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13 Dec 2007 : Column 441

House of Commons

Thursday 13 December 2007

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Public Accounts Commission

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—

Corporate Governance

1. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): When the report of the review of corporate governance at the National Audit Office will be published; and if he will make a statement. [173647]

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby): I have been asked to reply on behalf of the Public Accounts Commission. The NAO review of corporate governance is being led by John Tyner, former chief executive of the Financial Services Authority. He will report to the commission in the latter half of January, and the report will be published in February, as soon as the commission has had a chance to discuss and comment on it.

David Taylor: The NAO’s weak track record in revealing corruption in some arms deals and the economic lunacies of the private finance initiative might be rooted in the opaque and cosy links that apparently exist between it and the private sector. Does my hon. Friend hope that this review will at last allow arm’s length, objective reporting of those areas, fully to expose the activities of rapacious consultants and incompetent top civil servants, whose combined connivance is landing our nation with such murky, inflexible contracts and utterly prohibitive debts?

Mr. Mitchell: My hon. Friend will realise that the art of answering parliamentary questions is to provide the necessary information while giving as little away as possible, and I come to that art a little late in life. However, I must tell him that all the points he raises are, in fact, the responsibility of the Public Accounts Committee rather than the Public Accounts Commission. I should add on behalf of the commission that we have found no evidence of impropriety in the expenses of the Comptroller and Auditor General. We have put the expenses on a new financial basis that aligns them with those of permanent secretaries. The NAO has committed itself to full transparency on hospitality received by the comptroller and his senior management board. All that hospitality information and expenses will now be published on the commission’s website, which is a major advance.

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Church Commissioners

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

Clergy (Security of Tenure)

2. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What assessment the Church Commissioners have made of the potential effect of the draft Ecclesiastical Officers (Terms of Service) Measure on the security of tenure of clergy. [173648]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): The legislation to which the hon. Gentleman refers will improve the security of tenure of the clergy and ensure that they are able to exercise the duties of their offices competently.

Mr. Hollobone: How would the hon. Gentleman reply to the following comments of my constituent, the Rev. Stephen Trott? He writes:


Sir Stuart Bell: Father Trott is a constituent of the hon. Gentleman and a member of the Church Commissioners board of governors. He has not yet written to me on this subject, but I am sure he will shortly do so. At the heart of the reforms is the desire to give security to the 4,000 stipendiary and 3,000 non-stipendiary clergy who hold office under time-limited licences. The legislation gives clergy rights equivalent to those that employees have had under section 23 of the Employment Relations Act 1999, as requested by the Government. I will be glad to take up the matter in relation to the Archbishops Council directly with Father Trott.

Carbon Dioxide Emissions

3. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What plans the Church Commissioners have to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide from the Church estate. [173650]

Sir Stuart Bell: The commissioners and the other national Church institutions are committed to the Church’s shrinking the footprint campaign, as part of which they are seeking to understand and reduce their energy consumption and promote environmental best practice.

Miss McIntosh: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that reply, and I welcome the Archbishop of Canterbury’s commitment to reducing the Church’s carbon footprint. What impact are the increasing number of thefts of lead from church roofs and property having? Presumably, that is hampering efforts to reduce the carbon footprint, because the Church will incur considerable expense to pay for something for which there might be no budget.

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Sir Stuart Bell: The hon. Lady puts an intriguing question. The world economy is such that China’s taking all the world’s lead is pushing up prices in our country, and lead is being stripped off church roofs. That is an interesting phenomenon, and I might be able to answer that question later.

As the hon. Lady has said, the shrinking the footprint campaign has the personal commitment of the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose presence at our parliamentary carol service yesterday evening was most appreciated. The General Synod supports this ambitious campaign. The Archbishop has said that

"Fair trade begins at home"

4. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): What response the Church Commissioners have received from the Government to the report “Fair trade begins at home” produced by the Church’s ethical investment advisory group. [173651]

Sir Stuart Bell: Following the report’s publication on 5 November, it was sent to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and to Ministers responsible for food, farming and the rural economy. We have not yet received either a formal or informal response, but we shall be in touch again in the new year.

Robert Key: I hope that means that Ministers will be reading the report over Christmas. I hope that it will also be read by all retail managers in the food industry. Will the hon. Gentleman examine the website of the Farm Crisis Network, which is another initiative taken by the Church of England? In parallel with the Samaritans, it provides specialist advice to those in the rural community and to farmers, who are very hard hit at the moment, to encourage and help them through this difficult period.

Sir Stuart Bell: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s concern. I know that he represents a large rural community and I congratulate him on representing the interests of farmers from that community. He will know that the Church shares some of the concerns outlined in the “Fair trade begins at home” report, which warns of the powers of the big supermarkets in putting farmers’ livelihoods at risk. He will be pleased to learn that some of the commissioners’ farmer tenants were involved in its production. Ministers have received a copy, and I shall ensure that one is placed in the House of Commons Library.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Electoral Register

5. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What estimate the Electoral Commission has made of the numbers of students on the electoral register. [173652]

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Peter Viggers (Gosport): The Electoral Commission informs me that students are not separately identified as a category on the electoral register, and that it has not made such an estimate.

John Robertson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his answer, but I find it very disappointing. My information is that about one in five students fails to register. Does he agree that universities and halls of residence should take responsibility for handing out registration forms and ensuring that they are filled in?

Peter Viggers: The hon. Gentleman might be referring to the Electoral Commission’s report “Understanding electoral registration”, which said that the level of non-registration among students was about 22 per cent. The figure was based on a very small sample from the 2001 census data, no cross-check was done on whether students were registered at their parents’ address and the actual number who are non-registered might be lower. I assure him that the Electoral Commission sees encouraging registration as one of its central duties, and it certainly encourages registration among the young and students.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has come across another aspect of student registration that might well have caused a serious problem had a November election taken place. First-year students coming to university in late September and early October would have registered on the annual canvass, but that would not have got them on to the register in time for the election, whereas students who managed to get hold of a rolling registration form would have been registered in time. That would have caused immense confusion and anger at polling stations had an election been called in November. Does the Electoral Commission have any proposals to ensure that that potential problem does not become a reality?

Peter Viggers: The hon. Gentleman makes an important and detailed point. The Electoral Commission is focusing on its twin objectives of regulating party and election finance, and delivering well-run elections. One of the aspects that it is examining under the latter heading is the timing of registration, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): I should perhaps declare an interest, as I have a daughter who is at university. In my experience, halls of residence automatically register students on the electoral register—at least, they do so in Aberdeen. I campaigned in an inner-city constituency in the Scottish parliamentary elections, and I found that the problem is in the private rented sector, where the electoral roll is often woefully out of date and where no one who lives in a block of flats is on it—many of the people involved are students. Has the Electoral Commission considered whether that is because of the changes in the way in which people are put on the electoral register?

Peter Viggers: One point that the Electoral Commission has made strongly is that it recognises that the current system involves the head of household registering all those in the household. Of course the definition of “head of household” can vary—it can be
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based on residence or on halls of residence. The Electoral Commission has strongly urged the Government to move to a system of individual registration, and it regrets that they have so far failed to accept its recommendation.

Church Commissioners

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

Equity Investments

6. Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): What proportion of the Church’s equity investments are in African companies. [173653]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): The Commissioners do not currently directly own shares in any African listed companies.

Hugh Bayley: I know that my hon. Friend recognises that we in England have responsibilities to help the poor in Africa. Aid is important, but investment, especially in African-owned businesses, is the way to provide Africa with a sustainable means to enable the people to climb out of poverty. Would the Church of England consider establishing a venture capital fund in Africa, in part because of the very high returns that African investments currently provide?

Sir Stuart Bell: My hon. Friend might like to know that we have exposure to emerging markets equities of some £180 million, or 5 per cent. of our total equities exposure, held predominantly in pooled investment vehicles that are invested mostly in Asia, eastern Europe and Latin America. There is, I have to admit, little underlying exposure to Africa—in fact, well under 1 per cent. of our total equities exposure. My hon. Friend’s point is well made and I will certainly take it back to the commissioners.

Academy Sponsorship

7. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): What discussions the Church Commissioners have had with the Department for Children, Schools and Families about Church sponsorship of academies. [173654]

Sir Stuart Bell: The staff of the Archbishops Council’s education division are in daily contact with the Department for Children, Schools and Families, at both ministerial and officer level, over the development of academies sponsored by the Church of England.

Bob Russell: As someone who had a Christian upbringing, albeit non-conformist—good non-conformist stock—may I suggest that the diocese of Chelmsford be advised that being involved in the closure of two community secondary schools and then imposing an Anglican academy in south Colchester is not the way to win hearts and minds?

Sir Stuart Bell: All the Church of England academies are largely for local pupils and the majority have no faith criteria for admission. Church schools do not set out to convert pupils, but, rather, to nurture, affirm and challenge within a community founded on
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Christian values. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, with his educational background, will not disagree with that.

Places of Worship (Theft)

8. Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): What discussions the Church Commissioners have held with the Association of Chief Police Officers on ways of preventing theft from places of worship. [173655]

Sir Stuart Bell: The Ecclesiastical Insurance Group, which insures most Church of England churches, has been discussing such thefts with the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Archbishops Council, and provides advice on security measures. The commissioners keep a close eye on the discussions.

Mark Pritchard: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that reply, but with six churches a day being plundered for their lead, copper and even bells, is it not time that the police had a more pro-active and national strategy to deal with the issue? In the deanery of Edgmond and Shifnal in my constituency, more than £25,000 worth of lead has been stolen in just the past four months. That has got to stop and the police have to be more pro-active.

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing the House’s attention to that serious and difficult problem. The Church Commissioners are talking with the Association of Chief Police Officers and take the matter extremely seriously. We have a dilemma in the Church, because we believe that churches should be open, active and well visited, and that that is more likely to deter theft or vandalism. The Churches Tourism Association is working to help to keep churches open and improve accessibility. Without being too humorous, let us hope that China imports less lead, the price comes down and such thievery is not necessary.

Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): Norfolk is one of the worst-hit areas for the theft of lead from church roofs. Why are separate statistics not available for that offence? Does he agree that it would be useful to record instances of that offence separately so that the Government may appreciate the full scale of the problem?

Sir Stuart Bell: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I should point out that the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group has provided a security marking system free of charge to all churches as well as advice on security matters. In addition to the question of church lead, churches should also consider locking away their valuables, fixing furniture and paintings and encouraging local people to visit the church as part of their daily routine.


The Solicitor-General was asked—


13. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): What her policy is on the prosecution of offences associated with prostitution and kerb crawling. [173639]

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