HC Deb 22 January 2001 vol 361 cc649-50
29. Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds)

What recent representations he has made to the European Commission regarding VAT rates for church repairs. [144808]

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

I understand that the Church value added tax group, which consists of staff of the central institutions of the Church, is preparing for meetings with Customs and Excise and other relevant agencies that will put the Government's case, as appropriate, to the European Commission.

Mr. Ruffley

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that reply. Is he aware that many clergy in my constituency of Bury St. Edmunds welcomed the Chancellor of the Exchequer's announcement in his pre-Budget report that VAT on church repairs would be cut from 17.5 per cent. to 5 per cent? Is he further aware that the same clergy are now very angry because they have discovered that the European Commission is now saying that it advised Her Majesty's Treasury all along that such a cut would require a major change to EU law …? In light of that, will the hon. Gentleman tell my concerned constituents, in particular, the Rev. Jonathan Ford of Christ Church, Moreton Hall. Bury St. Edmunds, what is the earliest possible date when they can expect the much needed cut in VAT on church repairs?

Mr. Bell

I am always grateful to hear from the hon. Gentleman. Various discussions are taking place between Customs and Excise and the Church VAT group. The scenario is not as pessimistic as he paints it. We are considering possible derogations. Churches within other EU member states have the same interest in the matter. We travel on hopefully and believe that we will, in the end, reach a satisfactory conclusion. I again congratulate my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the first Chancellor in 25 years to take an interest in the issue, on taking the lead within the European Union and on continuing to do so.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

Can my hon. Friend confirm that Churches of all denominations welcome the Government's intention to reduce VAT after three and a half years of being in government? Can he also confirm that, for 18 years, the Tory Government failed to do so?

Mr. Bell

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a party political point. I try to be non-partisan in this job, but the whole House welcomed the Chancellor's statement of his intention to reduce VAT on church repairs from 17.5 per cent. to 5 per cent. It is a lengthy task, but it has been properly prepared and we are hopeful about the outcome.