Ever since Henry III knocked down the Norman abbey and started again in the 13th century, we have appreciated the abbey's magnificence, its daily worship, its splendid architecture, its fine musical tradition and its significance for visitors—to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It brings us joy, but that has a price, and the price is the burden of maintenance. We shall certainly check out whether the city council or the abbey is responsible.

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Church Land

23. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): To ask the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, what action parishioners can take to prevent Church land in their parish from being sold by the diocesan authority for development. [158939]

Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): A diocesan board of finance is legally obliged to serve notice of the proposed sale of glebe land on the local incumbent or, in a vacancy of the benefice, on the priest in charge or churchwardens of the parish. They can make representations to the commissioners, who then decide the matter.

Bob Russell : Will the Church Commissioners have words with the Chelmsford diocese over the glebe field in the Mile End area of Colchester, where the diocese used the opportunity of the rector's departure to acquire part of the rectory grounds, add it to the glebe and put it on the market, against the wishes of local residents and the parish council? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that avarice shown by the Church is rather worse than avarice shown by property speculators?

Sir Stuart Bell: I anticipated the hon. Gentleman's question about the glebe field on the edge of Colchester, and we have already taken up the matter with the diocese. The legal obligations of the diocesan board of finance fall under the Endowments and Glebe Measure 1976. On the question of avarice, the Church does the best it can and is not to be compared with property speculators or developers, but I will be glad to take up the matter on the hon. Gentleman's behalf.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): May I raise the question of the development of land at Lingey house in Sacriston in my constituency by the Church Commissioners? What weight is given to local people's views? I ask that especially in light of the letter that I received from Vivien Brooks of the Church Commissioners, saying that she sees no reason for a meeting with local residents if it is for the purpose of discussing access and egress at the development site. I would expect such a hard-nosed approach from the most callous of property developers, but not from an organisation that is supposed to support the local community.

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that constituency matter. He and I have been in communication on it, and it concerns access and egress, as he said. We have given him some letters, and I have said that, as a Church Commissioner, I will be happy to discuss directly with him his constituents' concerns, and I look forward to our having such a meeting shortly.

GM Crops

24. Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC): To ask the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, what the policy of the

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commissioners is regarding (a) the cultivation and use of GM crops and (b) the keeping of animals on their land. [158941]

Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): The Church Commissioners do not permit the growing of GM crops on their land. As to the keeping of livestock, the commissioners expect their tenants to observe the requirements of law and best practice.

Mr. Thomas : I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me, as a member of a disestablished Church, to ask this question. I am delighted that the Church Commissioners have made this decision. In the light of a likely announcement by the Government tomorrow licensing the commercialisation of GM crops, I hope that the commissioners will maintain an interest in low-intensity and possibly even organic agriculture, and not in chemical-based agriculture.

Sir Stuart Bell: I am always happy to welcome Plaid Cymru to questions, in the best traditions of our national Parliament, in which all right hon. and hon. Members can put questions to a Church Commissioner. The GM policy to which I referred reflects the advice of the Church's ethical investment advisory group in 2000, as endorsed by the commissioners. I have no reason to believe that that advice will change in the none too distant future.

Mission Activities

25. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): To ask the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, what the current plans are for

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the funding of mission activities and for the future of the section 23 grant for cathedrals with respect to the recent decision made by Synod; and if he will make a statement. [158942]

Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): The Church Commissioners' spending plans for 2005–07 will be developed over the coming months in the light of the actuarial evaluation of the commissioners' fund, and they will take on board views expressed by Synod and others in the Church.

Michael Fabricant : I thank the hon. Gentleman for that answer, but does he not realise that many cathedrals and diocese are concerned that money might be diverted from mission duties and the funds available to cathedrals for restoration, and instead given to other worthwhile causes such as the maintenance of parish churches? What can he do to assure them—including, of course, Lichfield cathedral—that that will not happen?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question and I welcome him back to our Question Time; I thought that he had deserted us for a while. Having visited Lichfield cathedral, I can well understand his concern about this matter. He is certainly right in that during the early 1990s the decision was taken heavily to cut parish ministry support, which then stood at some £60 million. However, he should know that in 2003 the commissioners provided £2.5 million in grants to cathedrals under section 23 of the Cathedrals Measure 1999; in addition, they spent £3.8 million on cathedral clergy stipends. Having visited Lichfield cathedral last summer, I am looking forward to visiting it—and, of course, other cathedrals—this summer.

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European Communities Association Agreement

3.31 pm

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con) (urgent question): Will the Secretary of State make a statement on the immigration service's operation of the European Communities association agreement?

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes): Under the European Communities association agreement—which was signed in 1994, 1995 and 1999—citizens of countries seeking to accede to the European Union must be treated on a par with European economic area nationals for the purpose of establishing themselves in business in any member state. This means that nationals of a number of central and eastern European countries can set themselves up in a company, as sole traders or in a partnership, in any of the existing member states. In the United Kingdom, the EC association agreements are incorporated into the immigration rules. To enter under this category, an applicant has to provide evidence that the proposed business will generate enough income to maintain him or her and any dependants.

Towards the end of last year, a backlog of such cases accumulated in our Sheffield office, following the introduction of charging and a seasonal increase in other applications during the autumn. Without any authorisation from any Minister, or from senior managers or the director general, guidance was issued locally to staff, to the effect that in straightforward cases—mostly those involving people who already had leave to remain—the application should be granted without further inquiries being made, provided that a business plan had been submitted.

There was no question of staff being instructed to grant such leave to those whom they believed to be fraudulent. Furthermore, the guidance made it explicit that applications from those here illegally were to be refused in the normal way. However, the guidance did enable workers to approve applications without further checks in cases involving those who were already here legally—they are the majority—or those who were otherwise judged to be low risk. Ministers were not consulted and I have ordered a full investigation into how this came about. The investigation will be conducted by a senior immigration and nationality directorate official, from outside the managed migration directorate. I have also issued instructions that the local guidance be rescinded forthwith, and that all such cases receive the same level of scrutiny as before.

I refute categorically, however, the suggestion that this was a deliberate policy to reduce the impact of accession on 1 May. The essential point is that, as I have said, no change in practice was authorised by Ministers or senior managers. It is worth remembering that, principally, the people affected were already lawfully in this country.

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