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Lord Luke: My Lords, I would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for initiating this debate and to thank all those who have contributed to it. I say once again that I very much enjoy these Unstarred Question debates. If I may so, the quantity of speakers is not very great but the quality of the speeches is enormous. We are having a debate about the state of England's churches and we can rustle up two Bishops. If the House of Commons held a debate on England's churches—which I very much doubt would occur—it cannot rustle up two Bishops. That is part of the reason that this House contributes so much to the life of this country.
 
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The debate is, indeed, timely with the launch of the Church of England's paper, Building Faith in our Future at the start of this week. I am sure that your Lordships will join me in welcoming the report and in congratulating the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London on his work on it.

I draw a lot on what has already been said when I say that we must work to get rid of the perception that a church is just a fusty building used only on Sundays. All places of worship are many things to many people, and not just to their particular faith members. They provide communities with a powerful sense of place and are often on sites of great archaeological and historical importance. One has only to look at the churches that are featured on the BBC's excellent fundraising programme "Restoration" to see the feelings that places of worship can evoke, and not just among their local communities. I would like to pay tribute to all the hard work done by the volunteers, often unsung, who continue to do so much to care for churches, for monuments, for battlefields, for parks and for gardens in our country.

Does not the Minister agree with me that places of worship play an important role in achieving some of the Government's own targets for community regeneration and social cohesion such as tackling rural exclusion? Therefore, we need to do all we can to encourage investment in them. I read that recently the Bishop of Exeter and various other members of the Church rode round his diocese on vintage motor bikes to highlight the need for such funding. I am not suggesting that we should do anything quite like that, but it shows how inventive some people can be in a good cause.

Can the Minister respond to the call by the Church of England for the doubling of annual grants to English Heritage for the repair and maintenance of historic churches to something like £20 million? In December 2001, English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund estimated that the annual demand for funds was £100 million, of which £55 million was estimated to be for urgent and essential fabric repairs. Can the Minister inform the House what the figures for 2003 are, and how much Her Majesty's Government have provided help to meet the shortfall?

In light of that, we on these Benches very much welcome the fact that full VAT is at least being refunded on repairs to places of worship, under the Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme, which is now extended until March 2006. It is a step that has been very long overdue. How many churches are in a desperate state because of the delay? I am pleased to say that our colleagues in the European Parliament continue to argue for the need to make that a permanent reform. We have consistently opposed tax harmonisation in Europe. Can the Minister inform the House of the current status of negotiations reached by Her Majesty's Government on that point?

I fully support the Church of England's call for partnership with the national, regional and local bodies, as well as government at all levels, to
 
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regenerate and safeguard the role of places of worship for a wide and often unacknowledged range of activities. From an example such as St Paul's, with its great history, we all know that places of worship are a strong part of our tourism industry. However, I am delighted to hear that it will not become a casino. We have heard that historic cathedrals alone generate an estimated £91 million per annum for the economy through tourism. Meanwhile, any state aid for their upkeep remains very limited.

Not only is state funding very limited, but the week before last, Tessa Jowell was reported as seeking a new round of cost-saving from bodies which manage, fund and police the protection of listed buildings. I understand that the suggestion is to merge several bodies. Various voices have come out against that, such as Matthew Saunders of the Ancient Monuments Society, who is dismayed at the idea, which has already been rejected before being mooted again. He said:

Can the Minister explain in more detail the compelling reasons for the proposed mergers?

The title of the debate calls for recognition of what the Government have done to maintain the architectural heritage of England's churches. Noble Lords will then forgive me if one area about which we are particularly concerned is the proposed changes to the listing procedure that protects so many of our places of worship and other national treasures. The consultation paper Protecting Our Historic Environment: Making the system work better says that, in the future, listing should be undertaken,

Although it is always important to weigh up the pros and cons of such situations, one cannot help but think of the example of St Mary's in Harmondsworth, which is much to the inconvenience of the Department for Transport because it is Grade 1 listed and happens to lie in the path of Heathrow's proposed third runway. It is perfectly fair for the Government to justify why the listing of any particular building needs to be overruled, rather than preventing listing due to what may or may not be convenient. If that idea were carried through, it would surely mean the end to listed buildings anywhere outside our major cities, just in case in the future it might become inconvenient. I therefore support our current system of listing, and question the need to make the suggested changes. I will watch with very great interest what happens in that respect.

I have but touched on the range of issues discussed today. I am sorry that I have not had the chance to discuss the difficulties of conservation—bats in belfries, for instance. However, I have asked the Minister a number of questions and I am giving him ample time to reply to all of them. I believe that in these increasingly uncertain times, we cannot underestimate the importance that places of worship play in our social fabric, both locally and nationally, for faith members, tourists and unbelievers alike.
 
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8.40 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord McIntosh of Haringey): My Lords, I, too, am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Harrison for introducing this debate and for attracting the speakers to it that he has. I suppose it is a slight paradox that a debate about churches should be opened and closed by atheists, but that is what you get for your money this evening.

Despite not being members of Churches, my noble friend Lord Harrison and I find ourselves in very considerable agreement with what has been said throughout the debate. I had the privilege last week of being invited to Lambeth Palace for the launch of the document, Building Faith in our Future which has been referred to by a number of speakers. I was delighted because it gave me my first chance not only to see the wonderful guardroom at Lambeth Palace, which I had never seen before, but also to hear the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London and Viscount Norwich speak on the subject.

I made a minor contribution myself, welcoming the fact that the Church of England is thinking seriously about the issues surrounding its built heritage, highlighting the fact that central government are not the only player—I shall go into more detail about that—and encouraging the Church to be visionary in its thinking about how to build new partnerships to sustain the ecclesiastical built heritage and to breathe new use into it. That is exactly what we have been talking about this evening, and it is right that we should.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London is to be congratulated on the report, along with all the other people who produced it. The Government will of course respond to it properly in due course, but I can already say that we accept a good deal of the analysis of the problem and many of the solutions. After all, the Church of England has 4,200 Grade I listed buildings—45 per cent of all Grade I listed buildings in England.

I can confirm what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich said. A survey carried out for the Church of England and English Heritage showed that 85 per cent of people in this country visited a church or a place of worship in 2002. Unfortunately for the Church of England, only a minority visited for the purpose of weekly worship, but still, these are enormously popular places, and they deserve to be.

The Church of England repair spend in 2002 was £93 million. I shall be talking about where that money comes from in a minute. Incidentally, let me say to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, that I am talking about the Church of England because it was referred to at the launch. Of course, in all these matters, we are concerned with all other Christian denominations. Indeed, there are listed buildings from non-Christian faiths, and they have to be taken into account as well.

Clearly, church buildings make a key contribution to the landscape, rural communities, urban regeneration, education, culture and tourism. In
 
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answer to the noble Lord, Lord Luke, they contribute to the Government's stated objectives, particularly those of social inclusion.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London said that churches were public utilities—not quite in the sense of gas and electricity, I suppose, but I know what he meant.

Perhaps I may answer the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, on an even more mundane point. He asked about the Disability Discrimination Act. I have to answer by saying that Churches are service providers within the provisions of that Act, which came into force at the beginning of this month, and that they are therefore covered by it. So churches have to make reasonable efforts to comply, as do all service providers.

The report recommends more public funding of repair and maintenance of historic churches. I avoided making any commitment when I spoke last week at Lambeth Palace and I shall continue to avoid making any commitment now. We welcome the report's suggestion that there should be a new cross-departmental group to consider the impact of policies on places of worship. It said that there should be better partnerships, faith representatives on regional cultural consortia including regional development agencies and local strategic partnerships. We welcome those recommendations. It also said that there should be more recognition of the contribution that cathedrals make to their communities. Again, that makes good sense to us.

Perhaps I may answer the points raised in the Unstarred Question about the contribution made by government. I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London for expressing his appreciation of what we do. In particular, he referred to the listed places of worship grant scheme, which is our alternative to VAT exemption—and this is my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts. For reasons of which I think he will be well aware, we cannot change EU directives on VAT by ourselves. We have been trying for a number of years to secure a permanent reduced rate for repairs and maintenance to listed places of worship—and, indeed, for other listed buildings. We have not succeeded so far. That does not mean that we are not still trying or that we do not take this matter seriously in the European context.

In 2001, the Chancellor reimbursed listed places of worship for VAT spent on repair works until April this year. It was the difference between the full amount of VAT and 5 per cent, which is a reduced rate that applies in some European countries. Since April 2004, it has related to the full rate of VAT.

The point about the scheme is that it is demand led; there is no expenditure cap. All eligible claims are paid. In deciding the criteria, we mirror what would be allowed under European Union VAT rules so that some matters are included. However, more than 5,000 listed places of worship in the UK have claimed, and £23 million has been paid out to date, including more than £17.5 million in England. It is a grant scheme financed purely by government money. The intention is to continue it to March 2006.
 
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I turn to English Heritage funding, part of which is government money. In 2004-05, the current year, £10 million is English Heritage money and £15 million is Lottery money from the Heritage Lottery Fund. I am not making any claims about that being government expenditure, as the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, thought I would. It is targeted at essential structural repairs to listed places of worship. In addition to that scheme, there is the English Heritage cathedral repair grant scheme, which was set up in 1991. It offered cathedrals £2 million in grant funding for the current year, with Lincoln, Salisbury and Durham receiving a quarter. A grant budget of £1 million has been allocated for cathedrals next year.

I acknowledge that all such grants are matched at least, if not more, by historic churches preservation trusts and other forms of fundraising, including local fundraising of the type described by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke. However, this is an important contribution. It recognises that our historic churches are legitimate public attractions. In answer to my noble friend Lord Harrison, we cannot make access a condition because we must consider the merit of the repair works first, but, certainly within the limits of the directions which we can give to the Heritage Lottery Fund and to English Heritage, access is clearly an important consideration.

Incidentally, I can put the mind of the noble Lord, Lord Luke, to rest about the supposed mergers of heritage bodies. There are no plans to merge the bodies; there are plans to see whether savings can be made from, for example, merging back office functions, but English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund are very different in their definitions of heritage and in their geographical scope.

No reference has been made to the Landfill Tax Credit scheme, so suffice it for me to say that that makes a contribution. As Building Faith in our Future confirms, it made a contribution of around £2 million to the Church of England churches in 2002.

I am glad that reference was made to the Churches Conservation Trust, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, but also by other noble Lords. We are a statutory funder of the Churches Conservation Trust and have been since 1969. We give £3 million a year to it and the Church Commissioners give the remaining 30 per cent. I have been pleased to be able to visit CCT buildings this year. More than 1 million people have visited them. The CCT is keen to increase community use of the buildings. As my noble friend Lord Harrison rightly said, Frank Field, the chairman, is particularly keen on that. If I give the example of St Paul's in Bristol, which is used by a circus training company, noble Lords will see that the buildings are available for quite imaginative uses.
 
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To my surprise, no reference was made to the Pastoral Measure 1983 on the community use of churches, but I point out our support for moves by the Church of England to extend the use of church buildings beyond core worship and mission and we applaud the examples to which reference has been made. My noble friend Lord Harrison cited the example of St Paul's at the Crossing in Walsall. It retains a sacred space for worship, but much of the building is converted for other use—a mixture of shops, conference facilities and function rooms. That is a good example of the way in which the Church is moving towards community use.

The noble Lord, Lord Luke, saw a threat in our reform of listing procedures to cover the area in which the building exists. That already happens to some extent and I assure him that there is no excuse in that phrase for any weakening of listing procedures. It simply means that urban townscape is a relevant consideration when we look at the listability or otherwise of any building.

I turn finally to the Question that was asked at the start of the debate by my noble friend Lord Harrison. Yes, we strongly agree that there should be wider community use of churches. I was delighted that the right reverend Prelates the Bishop of London and the Bishop of Norwich gave explicit support to that. Cultural contributions can be made by churches. The work of volunteers is highly valuable. Local economies can benefit hugely, particularly from tourism. We think that there are opportunities for regeneration and, as I said, we believe that all those fit in with the Government's own targets.

I liked, in particular, the suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Harrison that churches could be used for non-religious weddings and ceremonies. The Church of England may like to consider that, but perhaps it is a more heterodox view.

In conclusion, we very much welcome the thrust of the debate. We are grateful to my noble friend Lord Harrison for raising it and, without actually promising the £20 million for which the Church of England asked last week, we shall do everything in our power to continue with the collaboration, if I may put it that way, between Churches and government over the best use of our historic churches for all our people.


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