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Ian Pearson: Just to correct the right hon. and learned Gentleman, let me say that the purpose of the seminar was to explain the Government’s automotive assistance programme, which covers loan guarantees to companies that are accessing the EIB clean transport facility as well as the Government’s scheme more generally. He knows that, but he is just trying to make a debating point. DBERR has been supporting applications to the
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EIB. My understanding is that a number of companies are at an advanced stage in discussions with the EIB. I do not think that it would be appropriate for me to name those individual companies, because the negotiations are commercial in confidence, but he will be aware of reports that companies have been making those applications. We hope that next month the EIB will approve applications from a number of companies.

T4. [264492] Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): Can the Minister say what he is doing to stop the exploitation of young models?

Mr. McFadden: It is true that that is an issue. Many young people want to be famous and there has been a pattern of exploitation, with people setting up in hotels and launching one-day casting sessions. Last year we brought in a new cooling-off period to try to protect people against such activities. We said at the time that if that provision needed to be reviewed we would review it. We have continued to receive complaints, so today we are publishing a consultation document on banning the taking of up-front fees so that young people and their families are not exploited. We do not want to tread on anyone’s dreams and hopes, but we also do not want to see people exploited because of them. That is why we are taking this action today.

T5. [264493] Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): Unemployment in this country is rising at twice the rate of that in the rest of Europe. The TUC and the Federation of Small Businesses have submitted a proposal for a short-time wage subsidy and in February the Prime Minister said that he was considering it. Can the Minister tell us when it will be introduced?

Mr. McFadden: It is true that the issue has been raised with us, and of course we will consider anything that we think can help people who are unemployed or in economic difficulty. There is a significant contrast between how this Government will respond to this recession and how the previous Government abandoned the unemployed. The previous Government left the unemployed with only a benefit cheque to keep body and soul together, and gave them no real help to get a second chance. In contrast, this Government will stand by people who are losing their jobs.

Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): I have received a number of complaints recently about mobile phone companies and cashback offers. Is the Minister aware of the problem? If so, is he planning on taking any action?

The Minister for Trade, Development and Consumer Affairs (Mr. Gareth Thomas): I can tell my hon. Friend that we are aware, anecdotally, of concerns about the behaviour of some mobile phone companies in that regard. Those concerns have been expressed in letters sent directly to Ministers and in questions raised by Members of Parliament. This is one of the matters that I have discussed with Consumer Focus, the new consumer body, which is doing some work on the problem in tandem with Ofcom. I look forward to discussing with Consumer Focus the results of that work, which we are expecting shortly. We will then consider what else we can do to help.

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Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): Are Ministers aware of just how angry businesses are at the Department’s failure to convey information to them? On 12 November, I wrote to the Secretary of State on behalf of a constituent company, asking for information about business loans. It is now 19 March and there has been no answer, despite three further letters, six phone calls to the Department, and a letter to Lord Mandelson last week saying that, if he did not answer, I would raise the issue in the House of Commons. This is the second time in three weeks that I have raised a similar matter. On one occasion, staff at DBERR were not even picking up the phone to answer inquiries because they were in such chaos.

When will something be done? If the Government cannot get information to companies out there, it is no wonder that absolutely nothing is being done. All we are getting is just a lot of talk, and no initiatives are working at all.

Mr. Thomas: With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I shall look into the specific case that he mentions and come back to him. However, I do not accept his broader point about help not getting through to businesses, and I shall use the region in which his constituency is based, the east of England, as an example. More than 8,000 businesses in that region have been able to defer their business taxes in the past four months, while across the UK as a whole almost 93,000 businesses have been able to have business taxes totalling some £1.6 billion deferred. That is just one example of the real help being given to businesses at the moment, but as I said, I shall look into the specific case that he has raised and come back to him.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): Can the Minister update the House on the Doha talks?

Mr. Thomas: My hon. Friend will be aware that we got very close to an agreement. In the words of Pascal Lamy, some 75 per cent. of the conclusions were reached last July, but we have been waiting for a new US Administration to get their new trade negotiators in place. Similarly, we have been waiting for elections to be held in India and elsewhere. We hope to use the G20 summit in three weeks’ time to begin discussions again about how we can finish the negotiations on the Doha round. One thing about which the Prime Minister is absolutely and quite rightly clear is that any descent into protectionism, as happened in the 1930s, will cause further problems for our economy and for the global economy. That is why we are devoting so much attention to trying to make progress in the Doha round. That will be an issue for the G20 and for the G8 too.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Voting Age

1. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What assessment the Electoral Commission has made of the merits of reducing the voting age to 16. [264459]

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Sir Peter Viggers: The Electoral Commission’s 2004 report entitled “The Age of Electoral Majority” concluded that there was insufficient justification for reducing the voting age to 16. The commission has since refocused its activities on the objectives of, first, regulating party and electoral finance and, secondly, delivering well-run elections. It believes that issues such as the extent of the franchise are matters for Government and Parliament to decide.

John Robertson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that answer. He will be aware that the Electoral Commission said that it would look at the matter again within five to seven years, so does he agree that it is time for the commission, independent of political influence, to look at the subject? Now that we have managed to allow young people to use this Chamber, although many Opposition Members wanted that not to happen, is it not time to consider young people a bit more than we have in the past?

Sir Peter Viggers: It is indeed true that in 2004 the Electoral Commission said that it would revisit within five to seven years the case for lowering the voting age, but as I have just explained, the commission has since refocused its efforts. The refocusing is not in any sense an abrogation of its responsibility, but follows a review of the commission’s activities by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The refocusing has been welcomed by the Government and the Committee.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Does my hon. Friend accept that the Electoral Commission is right to refocus in that way? Like most Members, I regularly visit schools in my constituency and hold question-and-answer sessions with fifth and sixth formers. They are very interested in a number of subjects, but none of them is the slightest bit interested in having the vote at 16.

Sir Peter Viggers: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Most of the responses to the consultation held in 2004 supported lowering the voting age. However, the commission found that more general opinion polling suggested strong support for keeping the current minimum, and that young people seemed divided on the issue.

Church Commissioners

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

Churches Conservation Trust

2. Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): How much is planned to be spent by the Churches Conservation Trust in carrying out its functions in England in 2009-10. [264460]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): In 2009-10, the Churches Conservation Trust will receive just over £4.5 million grant in aid from its co-sponsors, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Church Commissioners.

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Mark Pritchard: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that reply. Will he join me in paying tribute to the Churches Conservation Trust, in particular for its work in Shropshire looking after nine churches and also Longford chapel in my constituency, near Newport? While I note the grant, will he also join me in recognising that there are real financial pressures on many churches? Churches help tourism and promote culture and heritage in counties throughout the country, and in Shropshire in particular, so will he speak to the Secretary of State to see whether that grant is sufficient to keep these churches running?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning the Longford chapel near Newport. He might have added Stirchley St. James and Adderley St. Peter, which are in his constituency, as I understand that they, too, benefit from the trust. His point is perfectly right. The Churches Conservation Trust is 30 per cent. Church and 70 per cent. Government funded, and it is working hard to secure its financial future by widening its funding base. I take his point that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport grant was frozen in 2001 until 2008. There has recently been a small cash increase of 1.8 per cent., but it continues to be reduced in real terms. We welcome that contribution from the state, but it is not sufficient.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Given the continuing cut in DCMS support for heritage, especially for cathedrals and churches, will the hon. Gentleman take great care to ensure that the Church Commissioners maintain their financial aid? The Churches Conservation Trust is an excellent organisation. Does he share my enthusiasm for its 40th anniversary celebrations and its “Birthday bells” appeal, in which more than 70 churches across the country rang their bells to celebrate those 40 years? Does he also agree that people who do not like church bells should not buy a house near a church? “Ring out, wild bells”, Mr. Speaker.

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those comments, and I celebrate with him the 40th anniversary to which he referred. On the Church Commissioners’ involvement, the present financial difficulties do not affect churches’ expenditure plans for the next few years, so the Churches Conservation Trust’s grant from the Church Commissioners is safe in our hands.

Church Repairs

4. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): What progress has been made in discussions between the Church of England and the Chancellor of the Exchequer on levels of value added tax charged on church repairs. [264462]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner: Church representatives have been in regular contact with the Treasury on that matter. The latest development is the agreement reached by the European Council of Finance Ministers on 10 March that all member states will have the option to apply permanently reduced VAT rates to a number of goods and services. I very much regret that the repair of places of worship is not on that list of goods and services.

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Ben Chapman: Is it not a pity that the Council found the opportunity to discuss VAT reductions for some toll bridges and restaurants, but not for church buildings, which provide so much emotional, spiritual and cultural well-being? What is the next step?

Sir Stuart Bell: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. One has to bear in mind that the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, now Prime Minister, agreed effectively to reduce VAT on church repairs to 5 per cent. until 2011. The campaign by Members in this House will be to maintain that derogation well after that date. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will add their weight to it. In particular, may I thank the hon. Members for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) and for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) and others who are present who have contributed to and supported the campaign? I also thank those in the Church of England who have campaigned so arduously. I invite parishes up and down the land to make use of the derogation scheme already in operation.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words, and for raising the profile of parish churches in rural areas. Now that we have established the derogation, and the broader principle of lower VAT on other goods and services, can we not all unite behind the campaign to persuade the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer to take the argument to Europe, so that they can ensure that the derogation affects churches across the European Union? We must unite behind that worthwhile cause.

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments, and I would certainly support any campaign that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor might wish to take to Europe, bearing in mind that it took six years to get this far, and that the process was extraordinarily complicated. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) said, at the last moment, it was decided in Lisbon to throw in toll bridges; they are to be covered, but not VAT on church repairs, which is quite remarkable. I hope that that is not a reflection of how the European Union looks upon the Christian community throughout the Union.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that many of us are extremely angry at the attitude recently taken in Europe? Does he also accept that at a time of unemployment, it is crucial that church buildings can be repaired, not only because that is intrinsically important, but because that work offers employment to craftsmen and others?

Sir Stuart Bell: The hon. Gentleman makes a fine point, because the work is artisanal—if that is a word that we can put in Hansard—and helpful for local communities. The essential message that this House should give the parishes is to encourage them to undertake those church repairs, and to collect the VAT reduction. It is important that the scheme is taken up before 2011, so that, with the grace of this House, it can be continued after that date.

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Church of England (Disestablishment)

5. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What assessment the Church Commissioners have made of the financial implications for the Church of England of disestablishment. [264463]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner: In July 2007, the Church welcomed the Government’s reaffirmation of their commitment to the position of the Church of England, which is by law established with the sovereign as its supreme governor. No assessment of the kind that my hon. Friend mentions has been made.

David Taylor: Archbishop Rowan recently said that it would not be the end of the world if the Church of England was disestablished, although disestablishment should not be on the agenda at the moment. Notwithstanding those wise remarks, would my hon. Friend agree that if an assessment of financial implications were undertaken, it would be highly likely to find that the Church’s inherited financial commitments greatly exceed its inherited financial resources?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who raises a pertinent point on the disestablishment of the Church. He referred to the comments made by the Archbishop of Canterbury. I welcome the Archbishop of Canterbury’s intervention on the financial crisis; he added a moral dimension to the debate on the economy, along with the Archbishop of York. Although his comments on disestablishment have been given wide credence, he also said that he would be concerned if there was to be disestablishment.

On the specific point made by my hon. Friend, the financial implications of disestablishment would be a matter of discussion between the Government of the day and the Church of England during the preparation of the necessary legislation. The question of the financing of the Church and its financial outcome would have to be fully debated by the Government of the day, Parliament and the Church of England.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): As a supporter of disestablishment, may I ask the hon. Gentleman if he would at least ask the Church Commissioners to undertake the financial assessment to which the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) referred, and look at the Churches in Wales and Ireland, which disestablished but which do not appear to have been disadvantaged financially as a result?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comments and for his statement that he believes in a disestablished Church. The question that my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) asked related to financial commitments, which far outweigh the total inherited resources of the Church of England. In response to the question about whether we ought to undertake a study, we should not put the cart before the horse. We should await any decisions that the Synod may make before we debate the matter and its financial implications. However, disestablishing the Church would affect every parish in the country, and its allegiance to the Crown and to the Church, and is a step that would be taken only after many years of consideration.

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Electoral Commission Committee

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

Electoral Fraud

6. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): What new measures to reduce electoral fraud the Electoral Commission expects to be in place by the next General Election. [264465]

Sir Peter Viggers: The Electoral Commission informs me that it does not expect new measures to be in place by the last possible date for the next general election.

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