The commissioners are not generally empowered to use their funds for churches in use, but they sometimes make grants in individual cases in their capacity as landowners, where they have a chancel repair liability or where they own land in the parish. Such grants amounted to £210,000 in 1986.
Although the human fabric is vital, many of our churches which are in use are of considerable historic, architectural and cultural value and often the parishes are simply too small to support them. Will the Church Commissioners consider whether they can take a lead with English Heritage and other such bodies to see whether they can raise far more money nationally to ensure that these vital parts of our national heritage are preserved for posterity and future generations?
I suspect that my hon. Friend may have a constituency interest in his question. I took the trouble to verify whether there might be scope for helping a particular parish church in his constituency where, alas, I find that we have no chancel responsibility and own no land. In certain circumstances the Church Commissioners contribute towards the fabric repair of some churches. I must repeat that funds available for the repair and maintenance of the fabric are, pound for pound, funds taken away from the needs of the human element in our work, which must have the top priority.
Will the right hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to confirm that, whatever the Church Commissioners may have spent in the past on funding churches, there has been a momentous announcement that they are to fund to the tune of £1 million a year the re-invigoration of the Church in the inner cities as a contribution to the church urban fund? When the relevant Measure comes before the House, will the right hon. Gentleman encourage the House to approve the £1 million a year and support the call to the nation for £18 million, so that much of what is dead in the Church in the inner cities can be brought back to life for the good of the Church and the cities of our nation?
I am glad that the hon. Gentlemen has referred to the church urban fund and the £1 million contribution that the Commissioners are hoping to be able to make. I see very little likelihood of the House wishing to impede this perfectly desirable, straightforward and generous response of the Church Commissioners to a manifest need.
I must remind my hon. Friend that the primary responsibility for the maintenance of the fabric of parish churches rests with the congregations of those churches, many of whom, when faced with a particular need, show an extraordinary capacity to raise funds to maintain the fabric, as do the dioceses. It would not be advantageous for the Church Commissioners to liquidate their capital assets for short-term repair needs, which could probably best be undertaken by the congregations and dioceses involved.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in the coalfield areas one danger to the fabric of churches is British Coal's tardiness and in some cases its refusal to make settlements for mining subsidence? Is he further aware that I had to threaten British Coal with a debate in Bolsover church to get negotiations started? Will the Church Commissioners take steps to contact the Philistines at British Coal and ensure that settlements are forthcoming not just for the churches, but for residents in surrounding areas, such as those of Hillstown and Bolsover?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman referred to "Philistines", which is the Old Testament term, rather than to "heretics", which is the New Testament term. The hon. Gentleman has raised an extremely important issue. I shall be glad to try to help him in relation to Bolsover church, and I give a ready undertaking to see what can be done to press British Coal to expedite and bring to a rapid conclusion any obligations that it may have with regard to subsidence. In my constituency British Coal has generally been fairly rapid in trying to reach settlements with those affected, but I will certainly look into the case that the hon. Gentleman has raised.