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Commission Land

6. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): How much land the commission owns; and what its total value is. [20212]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): The commissioners' landholdings total approximately 122,000 acres, and they were valued at £317 million in December 2004. They form part of a property portfolio valued at £1.3 billion in December 2004.

Miss McIntosh: Given the hon. Gentleman's earlier remarks, may I take this opportunity to repeat my congratulations to the incoming Archbishop of York, who will be made to feel most welcome in the district?
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How many of the landholdings have been added to or taken from the overall property portfolio? How many properties are included in that portfolio, and what is the annual cost of maintenance?

Sir Stuart Bell: As the hon. Lady knows, the Church Commissioners publish their annual accounts every year, and those accounts include all the information to which she has referred. If any particular item is not included in those reports, I will be happy to send her the information in the post, if I can find it.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware of the increasing pressures on clergy. In my own benefice, for example, we have three churches, but no vicar. My hon. Friend has mentioned £317 million of land property. Can he guarantee Church members in struggling benefices, and in my benefice in particular, that the Church Commissioners are getting value for the land that they are maintaining, that they are ensuring that existing clergy are put into post in places where they are needed, and that the pension pot, the maintenance of which is vital for the recruitment of clergy both now and in the future, is being adequately topped up?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As he knows, we passed a pension measure some years ago that transferred the burden of pensions to the diocese, but of course we maintain a responsibility to those who were in post at the time. It is a changing scene in terms of land values, dioceses and parishes. Where there are weaknesses we seek to rectify them, and where we can be positive we seek to be so. It is a major matter. The commissioners' assets are £4.3 billion, which require oversight. Any point that is made on the Floor of the House is carefully taken into account, as will be that raised by my hon. Friend.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the juxtaposition of huge landholdings with patently inadequate pension provision for retired clergy persons is a standing disgrace and an indictment of the commissioners?

Sir Stuart Bell: If I may refer back to my law practice, the two are not mutually exclusive, so we can link them together if the hon. Gentleman so wishes. However, each one is a separate problem and must be dealt with separately.

Opposition Day

[8th Allotted Day]


Mr. Speaker: We now come to the main business—Opposition day, eighth allotted day, on the Government's handling of decisions relating to Railtrack—[Interruption.] Order. Perhaps the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) could keep quiet.

Before I call the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

I remind the House that last week the matter of the evidence of the right hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers) to the Transport Sub-Committee was referred to the Committee on Standards and Privileges, so Members should not refer in this debate to matters that will fall to be judged by that Committee.

3.31 pm

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): I beg to move,

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I think that the House will respect the fact that the right hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers) has chosen to come to this debate, although that sits in stark contrast with the obvious absence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is mentioned in the motion.

This debate is about one thing and one thing only—the conduct of new Labour in Government. It is about the way in which the decencies and proprieties of how we are governed have been bypassed, corrupted and polluted. It is about the erosion of independence in the civil service, the abuse of power by Ministers, the arrogance of unelected advisers, and the institutionalised contempt displayed by new Labour to the power and authority of Parliament.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con): That is my speech.

Mr. Duncan: My right hon. and learned Friend is very kind. We all have a treat in store when he winds up later. He will do greater justice to this matter than even my hard work in researching it.

This debate is about how the sorry episode of Railtrack's demise illustrates all the faults that I have listed, and it is about why the Government are so profoundly culpable for what they did. Today's
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debate—as we understand your ruling, Mr. Speaker—is not about matters that are being considered by the Standards and Privileges Committee. We are acutely aware of the important dividing line that separates the issues that we are focusing on and the issues being considered by that Committee. We will be extremely careful, Mr. Speaker, not to trespass on the accusations against the right hon. Member for North Tyneside that will be considered by the Committee. There is no need to do so; the guilt of this Government is palpable and can be proved without any such reference.

Nor is this debate about the Railtrack shareholders' case against the Government. As the judge made clear, he was required to adjudicate only on the one specific charge of misfeasance—an accusation that presented a very high legal hurdle, namely, that the then Secretary of State had acted with targeted malice. Far from vindicating the Government in all respects, as they try to claim, the court case merely excused them from that one extreme and specific charge. The judge was not asked to undertake a review of the Government's conduct, nor to express any opinion on their actions more generally. As the judge categorically made clear, that is the duty of this House; a duty that we now face.

It is not as though the judgment was uncritical. Even about the right hon. Member for North Tyneside, Mr Justice Lindsay inimitably said:

Indeed; Parliament will assess what the right hon. Gentleman meant. Parliament must now also assess the Government's wider conduct. Even the Government's counsel said:

The court case left many aspects of the despicable issue unscrutinised, and it is now our duty to engage in that scrutiny.

All of us in the House face a test—a test of moral probity. We can choose simply to follow the party line or we can exercise our conscience on this matter of justice and take the necessary steps to remove from our Government those whose standards have fallen so grievously low. This House is the place for the redress of grievance. That is what we must now do. As the chairman of the shareholders action group said after the court case:

he said "Stephen Byers"; we say the right hon. Member for North Tyneside—"to account." We must not dash their hopes.

Despite the Government's amendment, the debate is not about the merits and demerits of how Railtrack is or was owned. We are not here to discuss the intricacies and rights and wrongs of who owns the railways. Any attempt to turn the debate into one about who should own the railways, or even to say that Railtrack was failing to perform well, would be utterly outside the debate's intended remit. Any such attempt would be a diversion from the focus of the motion, which is entirely to do with the Government's conduct.
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The debate and the action that must follow from it are entirely about the corruption of the proper process of government by the then Department for Transport, Local Government, and the Regions, the absent Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Treasury and even the Prime Minister.

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