§ Sir Sydney Chapman
To ask the hon Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, if he will make a statement on the significance of the Commissioners' 1997 annual results for the wider Church. 
§ Mr.Stuart Bell
For the fourth successive year the total return on the Commissioners' investments has exceeded the independent benchmark. Provisional figures164W for 1997 show the total return on the Commissioners' assets was 19.7% against the WM All Funds benchmark of 16.5%. This reflects sound strategic and tactical investment choices as well as the current high market values of UK equities. The value of the assets at 31 December 1997 was £3,481 million (£2,976 million in 1996). Income was £135 million (£146 million in 1996) which represented an underlying increase after taking into account special dividends and other one-off items of £3.9 million in 1997 compared to £15.1 million in 1996. The Commissioners' total expenditure in 1997 in support of the Church was £130.6 million (136.2 million in 1996).
With the support and cooperation of the rest of the Church and, in particular, because of the generosity of the parishes, the Commissioners have been able to restore a balance between assets and distribution levels. They have also been able to rebalance their investment portfolio towards long term total return with a broader spread of risk. Both these factors have underpinned the strong investment performance of recent years.
A six year programme of reducing distribution levels was completed in 1997 and parishes now bear a greater responsibility for the financial support of their clergy. Parishes now meet 62% of the clergy pay bill (£160 million in 1997) with the Commissioners meeting only 15%. Parishes started to contribute towards clergy pensions from 1 January 1998 following the introduction of the new pensions arrangements made possible by the Pensions Measure which was passed by this House last year.
This continuing acceptance of responsibility and extra generosity from the parishes will enable the Commissioners to continue to fulfil their core responsibility of supporting the Church's ministry in poorer areas of the country for this and successive generations.