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CHURCH COMMISSIONERS

The Second Church Estates Commissioner was asked--

Church Commission Rents

27. Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): To ask the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, pursuant to his answer to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey of 26 March 2001, Official Report, column 486W, on Church Commission rents, what further representations the Church Commission has received on behalf of the residents of the Octavia Hill Estates. [158166]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): A delegation representing residents of the Waterloo and Walworth housing estates met commissioners' staff at Elizabeth house on 9 April and presented a petition setting out their views. The hon. Gentleman was, I believe, present on that occasion and has met subsequently with the commissioners.

Mr. Hughes: Do the Church Commissioners realise that what they do with the rents and lettings policy for the 1,500 homes on those estates in London will be perceived by the residents, as well as a much wider community inside and outside the Church as a real test of the ethical investment policy of the Church of England?

I wish to ask the hon. Gentleman specifically whether he will seek an agreement from his fellow commissioners, and do all he can personally, to ensure that all papers prepared as part of the consultation process, including legal advice given to the commissioners, are made public in good time before the decision is made, and that no

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decision is made without the agreement of the residents, the clergy of the relevant parishes and the local, democratically elected representatives.

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who made that point when he met the commissioners with the Minister for Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), and the commissioners said that they would consider it with great care.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Will the hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to explain the long-term policy of the Church Commissioners on all the property of which the Church owns the freehold?

Mr. Bell: The long-term policy of the commissioners is in line with their statutory duties--to maximise investment returns in line with the mission to provide sustainable support for the nationwide ministry of the Church of England.

Hagg Wood

28. Mr. John Grogan (Selby): If he will make a statement concerning Forest Enterprise's interest in acquiring the freehold of Hagg wood, near Dunnington, from the Church Commissioners. [158167]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): Forest Enterprise has expressed an interest in acquiring the freehold of Hagg wood from the commissioners but no firm proposal has, as yet, been put forward.

Mr. Grogan: Given the considerable local support for the acquisition of the freehold of Hagg wood by Forest Enterprise so as to make it into a community woodland, can my hon. Friend assure me that he will consider carefully, on the advice of the land agents for the commissioners, the land swap proposals that I understand have been made today by Forest Enterprise? Those proposals would involve exchanging several woods in North Yorkshire, which Forest Enterprise currently owns, for Hagg wood and Bishops wood.

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has indicated to me that an offer has been made today. That is interesting news for the commissioners and I assure my hon. Friend that it will be given careful consideration.

Churchwardens Measure

29. Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): For what reasons he has brought forward the Churchwardens Measure. [158168]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): Following synodical approval and the report of the Ecclesiastical Committee, the Churchwardens Measure was passed by this House on 20 March this year, was found acceptable in the other place, and received the Royal Assent on 10 April.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that answer. He will be aware that

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clause 9 of that Church Measure gives the bishops the powers to remove a churchwarden without any right of appeal. He will also be aware that it is a fundamental tenet of British law that someone is innocent until proven guilty. I have recently had a constituency case in which a headteacher was accused of sexual harassment by a young child. He went through many months of absolute torment, including seeing his picture on the front page of many newspapers and having his reputation completely ruined. Will the hon. Gentleman make representations to the Church Commissioners, and thence to the bishops, to use the power to remove only in exceptional circumstances?

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. If I may remind the House, the Measure provides a comprehensive set of rules about the appointment of churchwardens and their tenure of office, building on previous legislation. Most of the Measure has caused no controversy and the draft provisions about which the Ecclesiastical Committee expressed concern related to the possible suspension of a churchwarden from exercising his or her duties. They were deleted by the General Synod and form no part of the Measure, which has become law.

In respect of the case to which the hon. Gentleman refers, the Ecclesiastical Committee expressed severe concern along such lines. It is to be hoped that any innocent person who stands accused might not be covered by the Measure.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): Is not it a fact that that issue was debated in the Chamber, as my hon. Friend said, and that very few Members chose to take part? The Measure was agreed to without a Division although, as he rightly pointed out, that particular provision was of concern to the Ecclesiastical Committee. However, it was quite properly withdrawn by the Synod after representations were made by the Committee and after all the normal procedures had been followed during consideration of the Measure.

Mr. Bell: My hon. Friend is a member of the Ecclesiastical Committee and he played a full part in those discussions during which Members of the House, in the interests of their constituents, and of the other place expressed valid views that were considered by the Synod and accepted.

Church Land (Rents)

31. Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): What variations have recently been made in rents of church lands. [158170]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): Recent farm rent reviews on the Commissioners' agricultural estates have resulted in reductions in the order of 12 per cent., while the average reduction in rents during 2000 was 15 per cent.

Mr. Flynn: The Church Commissioners are to be congratulated on being fair and generous to their tenants who are in farming. It seems likely that many tenants will leave farming at the end of the foot and mouth outbreak. Do the commissioners have a policy to encourage the use of their land for non-farming or non-traditional farming purposes such as growing products for fuel, coppicing and

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so on, which would be better for the environment and, as such usage would be more profitable, better for the Church Commissioners?

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I remind the House that he asked me the opening question at my first Church Commissioners Question Time four years ago and, if we have any luck, he might have asked the last in this Parliament.

The commissioners are fully alert to the crisis in farming, especially the problems caused by foot and mouth disease, and, where there is hardship, will consider how best to help. That is done case by case and tenants are encouraged to discuss their difficulties with agents or staff. There may be examples in which agricultural land is no longer tenanted as farms and the points that my hon. Friend made will be taken into consideration should such cases arise.

Tourism

32. Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): What role the Church Commissioners have in encouraging tourists to visit ecclesiastical buildings. [158171]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): The commissioners' primary role is to manage their assets to support the Church of England's ministry, including the provision of clergy stipends and pensions.

Sir Sydney Chapman: I am sure that the Second Church Estates Commissioner recognises that, at this time, it is the duty of us all to encourage tourism so that it returns to its pre-foot and mouth level. Does he agree that the Church Commissioners have a great opportunity to encourage tourists to visit our cathedrals and churches, which, on any account, are part of our glorious architectural heritage? Those buildings should be seen by many more people, not only from outside, but from the inside.

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. As he may know, the Church Commissioners have limited direct involvement with ecclesiastical buildings or tourism. However, he will be happy to hear that most diocese have a diocesan tourism officer and participate in the National Churches Tourism Group, which is an ecumenical body. Cathedral tourism is supported by the Pilgrims Association.

The Church Commissioners are happy to assist in terms of giving moral support to those bodies, which seek to raise awareness in local churches of the opportunities provided through tourism. Given the outbreak of foot and mouth, we hope that all those efforts will surmount the reluctance to visit the countryside, which is felt by many people.


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