Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, I venture as a non-Anglican, a Methodist, and as a Welshman from the other side of Offa's Dyke, to enter briefly into this discussion. Yesterday morning I was in a village church. It had around 25 members. The bill for repairs will be in the order of £52,000. However, on top of that is the 17.5 per cent rate of VAT. That could well be the straw that breaks the camel's back. Today, new facilities covering access and health and safety issues have to be brought in as a result of regulation. It is also the case that most church buildings are ageing and require a great deal more money to repair and maintain than more modern ones.

Yesterday, people were discussing how on earth to face the bill, when on top the builders have to charge 17.5 per cent VAT. My sole contribution to the debate, therefore, is to ask the Government what plans they have to reduce or remove VAT on all church buildings of all denominations in the United Kingdom. If the Government do not move on this, we shall have derelict buildings, ones that could be useful in the community. They will become eyesores, thus detracting from community use.

I plead with the Minister and the Government to let us know how they can help with the imposition of 17.5 per cent VAT that really can close the doors of so many churches.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for introducing the debate. It was very imaginative of him, particularly as I understand—perhaps I have got it wrong—that he purports not to be a member of any faith community. I take my hat off to him; we should have debated this issue long ago.

I must confess that I am a complete church nut. I was born in the village of Long Melford, which has a wonderful church; I was baptised in the village of Acton, which has the finest military brass in England; and I have lived and worshipped all of my life in St Gregory's church, Sudbury. It is a wonderful church which retains to this day in its vestry—the right reverend Prelate will be interested to hear this—the head of Simon of Sudbury, one of his predecessors, who got it wrong in 1381.

The Lord Bishop of London: My Lords, he became Archbishop of Canterbury.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, he became Archbishop of Canterbury but, before that, he was the Bishop of London.

The churches and cathedrals of this country are astonishing and I think we underestimate them. There is nothing remotely like them in the world. They have been saved from the endless ravages of the wonderful French, Italian and other continental churches. We have been relatively free of civil wars—at least, our civil war was relatively minor in terms of
 
25 Oct 2004 : Column 1154
 
desecrations—and free of invasions. We have today a stunning collection of 15,000 or 16,000 medieval churches and cathedrals.

I agree with noble Lords who have made the point that we do not make the best of them, either in terms of tourism or, dare I say it, in terms of communal activity. Although the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, said that it is time to stop the rot and that churches should be nimble on their feet—and so they should—we heard from the right reverend Prelates the Bishops of London and of Norwich just how much the churches are doing, and doing so open-mindedly.

Again, I come back to my home town of Sudbury. We have a redundant church in the middle of the town on the market hill—St Peter's—which is a model of what a church can and should be. It has not been deconsecrated, but on Friday it was the farmers' market, as the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, said; on Saturday it was a craft market, selling Christmas cards; it has concerts; it has organ recitals; it has lectures; it has plays; it has any damn thing. Indeed, that is how medieval churches were.

I totally agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich that pews are an encumbrance. In fact, they are a late, 15th century addition to the churches. Many churches would be better off releasing their potential for activities by making them at least more mobile.

Let me give a few key statistics. I feel very strongly that, although the Government do a certain amount, they do not do nearly enough. Pray the Lord that we should relapse into the French situation where there is far more state funding but at a price that is unthinkable and with a consequence that is unthinkable. However—I am sorry if this sounds ungrateful—by my reckoning, the totality of state funding for our churches and cathedrals is a pathetic £12.5 million per year.

The Government are apt to sweep into this sum the much larger amount expended by the Heritage Lottery Fund. But that is not government money; the Government have no right to include that in their statistics. Indeed, when in opposition, the Government were very vociferous in saying that the lottery money was the citizens' money and must not go to relieve government funding.

Compare that £12.5 million per year—£3 million from the DCMS to the Churches Conservation Trust and the Historic Chapels Trust and £9.5 million last year to English Heritage to be spent on churches—with the £85 million spent on Welsh Channel 4. Now I think Welsh Channel 4 is terrific—I do not say anything against it—but it is an extraordinary comparison. Eighty-nine million pounds is spent on the British Library, which is a wonderful institution from which I would not take a penny away. But £12.5 million for 16,000 churches, cathedrals and chapels, which create and beget a huge amount of tourist revenue, is not good enough. Seventeen million pounds is spent on royal household buildings. That is fine—but £12.5 is really not enough to spend on churches.
 
25 Oct 2004 : Column 1155
 

As for closures, all the noble Lords who have spoken have agreed that churches are a linchpin of village communities in particular. More and more is being done to draw more activities and people into churches, whether those people are believers or not. That is working and will go on working, provided that there are enough people in the village to make it a practical possibility, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich said.

Let us consider the facts: churches have been closing at the rate of 25 a year over the past decade, pubs at 250 a year, village post offices at 250 plus a year, and Methodist chapels at 100 or thereabouts a year. I am not sure about the rate at which schools have been closing, but it is far more than 25 a year. I would guess that shops are closing at around 250 a year, like the village post offices. All that means a winding down of focal points of activity and communality within village communities. It lends ever more force to the point made by other noble Lords, of the importance of retaining and indeed enhancing the role of churches in communities.

I should like to see some thought given to hypothecation. I put it no more highly than that, and I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, will give it one of his sideswipes when he comes to wind up. But I do not see why we should not at least think about that notion. It is not a concept that we have ever admitted into our Exchequer thinking, but I do not see why we should not allow taxpayers to direct up to, say, one-half of 1 per cent of tax to be paid to the churches in their dioceses. Countries such as Germany and Sweden, for example, allow a much more ready and easy means for citizens to support their churches.

We have heard already that many people who do not worship regularly nevertheless have a passionate interest in maintaining their churches. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, mentioned that with regard to his village. It is staggering the extent to which villages have rallied round churches that they enter only for births, marriages and deaths but which they are passionate about. If I may say so, "tens of thousands of volunteers" should read "hundreds of thousands of volunteers"—indeed, millions of volunteers. Someone should calculate just how much money has been raised in this country by hard graft in villages and towns throughout the land to preserve the churches. We may be glum about some things, but the fabrics of churches stand better today, I suspect, than at any time since the mid-Victorian period—so we do not want to get too gloomy. So it is that I reiterate to the Government the thought that they might hypothecate or allow hypothecation of a limited amount of tax.

We should also give more support to the Churches Conservation Trust, which currently has 334 churches under its control. The research done by Trevor Cooper of the Ecclesiology Society shows that the rate of closure of 25 a year is likely to rise to 60 a year, whatever we do in the short run. The Churches Conservation Trust and the equivalent body for
 
25 Oct 2004 : Column 1156
 
chapels do a wonderful job, maximising the use of churches, as the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, has urged upon us.

I should also put in a word for what the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd-Webber, has done through his Open Churches Trust. He put £1 million into that project a few years ago, and it is now spending about £100,000 a year to keep churches open. Their projects have spawned a great deal of emulation throughout the country, and to great effect. One must also not forget the other particular benefactor of village churches, the Garfield Weston Trust, which puts in around £3 million a year—so God bless him.

I also urge that there should be more education. By that I mean local education of local children. We do not do enough in the churches and get the children from schools into the churches to show them what phenomenally exciting places they are. They are living museums and living treasuries of art and skill. We should think of the extent to which ecclesiastical buildings—churches, chapels, cathedrals—represent a celebration of the artisanship of often 10 centuries, sometimes more; St Gregory's, Sudbury, for example, is an eighth century foundation. They are astonishing survivals of the wonderful skill and love poured into these extraordinary buildings. Children, be they from homes where people have no interest in issues of faith and belief, are easily excited when taken round by someone who understands the building and is enthusiastic about it. We could do more on that front.

Finally, I believe that no one so far has mentioned tithes. Tithes gave huge support to the maintenance of churches. Tithe redemption charges were collected when I started work. They constituted a huge amount of money pouring into the upkeep of at least the chancels of churches. That is no longer the case and merely serves to make my overwhelming point, which is to ask the Government to think more in the round regarding the role of churches in our community life, to think more about their policies on social exclusion, community enhancement and revitalisation and to step back and consider whether what is being done is enough and is being done in the best way. With those thoughts I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for introducing the debate.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page