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11 Dec 2008 : Column 670

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): Collections in churches totalled £56 million in 2006, the last year for which figures are available. However, that is only a small part of the regular committed giving of members of the Church of England, most of which is by standing order. Total income from donors was nearly £537 million, including £70 million of reclaimed gift aid.

Miss McIntosh: I congratulate the Church Commissioners on the staggering amount of contributions from the worshipping public. Do the Church Commissioners anticipate a reduction in the amount received because of the credit crunch? If so, will the hon. Gentleman join me in renewing our campaign to obtain a reduced VAT rate on church repairs, now that we have established the principle that the Prime Minister is minded to lower VAT in certain circumstances?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making that point. I should point out that the average donation to the Church of England is £8.64 a week, or £450 a year, but that is more than double the amount given by the average adult in the UK to all the other charities they support, so the Church clearly benefits from that dedication. The question of reducing VAT further is a problem throughout the European Union, as we need the consent of all the other member states. We have a reduction in VAT through a method introduced by the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. That is still available and it has no time limit.

Public Accounts Commission

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—

NAO Headquarters

3. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): For what reasons the Public Accounts Commission recently approved additional funding of £5.8 million for the project to refurbish the headquarters of the National Audit Office. [242324]

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) (Lab): We approved extra funding because the initial work identified problems with asbestos, structural defects and, unexpectedly, construction-cost inflation. Those problems could not have been anticipated at the outset.

Mr. Hollobone: In view of the extra funding, can we be sure that the project will still deliver its original aims and meet its 2009 deadline? Will the revised budget of £83.24 million be the final figure?

Mr. Williams: The NAO has given us an absolute assurance on all those points. It will deliver on time next year, and within the new budget.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman will know of the John Tiner report into the governance of the NAO. What does he think that the auditors will say about the refurbishments? Are there any plans to rotate the auditors?

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Mr. Williams: We do rotate the auditors, and I cannot envisage that they will have any problem with these budget increases.

Church Commissioners

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

Church Estate (Water Services)

4. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): What assessment the Church Commissioners have made of the effects of changes to charges for water services on the Church's estate; and if he will make a statement. [242325]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): It is estimated that the new annual charge for surface water drainage will cost Church of England churches and cathedrals around £5 million or more. Churches using the public sewers will also be liable for highways drainage contributions at an estimated cost of around £10 million per annum.

By way of a statement, we are deeply concerned about the impact of these charges on the local work of the Church and other faith groups.

Ben Chapman: Do we not have enough difficulty finding funds to run and maintain our churches without the water companies adding to the burden by adding to their profits? Does my hon. Friend intend to seek meetings with Government and others to rectify the situation?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. Representations have been and continue to be made to the Government on that issue. We have looked at it carefully and are not convinced that it is all a matter of water company profits. The companies maintain that the change will be cost neutral as it redistributes charges falling on different categories of non-household customers. That includes businesses, churches, charities and community bodies. However, it is having a considerable effect on our churches.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): I have been working on this problem with the diocese of Salisbury, and it has been reported to me that Wessex Water believes that the changes to the charging regime would come into operation only on change of ownership of the property involved. On the face of it, that would seem to make it unlikely that a church would be affected, but what would be the impact of a change from freehold to common tenure? I do not expect the hon. Gentleman to know the answer to that question today, but will he please let us know?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am relieved that the hon. Gentleman does not expect me to answer that off the top of my head, and I would not wish to do so. It is a matter worthy of study, and I shall give him a specific response, and place a copy in the Library.

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Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Is it not absolutely outrageous that the water companies charge churches and other similar bodies for the disposal of surface water? Rain comes from heaven: it does not cost the water companies anything yet they charge us for it. Why the devil are the Government allowing them to charge churches for the disposal of surface water? It is outrageous.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): He voted for privatisation.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I did not.

Sir Stuart Bell: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not wish to answer his own question. I am happy to do that, but he knows that mercy is like the rain, gentle from heaven above. Unfortunately, the water company charges are not from heaven, but are induced and calculated. I support what he says, and agree that this is a Church-wide issue: a Teesside clergyman at St. Luke’s, North Thornaby has reported to me that his church has experienced a rise in its water charge of 1,300 per cent. His church warden created a petition on the No. 10 website, and so far it has attracted 37,000 signatories. Given the hon. Gentleman’s views, perhaps that total will now rise to 37,001.

Public Accounts Commission

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—

NAO Financing

5. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What recent representations the Public Accounts Commission has received on the financing and cost-effectiveness of the National Audit Office. [242326]

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) (Lab): The Public Accounts Commission monitors the financing and cost-effectiveness of the National Audit Office, especially when considering the NAO’s three-year corporate plan and when approving its estimates for the coming year.

David Taylor: I am grateful for that answer. Is it not the case that the NAO has a target of saving the taxpayer £9 for every pound that its operations cost? Would the NAO not be able to do that much more easily if it had a proper grip on the £250,000 million-worth of private finance initiative projects, which are prohibitive in cost, flawed in concept and intolerable in consequence? Alternatively, the NAO could get a grip on Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to bridge the tax gap, which at a minimum is at least £25 billion a year, in tax avoidance by the best-off individuals and the 700 largest corporations.

Mr. Williams: I should like to comfort my hon. Friend, as I know he gets very anguished about the National Audit Office. It has in fact progressively increased its performance. When I first went on to the Public Accounts Committee—I think it was in 1990—the ratio was 5:1 and at the request of the Public Accounts Committee and the Public Accounts Commission, the
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ratio has gradually increased to 9:1. A nice ballpark figure for my hon. Friend to remember is that as a result of that, in the last 18 months the NAO has saved the taxpayer £1 billion.

Church Commissioners

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

Church Restoration

6. Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): What recent discussions the Church Commissioners have held on the restoration of churches. [242327]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): Church of England staff have been meeting officials from the Treasury, the Department for Culture Media and Sport, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Office of the Third Sector and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Church Commissioners encourage continued financial support for the English Heritage and Heritage Lottery Fund places of worship grant scheme. The Church’s discussions with the Government are focused on securing equal access to national and local government funding streams, and are ongoing.

Andrew Rosindell: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his reply. Does he agree that churches are a vital part of our Christian heritage and that everything possible should be done to protect and restore English churches? Will he accept an invitation to my constituency to visit St. Alban Protomartyr in Princes road, Romford to see the exceptional work of Father Roderick Hingley, who has raised money through public donations? Will he come to see that work, which is an example to others?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind invitation. He has made me an offer I cannot resist. Nearly half the population think that central taxation, local taxation, the national lottery or English Heritage should primarily be responsible for providing money to maintain churches and chapels. It is not something that I would wish to lay entirely at the state’s door but it should not be left entirely to the Church. I should like a better funding partnership. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s invitation and I shall be happy to take it up.

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Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): Chancel repair obligations remain a medieval scandal and a nice little earner for the insurance industry, or a total disaster for the people who find that they are liable for them. There is a terrible degree of uncertainty among the churches where such obligations apply. There have been suggestions that the obligations should end, but the Church Commissioners appear to be running a policy of raising more money through chancel repair obligations, which will mean that more of our constituents become subject to a financial disaster of which they had no knowledge. Will the hon. Gentleman recommend the ending of that obligation?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He raises a matter of which I have no particular personal knowledge, but I will be glad to look into it, to give him a full report and possibly to put it in the Library.

Public Accounts Commission

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—

Tiner Report

9. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): With reference to paragraph 89 of the report of John Tiner on corporate governance arrangements for the National Audit Office, whether the external auditors will be appointed on a rotating basis. [242330]

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West): We agree with John Tiner’s recommendation, subject to retaining the requirement that the commission approve the auditors’ appointment. The NAO’s audit committee will recommend a firm to the NAO board, which will appoint the auditors, subject to the approval of the Public Accounts Commission. The NAO already rotates its auditors—something that concerns the Government—in line with best practice.

Mr. Bone: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for answering the question twice. Would it not have helped if the banks had followed that practice of rotating auditors, as they might not then have got into such a mess?

Mr. Williams: Certainly, that is best practice at the moment, and it is thoroughly recommended. If the banks have not been doing it, it is about time that they started doing it.

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Business of the House

11.31 am

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): Will the Leader of the House give us the forthcoming business?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): The business for next week is as follows:

Monday 15 December—Conclusion of the debate on the Queen’s Speech. The economy, pensions and welfare will be debated.

Tuesday 16 December—Estimates (1st Allotted Day). There will be a debate on energy prices, fuel poverty and Ofgem, followed by a debate on dental services. Details will be given in the Official Report.

[The details are as follows: Energy prices, Fuel poverty and Ofgem (Eleventh Report from the Business and Enterprise Committee, HC 293; Government response— Seventh special Report HC1069; and further Oral Evidence of 24 and 25 November); and Dental services (Fifth Report from the Health Committee, HC 289; and Government response—Cm 7470).]

At 10 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

Wednesday 17 December—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill, followed by Third Reading of the Banking Bill, followed by motion to consider the Value Added Tax (Change of Rate) Order 2008, followed by motion to approve a resolution relating to parliamentary pensions. I have tabled that motion today. Copies of the explanatory memorandum and the motion are available from the Vote Office. That will be followed by motions relating to the Electoral Commission.

Thursday 18 December—Motion on the Christmas recess Adjournment.

The provisional business for the week commencing 12 January will include:

Monday 12 January—Second Reading of the Business Rate Supplements Bill.

Tuesday 13 January—Second Reading of the Saving Gateway Accounts Bill.

Wednesday 14 January—Opposition Day (1st Allotted Day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 15 January—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by a general debate on armed forces personnel.

We expect to have an oral statement on Equitable Life in the week commencing Monday 12 January.

I should like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for January will be:

Thursday 15 January—A debate on the report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee entitled “Policing and Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland: the Cost of Policing the Past”.

Thursday 22 January—A debate on the Department for Culture, Media and Sport annual report 2008.

Thursday 29 January—A debate on the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

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