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.