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Church Commissioners

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


19. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to celebrate the centenary of the “English Hymnal” and promote hymn and carol singing. [109425]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): We warmly welcome the publication of “New English Praise”, a supplement to the “New English
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Hymnal” published this year to mark the centenary of the original “English Hymnal”. The Church’s liturgical commission is engaged in promoting good practice in worship of all styles across the Church of England, working in close co-operation with the Royal School of Church Music.

Tony Baldry: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the “English Hymnal” of 1906 celebrates the fact that the rhythm of the Christian year is not just a matter of ecclesiastical convenience, but a map of the soul’s seasons through darkness and light, and hope and fulfilment, and that the singing of carols and hymns is one of the more exhilarating ways of celebrating the soul’s progress?

Sir Stuart Bell: Unlike other Christian Churches and unlike the Anfield Kop, the Church of England has never had an official Anglican hymnal. However, in this season of good will and grace, new figures released today by the Church show a 6 per cent. increase in the Church of England’s overall Christmas eve and Christmas day congregations last year.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Should not the Church Commissioners organise a great big party to celebrate the anniversary of the “English Hymnal”? Perhaps they could invite a few bishops along. In particular, would not the Church Commissioners wish to celebrate the fact that, for more than 100 years, the “English Hymnal” has sustained the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England—a vital part? Does my hon. Friend also celebrate the fact that the hymnal was put together by Percy Dearmer, a prominent Christian socialist and member of the Labour party?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am glad to note that Christian socialism and the Labour party go hand in hand at this Christmas season. My hon. Friend will know that the Royal School of Church Music is an ecumenical body and the Church of England’s official musical agency. The protection of our wonderful, uplifting church music is in good hands and, with the support of my hon. Friend and this House, I am sure that we will go from strength to strength.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to attend the 50th anniversary of the Friends of Cathedral Music a couple of weeks ago. What are the Church Commissioners doing to encourage high-quality church music?

Sir Stuart Bell: As the hon. Gentleman may know, the Church Commissioners are not responsible for church music, but we do follow the issue closely. I am in touch with the Church’s national worship development agency and will be pleased to pass on his views, as well as those of other hon. Members. The ceremony to which he referred was well attended and shows the strength of the Church, the strength of our cathedrals and the strength of our music, not only in this Parliament but throughout the country.

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Public Accounts Commission

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—

National Audit Office

20. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What account was taken by the commission of the performance of the National Audit Office in approving the office’s draft supplementary estimate for 2006-07. [109426]

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission (Mr. Alan Williams): Before approving the supplementary estimate, the commission took evidence from the Comptroller and Auditor General and the National Audit Office about progress on the refurbishment project. The commission also took the opportunity to ask about the financial impact of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s work and how improvements in the quality of public services arising from the recommendations of the NAO and the Public Accounts Committee might be reflected in the office’s performance figures. As regards performance, the NAO has been successful in recent years in securing financial savings equivalent to eight times its annual net expenditure, amounting to some £555 million in 2005.

Mr. Hollobone: When the Public Accounts Commission meets in February or March to consider the National Audit Office’s main draft estimate for 2007-08, which particular reports does the Chairman feel have especially benefited from the scrutiny that the office provides?

Mr. Williams: My personal choice would be the investigations into the refinancing of the private finance initiative. When we started looking, it was a case of persistence rather than a single report and when the NAO started looking at it, hardly any Department was claiming any share of refinancing gains. After the first inquiry, Departments were set a target to get a 30 per cent. share; after another inquiry, the target being aimed at is 50 per cent. of all PFI refinancing gains. It is resulting in gains to the taxpayer of hundreds of millions of pounds.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Party Funding

21. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What assessment has been made of the initial findings of the research project by the Electoral Commission on public attitudes to party funding. [109427]

Peter Viggers (Gosport): The Electoral Commission informs me that it commissioned a body of research, the principal reason for which was to inform Sir Hayden Phillips’ review of party funding. The report
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was passed to Sir Hayden and a copy has been placed in the Library. The commission itself has made no assessment of the findings.

John Robertson: Will the hon. Gentleman ask some questions on behalf of ordinary Members? We accept that transparency is probably at the utmost when it comes to political funding, but does he agree—and will he put the question to the commission—that political parties and their members must be consulted on any kind of funding that parties may have in the future?

Peter Viggers: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue. The main guiding principles that came out of the research were that any system of party funding should concentrate on transparency, accountability, limits and controls on party spending, greater equality between the political parties and funds being used to achieve greater engagement between political parties and the public. When Sir Hayden Phillips reports, there will, of course, be widespread discussion and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, other hon. Members and the political parties will participate in it.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Given that the Electoral Commission report says very clearly that a huge majority of the public feel outrage at the allegation that there might be a link between peerages or honours and funding by individuals, will the hon. Gentleman give the House an assurance that the Electoral Commission will be very robust and ensure that, under the new settlement that we anticipate will be with us next year, there will be an absolute end to the link between honours and donations, loans or peerages?

Peter Viggers: I would prefer not to comment on behalf of the Speaker’s Committee on the hon. Gentleman’s point, but the issues he raised are extremely important and will be noted by the Electoral Commission.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): Is the Electoral Commission aware that discussion of the funding of political parties must be very widely based? Is it also aware that there is an enormous and fundamental difference between a political party created out of the commitment of ordinary workers to protect their terms and conditions and one that is in any way supported or subverted by those who have very narrow personal gains in mind?

Peter Viggers: I hesitate to follow the hon. Lady’s point, but I would like to put on record the commission’s views on state funding. The commission published a report in 2004, which made a number of recommendations for limited changes, including a modest expansion of the policy development grant scheme and a system of income tax relief on small donations. Beyond those measures, the commission argued that any further significant increase in public funding must be contingent on acceptance of a cap on donations.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the research project to which he referred and the wide-ranging questions that he has just answered, coupled with the imminent
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publication of the Hayden Phillips report, mean that the House should debate very urgently the whole question of party funding?

Peter Viggers: When, on behalf of the Speaker’s Committee, I made an application to the Liaison Committee for a debate on Electoral Commission matters, a half-day’s debate was granted. Many hon. Members commented to me subsequently that they valued the opportunity to contribute to the discussion on Electoral Commission matters.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) was right to focus attention on the importance of transparency? Does he accept that, in terms of transparency and with the legislation, we have probably now got to the situation that is as far as we can reasonably go? The link between the cap and state funding is not acceptable and even the hawks who want comprehensive state funding of political parties should recognise that this is not the time for it.

Peter Viggers: The discussion on a cap is no doubt a matter that will come out in Sir Hayden Phillips’ report and there will be widespread discussion. The right hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise that transparency, along with accountability, were the two most important principles recognised by the public.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that, once the Electoral Commission has done its work into attitudes on party funding, we will all be left in rather an invidious position in so far as the public appear not to want to pay for party politics themselves out of taxpayer funding and nor do they want wealthy people to make large donations to any of the political parties? That leaves us with the difficult issue of how we fund democracy in the United Kingdom.

Peter Viggers: These are extremely difficult issues, which is no doubt why the Prime Minister asked Sir Hayden Phillips to carry out an independent review. As I said in my reply to the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), the Electoral Commission takes the view that any increase in state funding must be connected with a cap on funding, but these are all issues that will be discussed in due course.

Church Commissioners

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

Clerical Pensions

23. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What assessment the commissioners have made of the likely impact of the provisions of the Pensions Bill on clergy pensions. [109429]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): The Pensions Bill is primarily about state pensions and there is no indication of any direct impact on the clergy pension scheme.

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David Taylor: Is it not the case that the employment status of the clergy is rather ambiguous? A good number of them decline to accept that they are employees of anyone other than God. Does my hon. Friend agree that, taking into account the personal account statement that we heard from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions last week, there is a need to avoid the future poverty of the clergy in retirement by spelling out clearly how they might take advantage of the 3 per cent. required contribution from other employers that they themselves may not have access to because of their ambiguous status?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his concern about this matter. He will know that a report setting out a number of options for the future was published by the Church on 30 June and that the consultation period ended on 10 November. The results of that process are being evaluated with a view to proposals being put to the General Synod in February. I will ensure that his concerns and remarks will be reflected in that review.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Notwithstanding the valid observation of the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), it seems improbable that God himself decreed that any retired members of the clergy should be obliged to live in destitution. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman representing the Church Commissioners can tell us today, but will he say what proportion of the clergy are dependent on means-tested benefits and what will the Pensions Bill do to reduce that number?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I disagree that any of our retired clergy are living in destitution. As to his more detailed question, I am happy to give him a proper letter on the subject and, if necessary, place a copy in the Library. As he is aware and as I have indicated, the Church has been reviewing its pension arrangements. The scheme’s costs have increased owing to reduced investment returns, new regulatory requirements and increased life expectancy but all that and the hon. Gentleman’s views will be taken into account.


25. Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): What representations the commissioners have made to the Government on state funding for repairs to cathedrals. [109431]

Sir Stuart Bell: The commissioners continue to support the Church Heritage Forum and the Archbishops Council in their efforts to secure a more symmetrical balance between the contribution that churches and cathedrals make to the community and the contribution that they receive from public funds.

Hugh Bayley: Will my hon. Friend join me in wishing York minster well with its £10 million bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund for assistance towards the £23 million cost of restoring York minster’s great east window? Seeing the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), the Minister with responsibility for heritage, sitting on the Front Bench, does he agree that our most
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important mediaeval buildings ought to be protected by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and not just left to the lottery?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s contribution. He will know that the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) asked about cathedral
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repairs earlier. My hon. Friend may also have spotted the Under-Secretary up the scaffold at York minister’s £20 million-plus east front project last month. I did not have the delight of seeing him abseiling on the York minster front, but I know that that indicates his dedication and the dedication of his Department. My hon. Friend’s point is well taken.

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European Council

3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the European Council held in Brussels last Thursday and Friday. As the House knows, it is customary for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to make the statement, but I have been asked to convey his apologies as he is currently on an official visit to the middle east.

There were two main outcomes to the Council. The first, as expected, related to enlargement. The Council endorsed the agreement reached earlier in the week by Foreign Ministers on what action the European Union should take in response to Turkey’s failure to implement the Ankara agreement protocol. There was also a wider discussion on enlargement strategy.

There had been widespread predictions that the discussion on Turkey at the General Affairs Council would be extremely divisive, would spill over into the European Council and might risk derailing the process of Turkish accession—the so-called train wreck scenario. But that was avoided. The UK, along with others, made a strong strategic case for Turkish membership—a case that I know is shared across the House—and the train remains very much on the track. Negotiations can move forward on 27 of the 35 chapters of the acquis and, for the first time in an EU of 25, there is positive language, which will be adopted by the Council in January, on resuming work “without delay” on a direct trade regulation to end the economic isolation of the Turkish Cypriots. No one is in any doubt that Turkey must meet all the requirements and obligations of membership before joining the European Union. But as the House has consistently agreed, a European Union with Turkey as a member will be stronger, richer and more secure.

The conclusions of the European Council further stressed the strategic importance of enlargement more generally—in inspiring reform, driving prosperity and competitiveness, and strengthening the EU’s weight in the world. Those conclusions reaffirmed that the EU should keep its commitments towards all the countries that are in the enlargement process, moving forward on the basis of strict conditionality at all stages of the negotiations and judging each country on its own merits.

The second focus of the Council was to make progress on the very practical issues that resonate with, and matter to, the people of Europe and where, through joint action, the European Union can make a positive difference on the ground. On climate change and energy, the Council built on progress made at the informal summit in Lahti. We agreed that the spring Council will discuss options for a global post-2012 agreement on climate change, consistent with the EU’s objective of a maximum global temperature increase of 2° C above pre-industrial levels. We reiterated the need for a global carbon market and reaffirmed the crucial role and the long-term ambition of the EU emissions trading scheme.

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