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CHURCH COMMISSIONERS

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

Building Faith

1. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): If he will make a statement on "Building Faith in Our Future". [20206]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): Since publication, we have been developing new ways of working with many partners, but the outstanding church building repair need—£373 million—is substantial. Departments, led by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, are planning a formal response and we look forward to building upon it.

Ben Chapman: I encourage my hon. Friend to ask the DCMS to provide a quick and positive response to this very timely initiative. Will the funds available under the report be provided not just for the sustainability of church buildings, but for building inter-faith cohesion that provides, for example, urban-rural exchanges, exchanges between faiths and anything that breaks down barriers in our local communities?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. The whole tone of "Building Faith in Our Future" is multi-faith and intended to promote rural-urban exchanges. On the distribution of funding, I have had extensive discussions with the Archbishops Council and the Bishop of London on how best to bring "Building Faith in Our Future" into the highest reaches of government, and I shall seek a meeting with the Chancellor of the Exchequer shortly.
 
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Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): It must be a fact that the Church Commissioners face an increasing problem with funding clergy pensions, so church building repairs will come after that. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if we are to maintain the fantastic architectural heritage of parish churches across the country, we need more than the DCMS just making a response or a statement? We need a clear commitment from the Chancellor of the Exchequer that there will be a fund to maintain the fabric of parish churches; otherwise, many of them will start to fall into serious disrepair.

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question. Church architecture has been described as the most supreme expression of English architecture, and he is right in the sense that church buildings are among the greatest tourist attractions in the country. In 2003, 86 per cent. of the population visited a place of worship. The reason why we want to see the Chancellor of the Exchequer is not only to explain the document, but to get a commitment from the Government that there will be church state funding and that it will spread beyond all Departments.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): My hon. Friend will know that one of the people who will have to take the report forward is the new Archbishop of York, John Sentamu. Did my hon. Friend notice over the weekend the reports of the horrendous racist abuse that the archbishop has received in the form of e-mails and letters—some covered in excrement? It has been extremely distressing for him and his family. Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity of wholeheartedly condemning that, and pointing out that some who maintain that they are Church members cannot be faithful members of the Church if they adhere to such beliefs?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing that to our attention. It is a despicable aspect of our society, with which the archbishop has to live. However, the good news at the weekend is that he will be enthroned in York, there will be 3,000 people at the enthronement and there will even be a picnic. It is a moment of rejoicing, and he and the Church will overcome the sort of abuse that my hon. Friend described.

Cathedral Properties

3. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): What assessment the commissioners have made of the consequences for English cathedrals of the leasehold enfranchisement and sale of their domestic rented properties. [20208]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): May I at the outset congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his election to represent the diocese of Salisbury in the new General Synod to be inaugurated by Her Majesty next month? On his question, the Church Commissioners have made no such assessment, but I am open to his suggestions.

Robert Key: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. Is he aware that the Government have cut the grant to English Heritage, which in turn has had to
 
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cut the grant to English Cathedrals? Many English cathedrals have for years depended on rental income from their properties in their cathedral closes, notably at Salisbury and Norwich, but does not new legislation mean that those leaseholders have the right to purchase those properties, thus depriving the cathedrals of their only income? That is a paradox that I hope the Church Commissioners will address urgently. Will the hon. Gentleman mention the matter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer when he visits him?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The Leasehold Reform Act 1967 is engraved in my heart, as I was studying for the Bar at the time. It was reformed by the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002, which enabled the situation described by the hon. Gentleman to develop. I recall that he pointed out at the time the danger of that happening. If there is a weakness in that legislation, he may seek to rectify it in the Charities Bill; he may seek the help of the Association of English Cathedrals; and he may also seek my help.

ELECTORAL COMMISSION COMMITTEE

The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Postal Voting

4. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What steps the commission plans to take to increase public confidence in voting by post. [20209]

Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): The Electoral Commission takes the view that a key element in increasing public confidence in postal voting is improving the security of the process. Since 2003, the commission has therefore made a series of recommendations for changes to electoral law, which are designed to improve the security of postal voting in Great Britain. The commission welcomes the fact that the Government are taking forward many of its recommendations in the Electoral Administration Bill, which is due for its Second Reading in the House tomorrow, although it is disappointed that the Bill does not provide for the introduction of full individual voter registration in Great Britain.

Mr. Hollobone: In the Kettering constituency, some 16,000 voters are registered to vote by post, which is one of the highest proportions of the electorate anywhere in the country. Nevertheless, that is still a small percentage of the 81,000 voters who could do so. I congratulate my hon. Friend on identifying the point about secure individual voter registration. Only if that is put in place by the Government can voters have full confidence in the system of voting by post.

Peter Viggers: Yes, it is true that registration for postal voting varies considerably, for example, from 45 per cent. in Newcastle to 3.1 in Glasgow, East. Similarly, turnout varies considerably. In my hon. Friend's constituency, I believe that the turnout of postal voters was 60 per cent., compared with an
 
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average across the United Kingdom of 76 per cent. It is alarming that in its report on participation in the 2005 general election, the Electoral Commission reported that, for the first time, research showed that the number of people rating postal voting as unsafe was higher than the number of people who rated it as safe.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): Has the Electoral Commission done any work on the number of postal votes that arrived after the poll in the general election was closed? That would be an interesting figure, bearing in mind some of the complaints that were made about the problems of getting out the postal votes in the first instance.

Peter Viggers: I congratulate my hon. Friend on finding a point that is not covered in my copious briefing. I will brief myself immediately after Question Time.

CHURCH COMMISSIONERS

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

Octavia Hill Properties

5. Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): How the commissioners will honour the restrictive covenant on the Octavia Hill properties. [20210]

Sir Stuart Bell: I congratulate my hon. Friend on so ably articulating the concerns of her constituents in Octavia Hill. I know that she has been to meetings with clergy and residents. The covenants to which she refers expired in the late 1970s.

Kate Hoey: Does my hon. Friend think that Octavia Hill, who was a wonderful woman and a Christian socialist who devoted her life to the poor of inner-city areas, would be turning in her grave if she knew that the Church Commissioners had decided to sell off the rest of their properties? Will he guarantee that if the Church Commissioners sell off the rest of those properties, they will do so to a registered social landlord and not to a 50:50 partnership between a social landlord and a private landlord, as has already happened? Will he guarantee that rent levels will be protected? Does he agree with my constituent, who is a tenant of the Church Commissioners—and who was very proud to be a tenant of the Church Commissioners until now—and who wrote to me this week:

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning Octavia Hill, who was a great associate of John Ruskin. She died in 1912, but the socialism to which she aspired and which she inspired has certainly endured for many a year.

On my hon. Friend's specific questions, we are a long way from a new owner. In the past, the new owners of properties sold by the commissioners have not changed the inherited rent increase policy or issued any statement regarding future policy on rent increases.
 
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The commissioners have never been social landlords and they will act in accordance with the law on the sale of freeholds, although I stress that we have not yet begun to talk to any potential new owners.

On openness with tenants, I cannot give my hon. Friend or her constituents any more information, but they will be informed of every step on the way.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): The hon. Gentleman knows that in my borough, Southwark, as in the next-door borough of Lambeth, a considerable number of people are tenants of the Church Commissioners. Can he assure me that none of them will lose their homes, that none of them will have their homes transferred to a landlord without their agreement and that the Church will continue to take responsibility for people on the lowest incomes, irrespective of whether it feels obliged to remain as their landlord?

Sir Stuart Bell: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the Church Commissioners' track record on these matters. He knows that we sold properties in Stoke Newington, Maida Vale and Waterloo earlier this year and, as I have said, the new owners determined their own rental policies. However, I stress that that sale involved the freehold only and that existing tenancy arrangements were unchanged. The Church Commissioners will listen to all the points raised by tenants, but they have a statutory obligation to manage their funds in the interests of the Church, in the interests of those who receive moneys from the Church and in the interests of the cure of souls.


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