Church representatives have been in regular contact with the Treasury on that matter. The latest development is the agreement reached by the European Council of Finance Ministers on 10 March that all member states will have the option to apply permanently reduced VAT rates to a number of goods and services. I very much regret that the repair of places of worship is not on that list of goods and services.
Is it not a pity that the Council found the opportunity to discuss VAT reductions for some toll bridges and restaurants, but not for church buildings, which provide so much emotional, spiritual and cultural well-being? What is the next step?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. One has to bear in mind that the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, now Prime Minister, agreed effectively to reduce VAT on church repairs to 5 per cent. until 2011. The campaign by Members in this House will be to maintain that derogation well after that date. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will add their weight to it. In particular, may I thank the hon. Members for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) and for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) and others who are present who have contributed to and supported the campaign? I also thank those in the Church of England who have campaigned so arduously. I invite parishes up and down the land to make use of the derogation scheme already in operation.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words, and for raising the profile of parish churches in rural areas. Now that we have established the derogation, and the broader principle of lower VAT on other goods and services, can we not all unite behind the campaign to persuade the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer to take the argument to Europe, so that they can ensure that the derogation affects churches across the European Union? We must unite behind that worthwhile cause.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments, and I would certainly support any campaign that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor might wish to take to Europe, bearing in mind that it took six years to get this far, and that the process was extraordinarily complicated. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) said, at the last moment, it was decided in Lisbon to throw in toll bridges; they are to be covered, but not VAT on church repairs, which is quite remarkable. I hope that that is not a reflection of how the European Union looks upon the Christian community throughout the Union.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that many of us are extremely angry at the attitude recently taken in Europe? Does he also accept that at a time of unemployment, it is crucial that church buildings can be repaired, not only because that is intrinsically important, but because that work offers employment to craftsmen and others?
The hon. Gentleman makes a fine point, because the work is artisanal—if that is a word that we can put in Hansard—and helpful for local communities. The essential message that this House should give the parishes is to encourage them to undertake those church repairs, and to collect the VAT reduction. It is important that the scheme is taken up before 2011, so that, with the grace of this House, it can be continued after that date.