HC Deb 20 December 1999 vol 341 cc522-3
31. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

What progress has been made on reducing VAT on church repairs; and if he will make a statement. [101987]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners)

The hon. Lady will recall my recent Adjournment debate on this subject in which she reminded the House of her long and active involvement in this matter. My hon. Friend the Paymaster General, responding to the debate, acknowledged the existence of a report published by the joint committee of the national amenity societies which seeks to quantify the VAT on repair costs borne by the Church and others with regard to listed buildings.

Miss McIntosh

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that reply. I am also grateful for his support for my campaign and for allowing me to intervene in his excellent Adjournment debate recently. Could he join forces with me to convince the Paymaster General that churches qualify as historic buildings for the purposes of the annexe to the European directive under which we seek to reduce VAT rates on church repairs? Does he not agree that perhaps the best way to mark the millennium year is by lowering the rate of VAT on church repairs?

Mr. Bell

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments. The Church at all levels, from the parishes and dioceses to central bodies and specialist advisory bodies such as the Council for the Care of Churches, will continue to call for fairer VAT treatment. I very much support their continuing efforts and those of the hon. Lady.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Over the Christmas recess, will my hon. Friend look at the remarkable book by Mr. Simon Jenkins on his 1,000 favourite churches? One realises from that book how many of those churches are in areas that in mediaeval times were very prosperous, but that are now depopulated and where the congregations simply are too few to support the necessary repairs that must be made. In those circumstances, are not the alternatives either to do something about the problem through VAT or to lose the glories of mediaeval architecture across Britain?

Mr. Bell

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting the matter in the context of the Church's history and tradition. We, as Church Commissioners, have always said that there should be a reform of VAT that helps with church repairs. We are mindful of the fact that £12 million has been made available through English Heritage towards the repair of churches of all denominations and religions—Christian and non-Christian—and of historical places of worship. Despite the input of English Heritage and the commissioners, the heavy burden of VAT on repairs makes it very difficult for us to fulfil the tasks to which my hon. Friend referred.

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