Church Land

Oral Answers to Questions — Church Commissioners – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 26 March 2001.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 2:30, 26 March 2001

If he will make a statement on the purposes for which Church land can be used.

Photo of Stuart Bell Stuart Bell Second Church Estates Commissioner

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, in relation to Church land use, I would like to make a short statement on the foot and mouth crisis.

The Church Commissioners have sent individual letters via their managing agents to all their farm tenants. At the moment, the commissioners believe that they have four confirmed cases in Cumbria, where much of the commissioners' land is subject to exclusion orders and the risk of infection is very high. They think that it is inevitable that more of their farms will be infected.

The commissioners encourage their tenants to raise any instance of hardship or financial difficulty with their managing agents, who will either deal with it, or refer it on to them for a decision in line with the commissioners' longstanding policy.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, whose answer was characteristically informative and prudent.

Given that church halls are vested in parochial church councils and can therefore be used for a wide variety of purposes, and given that the Church of England is said to be placing increased emphasis not only on the spiritual, but on the educational and social development of young people aged between 11 and 25, will the hon. Gentleman join me in encouraging not only the Church of England but other Churches to consider making their land available for productive use not only by Christians or by other people of religious persuasion, but by all young people who can benefit from it?

Photo of Stuart Bell Stuart Bell Second Church Estates Commissioner

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. We hope that foot and mouth disease and the crisis will be over as soon as possible. That will liberate all Church land. When that happy day comes, I am sure that the Church will wish to take into account his helpful suggestion.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Labour, Chorley

I welcome my hon. Friend's statement. I wonder whether he could go back to the Church Commissioners to ensure that farms that may not be directly affected through infection but which are in the 3 or 16 km exclusion areas will also get a rent-free period to help them through their current strife.

Photo of Stuart Bell Stuart Bell Second Church Estates Commissioner

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The Church Commissioners have had a longstanding policy of assisting farms in difficulty, wherever they happen to be--that predates the present crisis. We treat all cases sympathetically, whether farms are afflicted with foot and mouth, or are in the exclusion zones, or are simply nearby.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's statement, but I urge upon him the notion that the Church Commissioners should adopt the most generous possible attitude to farmers who work the estates in their ownership. As Mr. Hoyle has said, they should take that attitude not just to those in directly affected areas. There is a possibility of conducting a full-scale review of agricultural rents throughout the country and making it retrospective to Lady day. Will he please consider that?

Photo of Stuart Bell Stuart Bell Second Church Estates Commissioner

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. As he knows, the Church Commissioners are the largest landowners in the United Kingdom and have about 300 tenants. The Archbishop of Canterbury has asked that the commissioners look sympathetically at farmers facing problems. The point that the hon. Gentleman has made will be taken fully into account.