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House of Commons

Thursday 26 November 2009

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business before questions

Leeds City Council Bill and Reading Borough Council Bill


Sessional Returns


Oral Answers to Questions

Church Commissioners

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

Parish Priests

1. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): How many parish priests in England are expected to reach retirement age in each year up to 2015. [301665]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): I expect the numbers of retirements of parish priests between now and 2015 to be as follows: 224 in 2010, 304 in 2011, 336 in 2012, 310 in 2013, 313 in 2014, and 278 in 2015.

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David Taylor: Perhaps that answer reflects the £350 million pension board deficit in the priests' retirement fund and the consequent need to raise the retirement age to 68. Can my hon. Friend say whether, taking into account deaths and future retirements, the overall trend is for a falling number of stipendiary priests and whether that is balanced out by an increase in the number of non-stipendiaries?

Sir Stuart Bell: As my hon. Friend will know, as with every other final salary pension scheme the cost of the clergy pension scheme has increased significantly over the past decade because of increased life expectancy, lower investment returns and increased regulation. The Church is committed, however, to ensuring that its clergy receive an adequate income in retirement.

On the second part of my hon. Friend's question, it is a fact that deaths and retirements mean that the overall number of stipendiary priests has been falling. However, I remind the House of two things: first, the Church is immensely well served by thousands of non-stipendiary clergy; and secondly, it is doing some very good work with vocational events to help people, especially younger people, to explore their calling.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Please can the hon. Gentleman tell us how many professional statisticians are employed by the Church of England at Church House and by the Church Commissioners?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am certainly aware of one statistician who gives me excellent advice. If there are others within the recesses of Church House, I will be happy to search them out and give the hon. Gentleman a written response.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): As so many parishes, including my own, are dependent on retired clergy for keeping their services going, is there not a lot to be said for raising the retirement limit and allowing clergy to serve in full post until they are 75?

Sir Stuart Bell: The hon. Gentleman makes a very interesting point, to which at this time I have no answer. However, it is certainly a problem that the Church would like to consider, because we need to deal with it. His suggestion is welcome and I will check it out for him.

Stipendiary Priests

3. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What the average number of churches is in a rural parish which is in the charge of a stipendiary priest. [301667]

Sir Stuart Bell: We do not keep records of which parishes are rural and which are not. However, I know from the latest edition of "Church Statistics"-the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) will be very aware of this-that there are, on average, 2.1 churches to a benefice, with figures ranging from 1.3 churches per benefice in Portsmouth diocese to 3.6 churches per benefice in Hereford diocese.

Miss McIntosh: Taking that with the hon. Gentleman's answer to the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), it appears that more parishes are going to be covered by the same stipendiary priests. I know
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that the Second Church Estates Commissioner has visited Teesdale, where I was brought up, and parishes in North Yorkshire are very similar. Parish priests are extremely hard pressed. What can he do to make their lives a little easier in getting around to administer to parishes?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for reminding us of our last exchange, when I mentioned my visit to Teesdale churches. She asks about stipendiary priests, but I should point out that the Church is also well served by many thousands of others, including non-stipendiary ministers, chaplains and retired clergy. Taking that into account, at the end of 2007 more than 20,000 ministers were licensed by Church of England dioceses-that is one minister for every 2,500 people in England. Is not that a remarkable fact, Mr. Speaker?

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for the information regarding stipendiary and non-stipendiary priests. Does he have a precise figure for how many non-stipendiary priests there are in the Church of England-and may I pay tribute to them? My second late husband, John Hammersley, spent his last four years of working as a Church of England vicar in the Oxford diocese training and preparing for ordination non-stipendiary priests, and he was terribly impressed by their abilities.

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for referring to the good work that the non-stipendiaries do and how much that work is appreciated in the Church. In response also to the earlier question from the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), the clergy work load is always under review and it is part of the bishops' pastoral care for the clergy. My hon. Friend's point is very well made.

Christian Minorities Abroad

4. Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): Whether the Church of England allocates funding for the purposes of assisting persecuted Christian minorities abroad. [301668]

Sir Stuart Bell: Supporting persecuted groups, whether Christian or not, is an integral part of the Church's work at all levels. Centrally, funds are not separately allocated for that work, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the officers and advisers of the Archbishops Council, together with bishops, dioceses and the officers of the archbishops, provide substantial and continuing support to persecuted Christians abroad.

Mr. Pelling: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that positive answer. I know that my own Bishop of Croydon spoke at the international interfaith conference in Kazakhstan a year ago on this matter. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that it is appropriate for the Church to do its very best to draw the attention of the media and Her Majesty's Government to the persecution of Christians, for example in northern Iraq and in Orissa?

Sir Stuart Bell: The hon. Gentleman is certainly right about the work that the Church does, which does not get adequate media attention in the age of the 24-hour
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media, and he refers to his own bishop's visit. There have recently been killings of Christians in Gojra and tensions in Nigeria, and they are matters of great concern to the Church. The Archbishop of Canterbury has led the response, corresponding with the Pakistani Church and Government, and a delegation led by the Bishop of Bradford will meet Ministers and visit Gojra next month. The idea that we ought to draw the media's attention to the matter more is positive.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): In the past I have travelled to Pakistan and Nigeria with that excellent organisation, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and I must tell my hon. Friend how important Christians abroad view the Anglican Church in this country as being and how much they look to it for leadership. Anything that can be done to increase the budget and our representation in those countries to ensure that they are listened to is vital.

Sir Stuart Bell: My hon. Friend again draws the attention of the House and the wider world to the excellent work that the Church does in difficult circumstances. He mentions funding, and although the Church Commissioners do not fund that particular work, the Church none the less applies significant resources to it through various budgets, including the expenses budgets of its officers, bishops and archbishops. Clearly, such work takes much time and involves significant travel and other costs, as he is aware, but it is vital work and it is vital that the House is aware of it.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for South-West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked-

Spending Limits (General Elections)

5. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): What recent consideration the Electoral Commission has given to the current limits on expenditure by candidates in general elections; and if he will make a statement. [301669]

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): The Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 has introduced significant changes to the limits on candidates' spending, including for the first time the concept of a long campaign period during which their spending is regulated. The Electoral Commission issued briefings on the proposals while the Bill was before Parliament, which are available in the Library and on the commission's website.

Mr. Allen: The monopoly of political power between the Government and the media threatens not only this place but the grass roots of our politics. Many of us of all parties know of the decline in the membership and activity of local parties. Will the hon. Gentleman make it his aim to extend the ability of the grass roots of our parties to thrive, not least by raising the amount that Members of Parliament can spend on their campaigns locally rather than at national level?

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Mr. Streeter: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and he has campaigned diligently on the issue over the years. However, as the House has recently considered the matter in some depth as the 2009 Act went through, the Electoral Commission is not currently examining it and sees no opportunity for a review of candidates' spending before the next general election.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): One of the challenges for the Electoral Commission in trying to have a long-term limit on expenditure is not knowing when the general election will be. Has the commission made any representations on, or study of, the benefits of a fixed-term Parliament to making electoral expenditure more predictable?

Mr. Streeter: Not as far as I am aware, but I will of course pass on the hon. Gentleman's comments to the Electoral Commission.

Church Commissioners

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

Grant Applications

6. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Whether the Church Commissioners provide guidance to parishes and cathedrals on making applications for grants from Departments, national lottery funds and charitable bodies. [301670]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): As I told the House on 23 October 2008, Official Report, column 449, the Church provides such advice via the Churchcare and Parish Resources websites. In addition, the lottery providers give specific advice on their own schemes via their websites.

Michael Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman will know that cathedrals, including Lichfield cathedral, have made several applications to people at, for example, the Heritage Lottery Fund, and have often been successful, but when they are unsuccessful, it has cost the cathedrals tens of thousands of pounds. Large applications have to be made and decided upon down in London. Surely, there is an argument for the Commissioners, who are based in London, to have a relationship with the Heritage Lottery Fund, so that they can advise cathedrals around the country.

Sir Stuart Bell: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point and has highlighted an important paradox: cathedrals have never been in better condition, nor better cared for, but might soon be at risk if they cannot carry out their planned repairs. In relation to the specific point, he will recall that we had an exchange about Lichfield cathedral's application to the Heritage Lottery Fund for funding for a scheme to improve visitor facilities. Colleagues at Church House supported the application, but unfortunately a ballot was held in which Lichfield cathedral was unsuccessful. However, his point about the centrality was well made, and I shall take it back to Church House.

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Public Accounts Commission

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked-

National Audit Office

7. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): Whether the Public Accounts Commission has discussed with the Comptroller and Auditor General the prospects for cost savings at the National Audit Office. [301671]

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby): I have been asked to reply on behalf of the Public Accounts Commission, which took evidence on 20 October on the National Audit Office's strategy for 2010-11 to 2012-13. The NAO proposed that its net resource requirement, which was £79.3 million in 2009-10, should remain at that figure for 2010-11, and the commission agreed. The NAO is also committed to cost reductions that will reduce corporate costs by 5 per cent. per year, while streamlined processes and better use of staff resources will reduce the cost of front-line audit and assurance work by 2 per cent.

John Robertson: I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. He will agree that that came out of an evidence session; no one sat down at a table and talked about cost reductions in general. Will he relay the fact that the House would like those gentlemen and ladies to sit down, talk and work out how they can save on costs? However, that should be done amicably and everyone should have an equal place at the table.

Mr. Mitchell: The NAO reports regularly to the commission on how it proposes to make savings, and we work on a ratio of £10 in Government spending saved for every £1 spent. So far it has been agreed that cost savings will be achieved by reducing expenditure on non-essential, back-office functions, using in-house resources rather than consultants wherever possible, and introducing a standard analytical framework for value-for-money work to use staff resources better. The NAO intends to ensure that quality is maintained through its internal and external quality control processes. We, at the commission, will be keeping a close eye on that.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for South-West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked-

Vote Counting (General Elections)

8. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): What representations the Electoral Commission has received on the timetable for the counting of votes at general elections. [301672]

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