HC Deb 16 March 1998 vol 308 c946
39. Mr. Baker

To ask the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, what changes to procedure are being introduced following reports into the Ashford Great Park development project. [32936]

Mr. Stuart Bell

The commissioners' corporate governance has been reviewed and strengthened and an audit committee has been established. The board of governors has developed rules under which the assets committee is obliged to keep it regularly informed of decisions and actions. A property group of the assets committee scrutinises individual holdings and advises on strategic issues; and independent valuers were appointed.

Mr. Baker

I am pleased to hear that answer, as far as it goes; but will the hon. Gentleman confirm that, as a consequence of this fiasco, the Church Commissioners have lost an absolute fortune, not least because they acted as guarantors for unsecured loans of £87 million, against agricultural land valued at £3 million? Does not that represent excessive incompetence, and can he guarantee that such a fiasco can never again occur?

Mr. Bell

I am always grateful for helpful questions. If I may echo my hon. Friend the Minister without Portfolio, that seems to be a helpful question. It is 10 years since the Ashford project, and the commissioners have learnt from their experience. An independent report, published in 1997, concluded that the increased expertise available to the commissioners, combined with the improved internal control systems and administration, has been a contributory factor in our markedly improved investment results.

I can only echo the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury; on 29 July 1997, he said: I am satisfied that the right lessons have been learned. We should now draw a line under it. I have full confidence in the strengthened and renewed management of the Commissioners' assets".