HC Deb 08 November 1999 vol 337 cc686-8
35. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

What progress has been made towards reducing VAT on labour—intensive repairs to church buildings; and if he will make a statement. [96158]

38. Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

What recent representations he has received concerning VAT on church repairs; and if he will make a statement. [96161]

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

I have received a number of representations on the matter, and the commissioners have joined the other central bodies of the Church of England in sending a detailed response to the Government's consultation document, issued by the Treasury in March this year. The Church is concerned that the consultation document repeats the view that European Commission regulations mean that the United Kingdom Government cannot consider introducing new VAT reliefs. As right hon. and hon. Members will be aware, the Church feels that there may be some scope for extending reduced VAT rates through an extension of items listed by the European Union Commission in annexe H to the sixth directive.

Miss McIntosh

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that reply. Will he inform the House what progress has been made—especially in regard to my representations in the House and to representations from the other place? I understand that the hon. Gentleman might be minded to support the exemptions to which he referred. What support might we receive from the Paymaster General towards that end?

Mr. Bell

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her support for the campaign. The General Synod, meeting in York during the summer, debated a motion on the scope and rate of VAT as it affects the ministry of the Church. On a vote, the motion was carried without dissent. A similar view is held by those representing other faiths and secular charities. I hope to make a statement shortly as to how we might proceed with the campaign.

Sir Sydney Chapman

I fully support the hon. Gentleman if he feels able personally to mount a campaign to persuade the Government on this vexed question of VAT on repairs to Church buildings. Does he accept that, in essence, the problem is that, although the Government, with one hand, give certain grants on certain occasions to certain Churches, they take, with both hands, an axe called 17½ per cent. VAT on repairs? In support of his campaign, will he recognise that, in all equity, any relief on VAT for repairs to church buildings should cover all Churches—not only his own—and indeed the buildings of other established religious organisations?

Mr. Bell

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those questions. I shall be seeking a place in the ballot to obtain an Adjournment Debate on the subject. The many different faith traditions in the UK, which are represented by the Church's main committee, and many other charities should be grouped together in the campaign. I hope that the Church, through the Second Church Estates Commissioner, will be able to give leadership in the campaign and that it will be fruitful.

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

May I, uncharacteristically, echo the comments of the hon. Members for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) and for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman)? My hon. Friend's answer will be disappointing to churchwardens in the Akeley South deanery in North-West Leicestershire, who attended a recent meeting led by the Bishop of Leicester at which the topic most often raised was the immense difficulty experienced by thousands of communities in rural areas in raising money to repair their beautiful buildings, most of which are listed, in addition to which…1 of every…7 they raise goes to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Will my hon. Friend continue his campaign?

Mr. Bell

The campaign is in rather early days for my answer to have been disappointing. Since the beginning of time, Caesar—that is, the state—has received whatever he wants, and we are about to end the millennium rendering unto Caesar VAT that is too heavy and too unreformed.

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the diocese of Oxford is a landowner in an area in my constituency where the economy is booming and land prices are high; and that the diocese has proposed that St. Barnabas church and its associated hall, which lie at the heart of their community in south Reading, should be torn down and bulldozed for profit? Will he give an assurance that such activities on the part of the diocese can be limited?

Mr. Bell

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me prior notice of her question. I have read the Reading Chronicle so as to be able to answer it. The position of the Church Commissioners is that we have received no proposals from the diocese about that church; at this stage, it is entirely a matter for the Oxford diocese. The commissioners have a quasi-judicial role, which they might have to exercise in this case, so I am not able to take the matter further on the Floor of the House.