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House of Commons

Thursday 19 June 2008

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]




London Local Authorities (Shopping Bags) Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 26 June.

Manchester City Council Bill [Lords] (By Order )

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Second Reading (12 June).

Debate to be resumed on Thursday 26 June.

Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Canterbury City Council Bill (By Order)

Leeds City Council Bill (By Order)

Nottingham City Council Bill (By Order)

Reading Borough Council Bill (By Order)

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Sec ond time on Thursday 26 June.

Oral Answers to Questions

Church Commissioners

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

Church Buildings

1. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): What factors the Church Commissioners take into account in deciding on the preservation of church buildings. [212130]

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The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): Good morning, Mr. Speaker. May I, with your permission, congratulate the hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers) on his knighthood? Since this is Church Commissioners Question Time, I almost said, “priesthood”. He has been a colleague of mine in this House for many years. We have had adjacent offices, and from time to time, sparing the blushes of the Whips Office, we have paired together. His elevation is well deserved and worthy of him and this House. He has the singular distinction of having come into the House in February 1974 with my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), so they share that particular election.

Where a suitable alternative use cannot be found for a church that has closed for worship, the commissioners determine its future having consulted the Church Buildings Council about its qualities. In considering the possibility of preservation by the Churches Conservation Trust, the commissioners take into account the trust’s ability to meet the repair and maintenance cost, other sources of funding, and competing claims for vesting in the trust.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) takes a big interest in his own constituency affairs, I am sure that he will be interested to know that St. Mary’s, Thornton-le-Moors is a grade I listed church near Stanwell oil refinery that was declared redundant in 2002. Lengthy negotiations for a possible alternative use did not bear fruit, and I expect that the commissioners will consider preservation in the near future.

Ben Chapman: In considering the future use of redundant church buildings, what consultation takes place with local communities? In particular, what consideration is given to the building’s potential in the context of faith tourism?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for returning to the theme of faith tourism, which is very important for the Church. He would wish to know that the commissioners’ involvement in any preservation matter begins once a decision has been taken to close a particular church of worship. Since 1969, the future of 1,741 redundant churches has been decided under the pastoral measure. Alternative uses have been found for 1,007, while 352 have been preserved and 382 have been demolished. Preservation and faith tourism are extremely important, and how we can link them together as part of our English heritage is a matter of some concern to the Church.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend will know that there are at least three proposals to consider how the Church of England could receive a massive boost to bring their buildings up to scratch for all the reasons he has just set out. Will he explain what is happening and tell us of any deliberations he has had with Ministers on how we can provide this massive investment, which, as he knows more than me, is sadly needed?

Sir Stuart Bell: My hon. Friend raises an important point about the relationship between Church and state. It is not generally known that the state does not help us by financing the preservation of churches, although we
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work closely with English Heritage, from which we receive funds. There is a great concern in the Church that funds might be diverted from the heritage fund to the Olympic games, which would not assist in the preservation of churches. I will be happy to write to my hon. Friend on the specific matters to which he refers, and put a copy of my letter to him in the Library.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): My question is not about a church that is closing—quite the opposite. My question is about St. Peter’s church in the village of Prestbury, just outside Macclesfield, which is a flourishing and highly popular church. It is a valuable listed building, but there is a huge debate in the village about the proposal to extend the exterior of the church, rather than alter it inside. Can the hon. Gentleman indicate what factors the Church Commissioners would take into account to allow this substantial alteration to a beautiful church that is much valued? There is great debate in the village. I am not taking sides—that is not my business—but I want to know which factors are taken into account.

Sir Stuart Bell: That looks like a planning matter for the local community, but there are several aspects to what the hon. Gentleman says. First, it is a beautiful church; secondly, it is well attended; and thirdly, there is the question whether it should expand from within or without. The gospel has already expanded from without, which is why it has lasted for 2,000 years. I would be happy to look into the matter to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and to give him a proper written answer.

Sir Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): I expected to be answering questions today rather than asking them, but the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who tabled a question on postal voting has unstarred his question, which deprives several hon. Members in my party of the chance to raise the issue.

May I take the opportunity of using a question relating to churches to thank the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell)? I particularly value his kind comments. Does he agree that the burden of maintaining one of the glories of this country, namely our old churches, falls heavily on the modest number of people in the congregations? If the state were minded to divert more resources to churches, many people would warmly welcome that.

Sir Stuart Bell: That question gives me two opportunities. The first is to return to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman), and to say that faith tourism will be considered by the General Synod next month. On state involvement in Church funding and maintaining our heritage through the preservation of our buildings, it was someone else who said,

The state has steadily withdrawn over many years from its Church involvement. It is a matter of great concern in the Church that secularism seems to be on the march, and that the Church and its majority community is somehow falling behind in the stakes. Everything that we say in this House on the Church, the preservation of churches and our heritage, is welcomed, and it is listened to elsewhere.

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Bell Ringing

2. Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): If the Church Commissioners will hold discussions with the General Synod on policy on bell ringing in churches; and if he will make a statement. [212132]

Sir Stuart Bell: To my knowledge, the General Synod has no plans to discuss bell ringing. Many bells in England have been heard by their communities for 400 years and they are a cherished English custom. On the rare occasions when there are allegations of nuisance from bell music, it is the Church’s aim always to settle through mediation.

I pay homage to our bell ringers up and down the land. They are conscientious about giving notice of prolonged ringing and use methods to control noise if the bells are so loud as to cause nuisance. In a parish church, the incumbent has the final say about when the bells can be rung. As I said earlier, church bell ringing began in England in the 16th century and it has been a particularly English custom ever since. Church bells are almost always the longest surviving sound in the area—that does not apply in Scotland, of course, where the bagpipes are played. There are more than 40,000 ringers in the United Kingdom. I should add that the Churchcare website gives useful guidance on church bells and the law. There is a law on bell ringers, as there is on most other things.

Mark Pritchard: I am grateful for that reply. Of course, John Betjeman wrote more about church bells than about Sunday hedge-trimming, lawnmowers or football matches. I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to all the nation’s bell ringers. It is very much a part of English culture and tradition. Does he share my concern that in some villages and towns in this country, over-eager public officials, some weak-kneed vicars and human rights advocates who take the Human Rights Act 1998 to extremes want to silence this nation’s bells? Will he put on record his concern and the fact that he will join me to fight any proposals to silence them? As he rightly said, they have rung out for more than 400 years—since long before the lawnmower.

Sir Stuart Bell: We have certainly ranged far and wide today. It is Royal Ascot day, so it is not surprising that the Chamber is not as full as it might be.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is a great supporter of churches and cathedrals, particularly Hereford cathedral, which recently celebrated the centenary of the dedication of its west front. He makes a potent and pertinent plea for bell ringers, wherever they are. They render a great service and are a great comfort to many of our majority community, which is Christian, when they hear them rung wherever they are. We are keen to keep that situation going.

The Church Buildings Council has produced a code of practice for the conservation and repair of bells, and many local communities give extremely generously towards the upkeep and refurbishment of bells and the enlargement of groups of local ringers.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I am sure that the bells were ringing loud and clear at Great St. Bartholomew in Smithfield a couple of weeks ago when Rev. Martin
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Dudley, who is far from weak-kneed, performed a service to celebrate the civil partnership of two members of his congregation.

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is absolutely not on.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Around the world, 95 per cent. of the churches whose bells can be change rung—in other words, the order of the bells can be changed—are in England. As the Second Church Estates Commissioner said, it is a peculiarly English tradition. Are the Church Commissioners satisfied that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is sufficiently appreciative of that fact?

Sir Stuart Bell: Yes. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that matter, and we would be happy to draw attention to it again. It should be noted and on record that the Church Commissioners and the Church in general work closely with that Department and remind it of its great duties to the Church as well as to secular society, and its duty to maintain the Church in its thinking. We shall certainly draw the hon. Gentleman’s comments to its attention.

Public Accounts Commission

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—

Comptroller and Auditor General

3. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): When he last met the Comptroller and Auditor General; and what subjects were discussed. [212133]

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby): I have been asked to reply on behalf of the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission. He last met the Comptroller and Auditor General on 4 March, when the Commission considered the National Audit Office estimates for 2008-09. The issues discussed included the lower rate of increase in the NAO’s estimates than in previous years, the appropriate balance between in-house auditing and outsourcing of audit work and the Commission’s response to the Tyner review of the NAO’s corporate governance.

David Taylor: Sir John Bourn, the previous Comptroller and Auditor General, recently excoriated senior civil servants for what he called their profound incompetence in handling defence programmes, taxation schemes and private finance initiative projects. Can my hon. Friend assure the House that Sir John’s successor will ensure that the NAO watchdog, which has so often failed to bark, will sink its teeth into those matters—not least PFI, which is prohibitive in cost, flawed in concept and intolerable in consequence for the taxpayers, citizens and employees in our land?

Mr. Mitchell: My hon. Friend is a most assiduous auditor of the auditors, and he was kind enough to send me Sir John Bourn’s remarks, which I shall take the trouble to circulate to the Public Accounts Commission and the Public Accounts Committee. However, I have to remind him that that is the work of the Public Accounts
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Committee. The Commission audits only the budget to see that the NAO can carry on its work.

Sir John Bourn’s reflections were the serious reflections of a distinguished public servant on his life’s work at the NAO. The new Comptroller and Auditor General has already taken over the ongoing programme, which includes the audit of public procurement projects by the Ministry of Defence and across Whitehall, for example on food procurement, the use of consultants, IT procurement and, of course, PFI contracts. We have issued several hard-hitting reports on that, and that work will go on. However, I must tell my hon. Friend with a tinge of sadness in my voice that PFI is a Government policy.


The Solicitor-General was asked—

Domestic Violence

4. Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): What proposals for changes in prosecution of domestic violence offences there will be as a result of the Crown Prosecution Service’s violence against women strategy. [212145]

The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): The Crown Prosecution Service, after public consultation and extensive work, now has a single, cohesive violence against women strategy, which the Attorney-General will launch on 24 June. That will strengthen the prosecution response to domestic violence, through better co-ordination of guidance, training and performance management, and by supporting CPS work on victim satisfaction.

Anne Moffat: I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that answer. Does she agree, however, that because some women who suffer serious domestic violence feel that less harsh penalties are available if they report the fact that they have been violated domestically, we need far stronger penalties and more prosecutions, to ensure that we give women who suffer from this dreadful thing an incentive to come forward?

The Solicitor-General: I do not know that that is the case, to be honest. The number of prosecutions has increased markedly. In 2005-06, 59.7 per cent. of prosecutions were successful and in the last quarter of last year, 70.1 per cent. were successful. The Sentencing Guidelines Council has done a lot of work on domestic violence. We have got away in the courts from the notion that domestic violence is a softer form of violence, which should be treated more leniently than public violence. In fact, domestic violence is a much graver kind of violence. If one is attacked on the street, one can run home; if one is attacked in one’s own home, one has nowhere to go to. I hope that we have got over that hurdle and that people are being sentenced appropriately when they are convicted, as they increasingly are, of such offences.

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