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Churches Conservation Trust

33. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): If he will make a statement on his support for the work of the Churches Conservation Trust. [158172]

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Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): The Churches Conservation Trust, jointly financed by Church and public funds, was set up by statute in 1969 to preserve

redundant churches of historic, architectural or archaeological quality for which no suitable alternative use can be found. More than 320 such churches now vest in the trust.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his characteristically informative reply. Since 1 May 1997, how many churches that otherwise would have been doomed have been conserved as a result of the work of

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the trust? What representations has he received about the aesthetic merit or demerit of that work, and will he offer us an insight as to the extent of the turnover of the leadership of the trust?

Mr. Bell: I am grateful for three questions rather than one and for your indulgence, Mr. Speaker, at this time of the Parliament. I shall be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman, giving answers on all three points. He might, however, be pleased to know that, since 1989, the Government have provided 70 per cent. of the trust's budget and the Church has provided 30 per cent. For the period 2002-03, the commissioners will provide up to £3.8 million, partly from sales proceeds from redundant churches and partly by grants from their own funds.

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Points of Order

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Speaker: Order. I have had notice of a point of order from the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt).

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful for this opportunity to raise a point of order of which I have given you prior notice. You and hon. Members will have seen with concern the report in The Sunday Times yesterday which unequivocally states:

Could you make it clear that this report in The Sunday Times is on a par with the other journalistic reports that we have come to expect from News International?

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the point of order, which gives me the opportunity to tell the House that there is no truth whatever in the suggestion that I have agreed to give Sinn Fein Members offices and other facilities at Westminster. The position remains as stated by my predecessor. Members who choose not to take their seats by swearing the Oath required under the Parliamentary Oaths Act 1866 are not entitled to have access to the facilities of the House. If the Government wished to change that position in the case of particular Members, it would be for Ministers to table a motion to that effect for debate and decision by this House.

I think that I am entitled to express my extreme anger and disappointment that, on such a sensitive issue, The Sunday Times chose to publish untrue allegations without waiting to discuss the position with me.

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will be aware that some Conservative Members are proposing a reduction in the tax on spread betting which would save the company IG Index £1 million a year. Given that it has donated £5 million to the Conservative party, can you rule on what procedures should apply to declarations of interest in this case?

Mr. Speaker: I understand that this issue is being considered in a Committee and it is up to the Committee and its members to decide how they wish to deal with

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declarations of interest. If the hon. Gentleman has any worries, he can take them up with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Was it in order for proper declarations on that matter to be made in the Finance Bill Committee last Thursday when the issue was raised?

Mr. Speaker: Obviously, I was not present in the Committee, but if declarations were made, they must have been in order. The Chairman would not have allowed it to be otherwise.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you invite the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt) to withdraw his remark? He alleged that an organisation had given money when, in fact, it was a private individual.

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt) raised a point of order and I have dealt with the matter.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wonder whether you have had any notice on whether the Government are withdrawing their tobacco advertising legislation. Anyone watching the television at the weekend will have been surprised to see the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport attending the Silk Cut challenge trophy and being presented to, and shaking hands with, the sponsors. As hon. Members well know, short meetings with such sponsors often lead to complete changes in Government policy, so before the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill leaves the Lords, I wonder whether we shall have a chance to reflect on the fact that the Government seem to want to support that type of tobacco sponsorship and advertising by their own presence at such an event.

Mr. Speaker: That is not a matter for me.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. At the weekend, a report was published of a meeting on the control of foot and mouth disease that took place on 20 April at the Institute for Animal Health, which was heavily critical of the Government. You may know that, as of today, there have been 1,511 cases of foot and mouth disease, but the Government's current policy has resulted in there being more than 6,298 premises where animals have been or will be slaughtered. Given the recent announcements regarding Phoenix the calf and Porky the pig, it would be helpful to know what the Government's principles are in relation to their culling policy and whether it is being driven by headlines or science. I wonder whether any Minister has made an approach to you about the statement made at the Institute for Animal Health at the weekend.

Mr. Speaker: I can put the hon. Gentleman at ease; there has been no such approach to me.

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Orders of the Day

Rating (Former Agricultural Premises and Rural Shops) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

3.37 pm

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This Bill introduces two important measures. We are introducing the Bill in the belief that it will encourage farm diversification and give help to rural communities. It fulfils commitments made last year in the action plan for farming and in the rural White Paper, which was published in the autumn of last year. It will also provide some long-term help for businesses inevitably affected by foot and mouth disease.

The rural White Paper set out a comprehensive plan of action to improve the quality of life and increase opportunities for rural communities. It is important to ensure that rural economies are able to establish themselves on a sustainable footing. However, I know, perhaps as well as any hon. Member in the Chamber today, that the effects of the foot and mouth outbreak have been, and continue to be, very serious for farmers, the wider rural economy and, of course, the communities that rely on the rural economy.

The first priority is, of course, to eradicate the disease, but the Government are equally committed to helping the farmers and other businesses affected. We have already committed in excess of £500 million in aid to farmers and more than £200 million of other help for the rural economy more broadly. That includes hardship rate relief, deferment of rates payments, temporary reductions in rateable values and the deferral of the rate appeals deadline. We are also deferring tax and national insurance payments for affected businesses and providing help through the Small Business Service, the small firms loan guarantee scheme and the regional development agencies.

The measures contained in the Bill are designed to help farmers and small businesses that provide key services to local communities. They arise from the local government finance Green Paper, the rural White Paper and the action plan for farming. We have taken forward many of the other initiatives and measures in those documents. The changes to the rating system are part of a wider package to support farming and the countryside, so the Bill should not be seen in isolation. Indeed, earlier this month, the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) and I--along with other hon. Members--formed part of a Committee which considered other rating reliefs.

Clauses 1 and 2 will provide rate relief for small enterprises that are newly established in former agricultural premises. That will include cases where the farmer lets or sells the property to a third party. Of course, farms themselves are already fully exempt from

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non-domestic rates but, as soon as any part of a farm is used for anything other than agriculture, the business has to pay rates on it.

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