HC Deb 19 July 1999 vol 335 cc784-5
33. Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

What is his estimate of the income from rental for Church land for each of the last two years for which figures are available. [90232]

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

Income from the Church Commissioners' agricultural and mineral holdings was £8.6 million in 1997 and £9.9 million in 1998. A large part of the increase was due to accounting changes. Those relate to the commissioners' insurance provision for their agricultural estates.

Mr. Flynn

Is it not a matter of thanks and congratulations to hon. Members that, for ethical reasons, none of those sums will in future be invested in British Aerospace—something that hon. Members have requested for several Parliaments? In addition, are any Church lands under cultivation for genetically modified foods or will they be?

Mr. Bell

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Since the inception of the commissioners' ethical investment policy in 1948, they have never held shares in a company whose main business is defence. In view of the proposed sale of Marconi Defence Systems Ltd.—the defence arm of GEC—to British Aerospace, the Church of England's ethical investment working group has recommended to the central investing bodies that they should not retain the shares that are acquired in the new British Aerospace as a result of the sale, as its main business is defence.

On the second question, the growing of genetically modified crops requires, by law, a licence from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. No licences have to date been granted to grow such crops on the commissioners' agricultural land, but it would be difficult in practice to stop our farmers growing GM crops should they wish to do so. All our farmers have freedom of cropping and any attempt by the commissioners to prevent a tenant growing GM crops might be challenged in the courts.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

As the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) mentioned genetically modified crops, does the Second Church Estates Commissioner agree that it is important to find out whether GM crops have any deleterious effect on people's health or any adverse effects on the environment? Therefore, it is important to have test crop trials to find out the results. While it would be wrong to introduce the commercial growing of GM crops now, test trials organised by licence through the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food would be perfectly ethical whether on Church land or not.

Mr. Bell

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. The issue is indeed complex and requires careful and reasoned evaluation. We have received from MAFF a proposal to lease land from the commissioners to research the growing of GM crops under closely controlled conditions. Due to the circumstances surrounding the lease of that land, the decision about the proposed use will rest with the commissioners. The ethical investment working group, on which the archbishops' council is represented, will consider that proposal at a meeting later this month. The points that the hon. Gentleman made are those that will be fully considered at that meeting.