The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Church of England officials have been meeting officials from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and other Government Departments. Those discussions seek, among other things, to identify national, regional and local sources of funds and ensure that the provision of community services in church buildings qualifies for these sources of funding on an equal basis as in respect of non-church buildings.
I understand that the heritage grant is to be reduced this year, and that the funding of churches and church repairs is reaching crisis point. There has been a spate of thefts of lead from roofs, and churches must pay VAT on repairs. They have thousands of pounds’ worth of commitments and very little by way of grant. What can the hon. Gentleman do, as a matter of urgency, to ensure that the largest possible heritage grant is available for the restoration of churches?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising a matter that is extremely important to the Church. We continue to monitor the heritage fund grant because we are constantly hearing that it may be reduced.
The hon. Lady is, of course, aware of our own efforts and campaigning to ensure that VAT on church repairs is effectively reduced to 5 per cent. She is right to say that we need to inject value into our church repairs. At least £925 million will be needed over the next five years to repair listed places of worship in England, most of which will be raised by congregations and local communities. The hon. Lady’s efforts, and the efforts of the House, to maintain pressure on the Government are most welcome.
I estimate that the new charge—and, where applicable, highways drainage contributions—will cost Church of England churches and cathedrals about £15 million or more. Let me add by way of a statement that I consider the new charging regime to be unfair to the churches, small sports clubs and voluntary organisations that enrich our communities. Ministers are considering how to respond to these concerns, and we await their response with interest.
I think that the churches, charities and sports organisations await a ministerial announcement not just with interest but with anger. I wrote to the Minister responsible on 19 December, and his office has informed me today that I should receive a reply to my letter in the next few weeks. Would it not be better if the Second Church Estates Commissioner had a word with Ministers to ensure that they reach some conclusion about the need for new legislation—not just tinkering with guidance notes—before the Church of England debates the matter in our Synod next week?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for writing to the Minister personally.
A great deal of pressure has been exerted on the Government, not only by the Church but by the Scout Association, which has campaigned on the issue. Only yesterday a petition from former sports stars Brian Moore and Mike Gatting outlining the impact on sports clubs was received by the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The pressure is on the Government, and what we want is for the Government to respond. If I may use a biblical phrase, let me say: those who have ears, let them hear.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that this matter arises from a rather misguided decision by Ofwat, with which I have been in correspondence for well over six months, and that, as is clear from that correspondence, the individual water companies still have a degree of latitude that would enable them to exempt churches?
The hon. Gentleman is right, in that the matter lies with Ofwat; and therein, I suspect, lies the dilemma of Ministers. How do they intervene with Ofwat? How do they intervene on behalf of the Church or in relation to the Scouts Association? How do they intervene on behalf of all the small concerns that are the lifeblood of our country and act in their interests? That is a dilemma for the Government to which they should respond and on which they should reach a conclusion that is favourable to the Church’s interest and also robust. We want no tinkering with the system and no filibustering here or there; we want a clear decision that is in the interests of the organisations to which I have referred.