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Ben Chapman: Is my hon. Friend aware that our churches are an important and unique national asset that is under-exploited in tourism? I commend to him the work of the North West Multi-Faith Tourism Association, and urge him to encourage the Church and other agencies to attach due importance to the role of faith tourism, not least because it can help to maintain historic churches and play a part in the local economy?
Sir Stuart Bell: I am aware of the North West Multi-Faith Tourism Association, which is one of many tourism initiatives the Church welcomes. As the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) is in the Chamber, I should mention the North Yorkshire church tourism initiative, which revealed huge scope for developing church tourism in the county. We would, of course, welcome the establishment of the post of national church tourism officer. In 2000, York minster, Canterbury cathedral and Westminster abbey were placed second, third and fourth for visitor numbers to historic properties, behind the Tower of London.
Robert Key (Salisbury)
(Con): In Salisbury, we are well aware that the success of church tourism depends
13 Jun 2005 : Column 19
on the proper upkeep of church buildings. What estimate have the Church Commissioners made of the impact of the proposed changes to the National Lottery Bill that the House will consider tomorrow, as the distribution of lottery funds could mean that the heritage lottery fund will lose up to £15 million a year? That money could be spent on grants to our historic churches, so its loss would have a severe impact on church tourism.
Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He has raised the issue before, and we have looked into it. The nation's heritage needs a sensible funding partnership with the state for church buildings. He will be aware that the listed places of worship grant scheme is an example of valuable state support. The Church needs £100 million a year for the upkeep of its buildings, and we are always urging the Government to do more for us. Again, to use a Scriptural quotation:
The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): As at 2 February this year, 6,907 applications for VAT refunds have been made under this scheme; since 1 April 2004, 5,668 of them from churches in England. About £8 million has been paid out, £6.5 million to English churches.
Miss McIntosh: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his answer and I congratulate him on the confirmation of his appointment in this Parliament. When we discussed this issue in the last Parliament, he expressed disappointment at the take-up of grants. Is that because of the administration involved? Is he more satisfied with take-up now, and what more can right hon. and hon. Members do in their constituencies to urge churches to apply for the grant?
Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her kind words of congratulation on my reappointment. The Church felt that the appointment should be kept on the basis of better the devil you know. I hope that the press do not pick that up.
Since my earlier statement about take-up, I am happy to say that almost £980,000 was paid out under the scheme in February this year, which suggests that the scheme is picking up. We welcomed the Chancellor's statement in March that the scheme would continue until March 2009, and would be extended to memorials.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
(Lab): It is always a pleasure to listen to my hon. Friend, and it is a delight to hear him answer our difficult questions. Does he accept that this is a way in which
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mediaeval buildings can receive a positive boost? Would he at least consider whether any further work needs to be done on publicising the advantages of the scheme?
Peter Viggers (Gosport) : I understand from the Electoral Commission that, working closely with the Ministry of Defence, it provided electoral information in various ways to service personnel ahead of the recent general election. Any change to the existing statutory arrangements for voting and registration by service personnel would primarily be a matter for the Government.
Mr. Robathan: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that response. Unfortunately, the information did not get to service personnel before the last election. Indeed, my understanding is that many units were not contacted at all about the issue. Will he therefore make representations to the Government, if he can do so in his position, to include in the legislation that they are introducing some means by which service personnel, who serve the whole of Britain overseas and elsewhere, defending our interests, are given a proper chance to vote, which they were not given on 5 May?
Peter Viggers: I am instructed that the Electoral Commission currently has no plans to conduct a formal review, and neither have the Government asked it to do so. However, my hon. Friend will have been present in the House on 6 June, when the Secretary of State for Defence undertook to make contact with the chairman of the Electoral Commission. He has done so, and I know that both the Ministry of Defence and the commission are listening carefully to representations from hon. Members. They are particularly keen to hear about specific cases in which service personnel may have been deprived of the vote.
Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Over the weekend, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills announced a policy of extended hours that could affect every school in the country. No one in the House has had the chance to ask any questions about it. Are you aware that this is the third example in a week of the Secretary of State ignoring this Chamber? She announced a massive change to the way in which our children will be taught to read, involving reviewing the national literacy strategy, and in response to pressure, she announced an audit of special schools, which will affect many constituencies represented in the House. So far, we have not had even a written ministerial statement, let alone an oral one. Have you had any approach from the Secretary of State about making a statement this afternoon? Should she not come here and spell it out?
Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you undertake to speak directly to the Secretary of State about her discourtesy today? We on the Liberal Democrat Benches share the views expressed by the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). The Government's plan may be welcome, but it raises more questions than it answers, as one sees when one looks at the detail. It makes no mention of school transport arrangements for the extended day, for example, which threatens not Kelly hours, but Kelly rush hours. When will we have a chance to debate this issue and ask the Secretary of State questions?
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