HC Deb 10 July 2000 vol 353 cc620-2
29 Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South)

What steps the commissioners are taking in relation to rural communities to assist their tenants in the farming industry; and if he will make a statement. [128225]

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

Cases of extreme hardship are considered individually and we try to be as helpful as possible. For example, although the circumstances of individual tenants vary widely, recent rent review settlements have typically seen rent reductions in the region of 10 per cent. to 15 per cent.

Mr. Chapman

Is my hon. Friend aware that representatives of the Church's tenant farmers have written to me? Why do not the Church Commissioners make it easy on themselves and give an across-the-board rent reduction to all their tenants?

Mr. Bell

I am always grateful for helpful suggestions and I consider that one of them. As I mentioned, the circumstances of individual tenants vary widely and it would not be an appropriate use of our funds if they benefited tenants whose financial situation did not warrant it.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

I am a little perturbed by that reply from the hon. Gentleman. Given that the Church Commissioners own 128,000 acres of agricultural land, with several hundred tenants and no fewer than 340 farms; and given that the Church Commissioners' annual report refers to understanding of and support for tenant farmers in difficulty, can the hon. Gentleman at least confirm that no tenant farmer has been forced off his or her land on account of being unable to pay the dues?

Mr. Bell

I am always grateful for the direct question as well as the helpful one. I confirm to the hon. Gentleman that the Church Commissioners own 128,000 acres, including about 350 farms. His question is pertinent, but we do offer assistance when farmers wish to give up or retire from the land. That may involve buying a home to let to them or sharing with them a proportion of the proceeds arising from the sale. In relation to the hon. Gentleman's direct question, I shall be glad to provide a written answer.

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham)

Has my hon. Friend any idea of how many of the clergy in rural areas hunt? If he can establish the numbers, could he perhaps, through the Church Commissioners, remind those clergy who do hunt that their job is to save souls, not to slaughter wildlife?

Mr. Bell

I am glad to see my hon. Friend back from his perambulations in relation to the world cup. He did an extraordinary job of putting the case for the United Kingdom, and he is doing a less good job for the fox. We are conscious of the issue that he has raised—

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Give him an answer then.

Mr. Bell

I am giving the answer. Perhaps my hon. Friend wishes to answer the question himself. We have studied the Burns report and we have no policy changes in mind. Our long-standing policy on fox hunting is that we allow our tenants to follow their consciences in deciding whether to allow hunts on the land that we let to them.

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that more money would be available to help tenant farmers and the clergy at large if less were spent on bishops? Over the past 10 years, the proportion of Church Commissioners' money spent on bishops has risen from 5 per cent. to 10 per cent. How can that possibly be justified?

Mr. Bell

The bishops are much demeaned, and press reports in some of the Sunday newspapers were entirely inaccurate. We are trying to put the record straight. The question of bishops' costs is subject to a review, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that he will be the first to know when I have the results.