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Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): Shurland hall in my constituency is a building in which Henry VIII had one of his honeymoons. Ten years ago, English Heritage put up special scaffolding at a cost of £200,000, probably more than the building was worth at the time; at one point I asked whether that could be listed. I am pleased to say that we have won a £300,000 award from English Heritage to restore the fa├žade of this fantastic hall. When it is finished, would the Minister would come and open it?

Mr. Lammy: It is generous of my hon. Friend to invite me to the scene of Henry VIII’s honeymoon, and I will surely visit in the coming months.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I appreciate the problems with regard to Stonehenge that the Minister pointed out, but may I try to ensure that it is predominantly a heritage rather than just a transport-related matter, and that the heritage rather than transport issues hold sway as far as possible? It is disappointing that, in the Secretary of State’s first five years at the helm, she failed to visit a single English Heritage property in an official capacity, as the Minister said in a parliamentary answer on 6 April. As well as her endeavours to acquaint herself with English Heritage property, will she ensure that its vacant chairmanship is taken up by a Government appointee not as closely associated with the Labour party as the incoming chairmen of Ofcom and Sport England?

Mr. Lammy: Surely the Opposition can do better than that. The Secretary of State is the first Secretary of State for 20 years to introduce heritage protection legislation, which will be introduced shortly. She is the first to begin a discussion about the public value of heritage, which she began last year in her essay and which led to a huge conference in January with the heritage community. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Secretary of State and others will decide the future chairmanship of English Heritage in an appropriate, transparent and open way.

Church Commissioners

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

“Inspired” Campaign

19. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): What recent discussions the Church Commissioners have had with English Heritage on its “Inspired” campaign. [92600]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): The Church Heritage Forum, of which the commissioners are members, has welcomed “Inspired”. The forum’s chairman, the Bishop of London, has also said that the repair needs of historic churches are much greater than the sum that English Heritage has asked for.


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Tony Baldry: Is there not an urgent need to maintain and repair many crumbling cathedrals, churches and chapels? While congregations and local communities must play a role, the sheer scale of the sums involved means that the Treasury also has a part to play. Is it not disappointing that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has seemingly not signed up to English Heritage’s “Inspired” campaign?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who often raises the matter in the House. He is right that the upkeep of our magnificent church buildings should be properly reflected in funding received from the state, and the Church Heritage Forum and the Archbishops Council are constantly exploring possibilities with a number of Government contacts. The interest that this House takes in that Church-state relationship and getting more money into our churches is welcome.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Is it not true that a tiny fraction of the money spent on that ridiculous dome, and an even tinier fraction of the money that will be spent on the Olympics, would ensure that all our cathedrals and churches were safe for a further 100 years?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. It would be a sad day for the Church if the promotion of the wonderful Olympic games in London led to it suffering through not getting the appropriate funds.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—

Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act

20. Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): What recent measures the commission has taken to ensure constituency accounting units’ compliance with the disclosure requirements of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. [92601]

Peter Viggers (Gosport): The Electoral Commission has informed me that it issues advice and guidance on which accounting units are required to submit a statement of accounts and on the format and content of those submissions. Additionally, it provides advice through central party organisations on the reporting of donations. The commission checks all the statutory information that it receives to identify any discrepancies or inconsistencies, and all those arising are addressed with the relevant parties and accounting units.

Mr. Hands: PPERA states that constituency parties with incomes more than £25,000 must declare their accounts. At the end of the last financial year, 308 Conservative associations, 93 Liberal Democrat associations and only 38 Labour associations had filed their accounts. The worst offender was Hammersmith and Fulham constituency Labour party. Regardless of political party, what progress is the commission making in ensuring compliance with the 2000 Act?


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Peter Viggers: The accounts that Hammersmith and Fulham Labour party submitted for 2005 were received on 12 July 2006, and they are in a satisfactory form. My hon. Friend makes a fair point, as a considerable number of accounting units have not reported on time. However, the Electoral Commission takes the view that it is appropriate to have a sense of proportion about this, and that the criminal penalties available in legislation are disproportionate. The commission has the option either of reprimanding the accounting unit or of seeking to impose a criminal sanction against the treasurer, who will often be an untrained amateur. The commission has therefore made recommendations for a more enforceable scheme, and its review is expected to report in December.

Voting

21. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What assessment the Electoral Commission has made of the ease of voting. [92602]

Peter Viggers: The Electoral Commission informs me that research conducted after the 2006 local elections in England found that the overwhelming majority of voters and non-voters, including 97 per cent. of those who voted at a polling station, found the voting process easy and convenient.

Mr. Bone: In the Rushden East ward of my constituency, there have been two district council by-elections separated by a few months. In the second by-election, the number of polling stations was halved from what it had been for the first by-election. As a result, turnout in the second by-election was a third lower than in the first. What assessment has the Electoral Commission made of the need for more, not fewer, polling stations?

Peter Viggers: I am advised that special circumstances may have applied in the Wellingborough district council area. Portakabins were initially used and subsequently found to be inappropriate as regards access for the disabled, and the presence of a contractor outside one of the polling stations required using only one door instead of two. That may have had some special influence. I can assure my hon. Friend that the Electoral Administration Act 2006 requires local authorities to complete a review of the accessibility of polling districts and places throughout their area within 12 months after the provisions come into force. Local authorities must thereafter undertake further reviews within four years of the latest review.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): The hon. Gentleman will know that, as a result of the recent changes in electoral law passed by this House, it is likely that the counts for general and local elections will take place on the day after the close of poll instead of overnight immediately after the close of poll. Will the Electoral Commission consider a system whereby any voter can vote at any polling station and polling stations can always be sited in places convenient for large numbers of people, such as railway stations and supermarkets, so that we maximise the catch of people who can vote on their way to, or back from, where they usually go on their business?


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Peter Viggers: The hon. Gentleman will realise that his proposal would require a great deal of technical application and development, but he has made his point and no doubt the Electoral Commission will take account of it.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): How easy will it be for the Electoral Commission itself to vote if it does not have a chairman? My hon. Friend will know that the chairman’s present term of office expires at the end of December, but no decision has been announced. Can he tell the House when that will take place?

Peter Viggers: Yes. Consideration is being given to the reappointment of a chairman and an announcement will be made in due course.

Church Commissioners

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

Access to Churches

22. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): What assessment the commissioners have made of the insurance implications of keeping churches open to the public. [92603]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): That is a matter for individual churches and their insurers and it depends largely on local circumstances. However, we know that the major insurer encourages churches to remain open during the day.

Mr. Prentice: That is the problem, is it not? We have 16,000 Church of England churches, more and more of which are closing their doors to the public outside service times because they fear vandalism and theft. Why is it not possible for churches to get a better deal by pooling their insurance premiums?

Sir Stuart Bell: As my hon. Friend says, it is unfortunate that many churches feel the need to close their doors to protect themselves. The major insurer—Ecclesiastical Insurance—has suggested that an active, well-visited church should deter arson, theft and vandalism. Advice on extra security measures is available and the insurance company provides a security marking system free of charge to all churches. However, my hon. Friend’s suggestion is worth taking up with Ecclesiastical Insurance, and I will do so.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): A benefice in my constituency consisting of eight churches, with a church roll of 2,500 people, has to find a diocesan contribution of £63,000 a year—and that is before it has started paying for insurance premiums and the maintenance and repair of buildings. Will the hon. Gentleman convey to the church authorities the funding crisis in rural parishes in constituencies such as mine that cannot afford the contributions that they have to make to the diocese as well as to the maintenance and insurance of these buildings?


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Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful for, and would be happy to make, the hon. Gentleman’s point. However, I could not make it better than he has done and I congratulate him on that. He is right that there is a huge problem with church funding, which is reflected in the questions that I am asked in the House, between what the state and what the Church can provide. We have seen many articles in the newspapers about cathedrals and churches that are in difficulty. The question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) is about that. We need to deal with the matter and, to do so, the state must take a much more proactive role.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): There is a growing problem with insurance, whether the churches are open or closed during the day, arising from the increased ingress of bats. If only they would stay in the belfry, but they do not. In several churches—especially in Norfolk, I am told—bat excrement is causing serious damage to the interior fabric of churches, at the cost of thousands of pounds and the great inconvenience of those who wish to worship.

Sir Stuart Bell: Before the recess, I saw a bat in the House of Commons corridor. I do not know whether it had come from the Chamber. However, the hon. Gentleman’s point is valid. The problems add to those that the Church already has with repairs, security and those to which my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle referred.

Bishops

24. Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): What the average age is of Anglican bishops serving in England. [92605]

Sir Stuart Bell: About 57. In parenthesis, and with your permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to convey the best wishes of the House of Commons to Archbishop Tutu on the occasion of his 75th birthday.

Mark Pritchard: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that bishops should be appointed on their spiritual and administrative attributes and skills, not time served? If so, what is the Church doing to recognise such skills earlier in those clergymen who have not served 20 or 30 years? [Interruption.]

Sir Stuart Bell: My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) made the sedentary comment, “Answer that if you can.”

The criteria for appointing bishops are in line with the hon. Gentleman’s question. The criteria that he mentioned are in place. We are considering the average age of bishops, which is 57, and doing our best to bring forward those who are younger and can invigorate the Church, as those who are in their posts do.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I do not wish to sound critical but are not the bishops a bit on the young side? Will bishops be protected by the new laws on age discrimination? Surely it is right and proper that they too should be covered.


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Sir Stuart Bell: The Ecclesiastical Offices (Age Limit) Measure 1975 makes compulsory retirement under 70 unlawful. I surmise that the same rule applies to the House.

Church of England Calendar

25. Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con): What plans the commissioners have to restore to the Church of England calendar the date of the accession of Her Majesty the Queen on 6 February as a day on which churches should fly the Union or St. George’s flag. [92606]

Sir Stuart Bell: There is nothing to stop churches flying flags on that date and some already do. If a flag is flown from churches in England, it should be the cross of St. George, preferably bearing the diocesan arms.

Mr. O'Brien: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the rule was changed in 2000 in the lectionary, which is the Church of England calendar for vicars and priests. Does he have any information about how the rule came to be applied, given that prayers are still an obligation every 6 February as the date of Her Majesty the Queen’s accession both to the throne and as Supreme Head of the Church of England? Would it be possible to publish the minutes to ensure that there was no political correctness or political interference in the decision?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am happy to refer the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question back and give him a written response. The anniversary of the sovereign’s accession is observed annually by the Church, but it does not form part of the ecclesiastical calendar.
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Perhaps the hon. Gentleman believes that it might, as his question suggests. I shall pass that view to the Liturgical Commission, which is responsible for such matters. I shall come back to the hon. Gentleman about the publication of minutes.

Church of England Estate

26. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): How much was received in 2005-06 by the Church of England from the sale of land and property for residential and other development purposes; and how much of this was spent on new buildings and modernising buildings for church and associated purposes. [92607]

Sir Stuart Bell: A wide range of Church of England bodies, including the commissioners, own land and property and it is not possible to give a single figure covering receipts for the whole Church. However, the Church Commissioners’ total property sales in 2005 were worth £242 million.

Bob Russell: Does the hon. Gentleman agree, as a point of principle, that, if land in a parish is sold for housing while in the same parish the church is raising a public appeal to modernise its church hall, the least that could be done would be to pay for those improvements from the proceeds of the sale of any land that had been owned by the parish?

Sir Stuart Bell: The two sets of circumstances to which the hon. Gentleman refers are not mutually exclusive. In relation to property sales and to the Church’s expenditure in 2005, the commissioners spent about £100 million on pensions, £31.5 million on parish mission and ministry support, £21 million on bishops and £6.6 million on cathedrals. The parish land to which the hon. Gentleman refers might not be within the domain of the Church Commissioners.


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