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Licensing Act

10. Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): What assessment she has made of the impact on consumers, licensees and community groups of the Licensing Act 2003; and if she will make a statement. [81371]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Shaun Woodward): It is too early to determine the full impact of the Licensing Act 2003 on different stakeholders. However, we know that local people are engaged in the licensing process to an unprecedented level and are confident that the interests of the public, as well as of pubs, clubs, bars, restaurants, theatres, cinemas and other establishments, are better protected by the new regime.

Lynda Waltho: Stourbridge police recommend the introduction of the cumulative impact policy in the centre of my constituency. That will enable local people to have a say in local licensing decisions. There is a committee meeting tonight to discuss the recommendation. If the decision is taken to introduce it, it will be the most wide-ranging in the United Kingdom. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating local police for
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their work so far in dealing with what has been a doubling of the number of bars and pubs in my town centre, and also for their foresight and vision in taking full advantage of this consultative process?

Mr. Woodward: I agree with my hon. Friend. In fact, this morning I had the pleasure of reading through the notes on the special meeting of the licensing and safety committee in preparation for this question, which were fully available on the web as part of the open, transparent government that we, of course, now operate. The serious point is that what is most interesting is the way that this provides the opportunity for the police and the council to consider together and in detail evidence to ascertain whether proposals to introduce a special policy should go forward.

That is exactly the kind of discussion that we wanted to happen as a result of the Act. We wanted a balance between the interests of the public who are affected by disorder, nuisance and other problems and those of legitimate businesses and people who enjoy themselves by having a drink, while leaving at the right time and not indulging in binge drinking. The combination of those interests and decisions being made by local communities is what this Act was properly for, and the matter raised demonstrates quintessentially why the Act is working.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): What does the Minister suggest that I say to the Punch and Judy man on Southwold beach who now has to pay £300 in order to entertain the public? What should I say to the parish councils that run the annual church fĂȘte that took place yesterday, given that people now have to fill in a form several inches thick to run a perfectly reasonable charitable operation? Is this not in fact a metropolitan operation dreamt up by a Government who have never run anything in their lives?

Mr. Woodward: I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would extend his normal courtesies to whomever he met on a beach, or in any other place that he happened to wander around. The fact is that we are conducting a review of the 2003 Act’s implementation, and, as he will be aware, we are consulting widely. But at the moment, the overwhelming evidence is that—subject to marginal changes that need to be made, and which we have committed ourselves to being prepared to make, if the evidence is there to support making them—the changes brought in by this Act have improved the regulatory regime for those in business and for the consumer.

Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): I have seen the benefits that sensible implementation of the 2003 Act can bring in the north-east. Is my hon. Friend aware that Newcastle-Gateshead has recently topped an influential list of the best nights out in Britain? That is no surprise, given that visitors to the area have a choice of such cultural gems as the Baltic centre for contemporary art and the Sage live music centre. Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the success of the Newcastle-Gateshead initiative in helping to establish the north-east as an arena at the forefront of British culture?

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Mr. Woodward: Clearly, the Newcastle-Gateshead initiative is an example to us all and I invite all Members, including the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), to pay a visit to that area as soon as possible.

Public Accounts Commission

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—

National Audit Office

19. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): If he will make a statement on the recent performance of the National Audit Office. [81382]

21. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): If he will make a statement on the progress of the National Audit Office in meeting its performance targets for 2006-07. [81384]

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) (Lab): The National Audit Office will present its annual report and accounts to Parliament later this month, setting out its achievements for the year to 31 March 2006 and how it has used its resources. During the year, the NAO produced 61 major reports on the value for money achieved by Departments in using resources across a range of public expenditure. Examples include returning failed asylum seekers, progress in improving Government efficiency, and the failure of MG Rover. The Comptroller and Auditor General certified more than 500 accounts during the year and I know that the House will congratulate the NAO on identifying £555 million-worth of financial savings arising from its work in 2005—a return of more than £8 for every pound funded by Parliament. The Public Accounts Commission will have the opportunity to examine the NAO’s performance on the House’s behalf when it meets to consider the NAO’s corporate plan tomorrow.

Mr. Hollobone: I congratulate the NAO on last week’s report into the failure that is the Child Support Agency. Is it not an absolute scandal that it costs the CSA 70p to collect each £1 of child support, and that 60 per cent. of outstanding child support payments totalling £3.5 billion are deemed uncollectable?

Mr. Williams: That is really a matter for the Public Accounts Committee, rather than the Public Accounts Commission, but one is bound to feel that what we have read about is the latest in a series of disastrous performances by the CSA, which reflect what I suspect is the unpleasant experience of too many of our constituents. Our first inquiry, which was conducted a long time ago, discovered that—unbelievably—the CSA was set up with just one quarter of the staff that it required. Ever since then, it has never recovered.

Mr. Bone: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the National Audit Office is saving this country a lot of money and is he concerned that its expansion is being resisted by the Executive, because they are worried that it would expose their incompetence and weaknesses?

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Mr. Williams: On the latter point, I do not know what the Executive’s aspirations might be, but if there is any such aspiration, it is having no effect. The Public Accounts Commission’s role is to ensure that the NAO has the money that it requires and, so far, there has been no serious attempt by the Treasury to curtail the grants that we were considering making to the NAO. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman. Furthermore, because it has been so successful, we asked the NAO to consider whether, instead of achieving an £8:£1 rate of return for the taxpayer, it could do better. To our surprise, the NAO has said that in 2007 it hopes to increase that ratio from the present £8 to £9 for every £1 that it costs.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission agree that, if the NAO is to maintain and preserve its reputation for professionalism and independence, it would do well to resist the well-known pressure from Government for it to soft pedal its criticism of private finance initiative projects? He speaks of the savings that the NAO has achieved. If he were to press the Government to abandon PFI, which is prohibitive in cost, flawed in concept and intolerable in consequences for taxpayers, citizens and public sector workers, the savings would be vastly greater than the sum that he quoted.

Mr. Williams: Again, that is a matter for the Public Accounts Committee. If the Government have been trying get the National Audit Office to curb criticism of PFI, they have been singularly unsuccessful, and they certainly have not managed to limit the activities of the Public Accounts Committee, on which I sit.

Church Commissioners

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

Retired Clergy

20. Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): What recent assessment the commissioners have made of poverty levels among retired clergy. [81383]The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): None. However, the Commissioners provide funding for certain schemes administered by the Church of England Pensions Board to assist clergy pensioners on low incomes.

Mr. Hoyle: We should find out what poverty levels are among retired clergy. Some of the clergy were late joining and therefore have not built up a sufficient pension fund to give them the income that they need to live off. When they retire, they also have to buy a property. I know they get a mortgage at 0 per cent. interest, but if they have a low pension to start with and have to pay a mortgage, it leaves those who have come late to the service at a great disadvantage. Will my hon. Friend investigate and calculate how bad poverty levels are among retired clergy?

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Sir Stuart Bell: I would rather refer to low incomes than poverty in relation to the clergy. As I told the House on 24 April at column 354 and on 5 June at column 21,

The scheme’s cost has been increased by reduced investment returns, new regulatory requirements and increased life expectancy. My hon. Friend’s point is well taken and I will consider it.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that poverty among retired clergy is likely to increase if the Church of England investments that fund those pensions are made on the basis of what is politically correct, rather than what is financially correct?

Sir Stuart Bell: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman, in the sense that our investments are properly made and are now at £4.9 billion. We have a proper investment policy—an ethical investment policy which is appropriate for the Church. In my time as a Church Commissioner, since 1997, the assets have increased from £3 billion to £4.9 billion, but of course I would hardly take credit for that.

Cathedral Repairs

22. Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): What the cost of repairs to Lichfield and Hereford cathedrals was in 2004-05; and if he will make a statement. [81385]

Sir Stuart Bell: Repair costs for individual cathedrals are not held centrally. However, by way of a statement, an English Heritage survey in 2002 identified £39 million worth of essential structural repairs needed in England’s 61 cathedrals.

Mark Pritchard: Is it not important that we look after our cathedrals, not least Lichfield and Hereford? They act not only as spiritual centres of worship, but as community centres where people gather for live music, as we discussed in the Chamber earlier, and where other non-religious community groups meet in cathedrals. Is it not time that the Government recognised the wider role that our cathedrals play, not only in their diocese, but also to incoming tourists, and started to fund the repairs properly?

Sir Stuart Bell: As the hon. Gentleman says, we should remember the educational benefits, of which Hereford cathedral’s recently launched Tudor trail for schools is a fine example. Lichfield cathedral works hard to encourage school visits, as the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) often reminds us. We are consistently in dialogue with the Government in relation to church repairs, as I may point out in response to another question.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): The cathedrals of England are a particularly important part of our national heritage. Does my hon. Friend worry that, if
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the Church of England increasingly turns its back on its liberal traditions and seems to be an organisation that becomes more and more bigoted and less and less committed to the whole of British society, it will find difficulty in getting support from the society in which it is meant to preach?

Mr. Speaker: Order. That question is far too wide.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Thank you for saying that, Mr. Speaker.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, notwithstanding the accuracy of everything that my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) said, these buildings are intrinsically the most important single group of large buildings in our country, and that any Government who allowed them to crumble into decay would not deserve the accolade of a civilised Government?

Sir Stuart Bell: As the hon. Gentleman knows, cathedrals generate about £91 million per year and directly support 2,600 jobs. They are therefore a strong addition to our economy as well as our national heritage.

Ecclesiastical Buildings

23. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): How many times in the last 12 months commissioners have met the Chancellor of the Exchequer or other Treasury Ministers to discuss financial issues affecting the fabric of churches and cathedrals. [81386]

Sir Stuart Bell: You will be pleased to know, Mr. Speaker, as will the hon. Gentleman, that I regularly chat to the Chancellor on several matters pertaining to the Church. We are grateful to him for his listed places of worship grant scheme, whereby last year in England £12,498,019 was paid out in reimbursement of VAT on church repairs alone.

Michael Fabricant: As my hon. Friends the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) and for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) said, the maintenance of cathedrals is important, but also very expensive. As the hon. Gentleman will know from what I and hon. Members on both sides of the House have said in the past, that often involves VAT on building works and grants that are available to cathedrals for work. He cannot operate in isolation on these matters. To what extent has he raised these matters with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and is he aware that the Chancellor is taking them up with the European Union, which is very much concerned with VAT rates?

Sir Stuart Bell: I sympathise with the Chancellor in his discussions on VAT in Europe, where he needs unanimous consent for any change. In relation to my discussions with him, the hon. Gentleman should know that we equally have discussions with Ministers in other Departments, especially the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), who warmly
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welcomed “Building Faith in our Future” and promised a Government response shortly. We look forward to that.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Can the hon. Gentleman explain to the House why the five Scottish cathedrals in Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dunblane, Dornoch and Lerwick are entirely supported and maintained by the state, while English cathedrals receive not a penny?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am not responsible for the Episcopal church in Scotland. President Pompidou was once asked whether he was responsible for the Church, and said, “No, thank God.” I can say the same of the Episcopal church.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Would it be reasonable for me to say to all the people who look after Christian centres of worship in a borough such as Southwark—the Methodist chapels and churches, the Welsh Free chapel, and the churches and cathedrals of all three denominations, Anglican, Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox—that if the heritage and importance of those buildings merit it, they can look for financial support, as each plays a hugely important part in the life of a borough such as ours?

Sir Stuart Bell: I read comments of the Dean of Southwark in the newspapers with interest, and I well understand the hon. Gentleman’s position. I am, however, responsible for the Church of England, not for the other denominations to which he refers.

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“Building Faith in our Future”

25. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): What progress has been made in implementing the recommendations in the paper, “Building Faith in our Future”; and if he will make a statement. [81388]

Sir Stuart Bell: I refer my hon. Friend to the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant). We continue to make significant progress in helping parishes and dioceses respond to the opportunities and challenges that church buildings present. We await the Government response.

Ben Chapman: Given the potential for church tourism to support and maintain church buildings at the heart of many of our local communities, will my hon. Friend do his best to ensure a co-ordinated approach to its development, involving the Church Commissioners, the Government, the tourist industry and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport?

Sir Stuart Bell: My hon. Friend has regularly championed faith tourism and we agree about its importance. I am happy to tell him that Church officials had a positive meeting at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on church tourism last week. He might also be glad to know that the Churches Tourism Association will launch its tourism marketing initiative at its annual convention in November. The Church Commissioners, as well as my hon. Friend, will take a close interest in those proceedings.

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