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Church Commissioners

Volume 494: debated on Thursday 18 June 2009

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

Surface Water Drainage Charges

2. What assessment he has made of the effect on the Church’s finances of the new system of charging for surface water run-off on church property. (280571)

I estimate that surface water charges by area will cost the Church of England at least £5 million and a further £10 million for highways drainage contributions. The effect of these cost increases on individual parish churches and cathedrals will vary, but I assure the hon. Lady that every church will face an increase.

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that answer. Does he agree that there should be a moratorium on the imposition of those charges until a complete impact assessment has been made? Will he support the early-day motion to that effect which stands in my name and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends? Will he also look at the formula that Yorkshire Water, which serves my constituency, has come up with? It causes the least damage where the introduction of those charges applies.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. We will certainly look at any proposal or scheme seeking to ensure that the least possible damage is done to churches as a result of water charges. We have heard some encouraging noises from Ofwat and the Government, but we hope for something more tangible and, from the Church’s point of view, for a broad, permanent exemption. That is what we are seeking to achieve with Ofwat.

The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, of which I am a member, is undertaking a review of Ofwat’s charging policies, and we had the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), before us yesterday. He made it quite clear that Ofwat has not only a brief but a duty to ensure that charging systems are fair and avoid creating hardship. May I suggest to the Second Church Estates Commissioner, that the Church Commissioners make strong representations to ensure that Ofwat delivers on what he described as encouraging noises?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who will know that we have had discussions with Government and Ofwat representatives. Those discussions are continuing. Our difficulty appears to be that water companies, with the possible exception of the Yorkshire water authority, are charging churches and other voluntary bodies as if they were big businesses. We are seeking to argue that that cannot be morally or ethically right and that it is not a balanced approach. The Government respond, but whether they do so sufficiently and significantly is another matter.

May I, too, urge the hon. Gentleman to make strenuous representations on this matter with both Ofwat and Ministers? As he has just said, the issue involves not only the churches but other voluntary bodies such as scouting organisations. Such bodies are very important to our national life, are not big businesses and cannot afford the charges. If the charges go ahead and they are not able to operate, that will diminish our national life.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. She will be happy to know that at yesterday’s annual general meeting of the Church Commissioners, I raised that specific point. I said that it was encouraging that the Church, through the Synod and the Archbishops Council, was working with scouting and other organisations. The Archbishops Council has led the way in this matter on behalf of the Church, along with the Church Commissioners, but the House has to give, as I think it has done, a strong message to Ofwat in addition to all the other representations that have been made.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he has said, but urge him to redouble his efforts. As he may be aware, I have seen and corresponded with the chief executive of Ofwat. Although charming and courteous, he has not delivered as he should have. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is extraordinary that the body set up to protect the public is creating this appalling problem? Will he once again approach the chief executive and the appropriate Ministers?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Among other things, Ofwat is misdirecting itself on these issues. It seems to be suggesting that the new charging regime is an ecologically sound policy. Let me say that the Church takes environmental issues seriously, and that we do not necessarily accept that argument. I refer the hon. Gentleman to my statement in Hansard on 5 February at column 972, in which I asked the Government to intervene robustly on behalf of the churches and other organisations. I will be happy to repeat that request to the Government.