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When are those people going to get answers?

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. Gareth Thomas): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. I know that he and a number of other Members have continued to pursue the matter extremely closely. He will be aware that the companies investigation branch of the Department has been investigating what went wrong in that case and has completed its investigation. As my hon. Friend may know, legal advice is being sought to decide whether there are grounds for prosecution or disqualification.

T4. [229235] Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): On the subject of the part-privatisation of Royal Mail, we were told a few minutes ago that Richard Hooper’s report on independent mail services was due to be published soon. When the Secretary of State appeared before the Select Committee on Tuesday this week, he said that he was contemplating giving additional work to that review team. Can the Minister say what additional work is planned and what impact that will have on the publication timetable?

Mr. McFadden: The Hooper review is considering the changed context in which Royal Mail operates in terms of competition not only from other mail providers, but from other technologies. That competition has seen the volume of mail decline by 2 or 3 per cent. a year in recent years in this country and in others. The Hooper review must take all these changes into account in compiling its report, and that is exactly what the review team is doing.

T6. [229237] Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Further to the Minister’s statement yesterday on small businesses, does he agree that a consensus is emerging that the public sector could make a real difference to small and medium-sized enterprises if the entire public sector paid its invoices on time? Will the Minister confirm that central Government, local government, quangos and agencies will all pay SMEs’ invoices within 10 days?

Ian Pearson: The Government’s commitment to make payments within 10 days is an important one and we already monitor that through Department annual plans. The majority of Government payments are made within 10 days, but we want to do better. The regional development
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agencies, which each spend £750 million a year, have also committed to pay within 10 days. We are spending public money, and in matters of the public purse we need to ensure that we do so in a proper way. We must make sure that invoices are correct and that goods and services of the right quality have been delivered. Once those assurances have been provided, we need to get cracking and ensure that we pay promptly. That is important for small businesses facing cash flow problems. We are doing all we can to deliver that through the Government system.

Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): I am sure my hon. Friend agrees that the creation of the Internet Governance Forum with a five-year mandate from the United Nations was a British diplomatic triumph, and that the creation of the UK Internet Governance Forum is a good example of co-operation between Government, industry and Parliament. Does my hon. Friend agree that the best way to promote international co-operation in the long term is to use the UK IGF to make the UK the safest place in the world to do business online?

Ian Pearson: I agree with my right hon. Friend, who makes some important points. I pay tribute to him for the work that he has done on the matter over many years. We are committed to ensuring the success of the multi-stakeholder Internet Governance Forum. It is largely due to his actions that the UK has taken such a leadership role in this area, and we will endeavour to continue to do that in the future. I am happy to work with him. As he knows, our noble Friend Lord Carter will meet him shortly to discuss these issues.

T7. [229238] Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): The Minister will know that my constituency, Romford, has a wide variety of small and independent local businesses that serve our community, one of which is the Havering Christian bookshop. Many such organisations are struggling to survive in the present economic climate. What will the Government do to nurture and protect small businesses such as that?

Mr. Thomas: In addition to the series of measures mentioned by my fellow Ministers, the hon. Gentleman may wish to check that the small business he mentions has sought to claim small business rate relief, a measure that is helping to reduce the administrative burdens on small businesses. It was opposed by his party but we have introduced it none the less, and it makes a real difference. If the business does not know how to claim, it should check the local council’s website, where the form should be shown.

Public Accounts Commission

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—

NAO Corporate Plan

1. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What the procedure is for the Public Accounts Commission’s consideration of the National Audit Office’s corporate plan. [229204]

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Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West): The National Audit Office normally prepares a corporate plan in July each year. The Public Accounts Commission then questions the Comptroller and Auditor General, and if it is content, it approves the plan.

Mr. Hollobone: What support is the National Audit Office providing to Select Committees of the House, and does it have any plans to extend it?

Mr. Williams: The National Audit Office has plans to extend the support it gives, but that work is growing rapidly anyway. The NAO provides support within its areas of expertise, such as analysis of financial statements, value for money, performance evaluation and financial management and reporting. In addition, it provides staff on short-term secondments to Select Committees and to the Committee Office scrutiny unit. As I have said, the support has been increasing. In 2007-08, the NAO assisted 17 parliamentary Select Committees in addition to the Public Accounts Committee.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman will know that one of the new roles that the Government have given the National Audit Office is to audit the figures in the Red Book following the pre-Budget statement. An increasing task in that Red Book work will be on the alarming increase in debt, which has to be repaid and serviced. Can he give the House an assurance that there will be sufficient resources in the National Audit Office’s corporate plan to deal with that increasing task?

Mr. Williams: At the moment, the corporate plan has an increase of 3 per cent. a year for the next three years. I have received no representations for any extra resources as yet. Obviously, if there were a request, we would consider it.

Church Commissioners

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

Financial Stability

2. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What recent assessment the Church Commissioners have made of the impact of recent economic events on the financial stability of the Church of England. [229205]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): If I might differ slightly from the Church of England by way of assessment, I should say that the Church Commissioners manage their investments proactively and are able to move swiftly when economic circumstances change. Even before the credit crunch began, they sensed that times were changing and acted accordingly. Between 2005 and early 2007, they sold more than £400 million of residential property at prices near the top of the market, and they made £250 million from commercial property sales during the same period. However, in the Church of England we must not overlook the role of individual churchgoers in funding the Church’s vital contribution to the spiritual life of this country.

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David Taylor: The Archbishops of Canterbury and York were enthusiastically applauded by the public for their recent broadsides against the financial yobs in the City, yet the Church Commissioners’ investment practices, including sales of mortgage portfolios and depositing many millions of pounds in hedge funds, seem to undermine the authority of the archbishops’ acerbic articles. What discussions has the Church’s ethical investment advisory group had to ensure that that sort of investment is proscribed, not least because it risks the spiritual as well as the financial stability of our Church?

Sir Stuart Bell: The statements of the archbishops added a moral dimension to the current global financial crisis. The commissioners are in regular touch with the ethical investment advisory group, and are in contact with it again in the light of the archbishops’ comments. I assure my hon. Friend that we are committed to our ethical investment policy, which is of long standing, and that all the commissioners’ investment decisions are informed by the work of the ethical investment advisory group.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): Can the hon. Gentleman assure me that the financial pressures facing the Church Commissioners will not lead them to any precipitate action in relation to Hartlebury castle, the historic home of the Bishops of Worcester? He will know that discussions are taking place in Worcestershire to ensure that public access to the castle remains and to ensure the continuity of the Hurd library in its historic location. I hope that the Church Commissioners will continue those very constructive discussions.

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has taken a strong interest in the castle, as have we, over a period of time. He is aware that my door is always open to any representations that he might wish to make.

To return to the broader question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) about the financial stability of the Church, we invest for the long term and distribute the returns with a view to the long term, thereby aiming to maintain the value of the funds in real terms over time. In other words, we do not allow our support for today’s beneficiaries to disadvantage tomorrow’s beneficiaries.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): Further to the answer that my hon. Friend gave earlier, will he assure us that during these difficult times the ethical dimension of funding and investment will not be lost? There is always great pressure at such times to get the greatest returns, but if archbishops are going to talk about moral imperatives, the Church of England and the commissioners must daily live those out in their investment decisions.

Sir Stuart Bell: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. I refer again to the ethical investment advisory group, but we should not overlook the role that local churches play. They depend on individuals giving, and that is true for the Church of England. As for the Church Commissioners, we will continue to work closely with the ethical investment advisory group.

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Public Accounts Commission

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—

NAO Overseas Investments

3. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Whether the National Audit Office has funds invested in overseas banks. [229206]

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West): The NAO does not have funds invested in overseas banks.

Mr. Bone: I am grateful for that answer. However, does the right hon. Gentleman not think it strange that the commission responsible for overseeing local government, the Audit Commission, had £10 million invested in Icelandic banks?

Mr. Williams: That is—thankfully—outside my remit, but I point out that, as the Audit Commission is audited externally by the NAO, it is a matter for the Public Accounts Committee.

Church Commissioners

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

Lottery Grants

4. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): If the Church Commissioners will provide guidance to churches and cathedrals on applications for lottery grants for the upkeep of church buildings and the provision of visitor facilities. [229207]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): I advise the hon. Gentleman that the Church already provides such advice via its “Church Care” and “Parish Resources” websites. In addition, the lottery providers give specific advice on their own schemes via their websites. I applaud the cathedrals that do so much to welcome tourists. They see that work as part of their ministry, and we should recognise the boost that they give to the wider economy through tourist income. Cathedrals such as Lichfield’s are a major draw.

Michael Fabricant: May I put it to the hon. Gentleman that the commissioners need to be a little more proactive than he describes? Lichfield cathedral recently applied for many millions of pounds for the Inspire project to improve the fabric and visitor facilities, but it was refused. Such applications to the Heritage Lottery Fund cost thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of pounds. Do not the commissioners need to give much better advice on what sort of lottery applications are likely to be successful?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am aware that Lichfield cathedral applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund for funding for a scheme to improve visitor and interpretation facilities. I congratulate the cathedral and the hon. Gentleman on their sterling efforts to engage with visitors. My colleagues at Church house supported the cathedral’s application, but unfortunately the Heritage Lottery Fund could not
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fund all the applications that were before it; it held a ballot in which Lichfield cathedral was unsuccessful. I hope that the cathedral will find an alternative funding source, but I will take his comments back to the Church Commissioners.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): As one who was associated with the appeal for our diocesan cathedral in Lichfield, may I ask the hon. Gentleman to examine this with a little more care and in greater detail? The diversion of lottery resources to the Olympics has caused enormous distortion and created a very great problem for all our cathedrals. It is shameful to think that there has to be the sort of ballot to which he refers. Will he do his best to influence the powers that be?

Sir Stuart Bell: I raised that question with the Heritage Lottery Fund after the subject was brought up on the Floor of the House, and it told me that lottery funding for the Church would not be affected by the Olympic games. We should welcome the help that the Heritage Lottery Fund gives us with the challenge of keeping cathedrals and churches in a good state of repair. We all acknowledge the need for continuing Government support and the constant pressure that this House exerts through questions such as those put by the hon. Gentlemen, which are always welcome.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Party Funding

5. Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): How many investigations the Electoral Commission has carried out into political party funding in the last 12 months. [229208]

Sir Peter Viggers (Gosport): The Electoral Commission informs me that it has carried out formal investigations into three cases relating to political party funding in the past 12 months.

Andrew Rosindell: My hon. Friend will know that the Government intend to rush through new rules on what is known as “triggering” before the Electoral Commission has issued its guidance on the matter. Does he agree that that is a recipe for confusion, which will fatally undermine the confidence in any new rules?

Sir Peter Viggers: My hon. Friend is on to an important point. If the House passes the measure in the Political Parties and Elections Bill that introduces a new triggering mechanism, the Electoral Commission will consult as soon as possible after the parliamentary process and before Royal Assent. It will then issue its guidelines on the new triggering mechanism as soon as it can. Of course, the guidelines will not be definitive because the law on the triggering mechanism will stand to be decided
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by the courts, and because the matter falls under the Representation of the People Acts, it will be for the police, not the commission, to decide whether or not to prosecute.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that it is illegal either to receive or to solicit in any way foreign donations for political parties? In view of the allegations made about the shadow Chancellor, would it not be appropriate for the Electoral Commission to investigate accordingly?

Mr. Speaker: Order. The shadow Chancellor is not in the Chamber. Did the hon. Gentleman approach the shadow Chancellor to say that he was going to ask this question?

Mr. Winnick: Of course not.

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Mr. Speaker: Well, he should have. The hon. Gentleman knows the courtesies of the House—he has been here long enough. I instruct the hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers) not to answer.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): During Second Reading of the Bill on Monday, it was noted that the Electoral Commission remains opposed to the provisions dealing with new political donor notification. Does that remain the case?

Sir Peter Viggers: Mr. Speaker, you will know that the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission does not get involved in individual cases, but the commission has made a statement that no facts have been reported to it that would cause it to make any inquiry.

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