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Disestablishment (Financial Consequences)

36. Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): If he will make an assessment of the financial consequences of disestablishment of the Church of England. [65560]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): I have already, on another occasion, answered my hon. Friend on this question.

It would not be feasible for the Church of England or the Church Commissioners to enter into a calculation of the costs of disestablishment, since we have no instruction from the Church that the matter is being considered.

Mr. Corbyn: Many people in this country think that it is wrong to have an established Church and that it would be helpful if England followed the example of Scotland and Wales and disestablished its Church, recognising that we are a multicultural, multi-faith society and that no religion or Church should be given pre-eminence over others. Would it not be prudent for the Church Commissioners to do their sums now so that when that democratic day dawns, it will not be such a shock for them?

Mr. Bell: I have always looked on my hon. Friend as a traditionalist rather than a moderniser and I am sure that he agrees that it is incumbent on the Church to modernise itself. We may quote the Bible from time to time, and the

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Bible tells us, "Physician, heal thyself." The Church of England has, through its parliament, passed a national institutions measure that created an Archbishops Council. That council met on 21 January against a background of fresh figures showing a 10 per cent. rise in new ordinands in the previous year. The Church does not need to be disestablished to be modern and vibrant and to play a full role in the nation's affairs.

My hon. Friend said that this is a multi-faith, multicultural society, and that point is accepted not only by the Church of England but by the multiple faiths to which he refers.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that many people think that the greatest feature of the established Church is that its services and ministrations are available to everybody, regardless of his or her belief, even the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) and his constituents? Will the hon. Gentleman assure the House that he and those in the hierarchy of the Church of England are not at all attracted by the idea of disestablishment?

Mr. Bell: I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman that it is not the intention of the Church of England, through the General Synod or another means, to initiate proceedings to bring about a disestablished Church. I have it in writing from the Prime Minister--I have often referred to this correspondence--that it is not the Government's intention to take the Church in that direction.

For the hon. Gentleman's benefit, I add that discussions have taken place at the request of Churches in England about establishment in the context of the search for visible unity among the Churches, but by no means all those present were pressing for loosening the Church of England's ties with the Crown and state. We do not for a moment believe that the established Church is outmoded in the multicultural, multi-faith Britain to which I have referred.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I urge the hon. Gentleman to be less conservative. There is no better time to think of disestablishing the Church than when we are devolving power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and considering the reform of the second Chamber. Even if the Church is not yet persuaded of the merits of disestablishment, will the hon. Gentleman ask the Church Commissioners at least to give us the information to allow the House to debate whether disestablishment would be good not only for the Church, as I believe it would, but for people of all faiths and of none throughout the United Kingdom?

Mr. Bell: That may be a party political broadcast for a future leader of the Liberal party. It is interesting that the Liberal Democrats feel that disestablishment is in our interests. In a future joint Labour-Liberal manifesto, those who believe in an established Church will have to take that into account. Whether we have a debate on the subject is a matter for the usual channels. I invite the hon. Gentleman to take that route, and would be very happy to participate in such a debate.

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3.31 pm

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. It is always very difficult for you when something appears on the tapes after your 12 o'clock meeting, but there is a statement on the tapes after 3 o'clock that there has indeed been a missile attack on the Shia and ancient city of Basra and that there have been casualties. Those who have worked in Basra, as I did in 1994, or have visited it know that it is basically an ancient, beautiful and residential city. It so happens that you have given me tonight's Adjournment debate, which is on sanctions on Iraq. Would that be a suitable moment for a statement of explanation of why we are still raining down these missiles which, whatever their destination, always seem to land up killing women and children? It is not the purpose of a Labour Government to do that.

Madam Speaker: Neither is that much of a point of order. I thought that, in answering Question 1 in Defence questions, the Secretary of State for Defence gave the House a good deal of information in relation to the situation in the Gulf. I thought that I was very fair in whom I called to ask the Secretary of State supplementary questions. In addition, I have noticed that the hon. Gentleman has been very, very successful in the ballot for Adjournment debates over the past few months, and that he has one again tonight which, as he says, is on sanctions on Iraq. It would not be wise for him to try to extend that subject.

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Orders of the Day

Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

3.33 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill falls into two quite separate parts. Both apply to the United Kingdom as a whole. The first, in clause 1, is the issue of the age of consent for male homosexuals. That is a subject on which we all have our own personal views. As on previous occasions, it will be subject to a free vote. I will be voting in favour of equalising the age for male homosexuals with that of heterosexuals at 16. That is because I believe in equality before the law.

The second, separate, issue is abuse of trust. That arises from widely shared concerns about the need to protect vulnerable young people. We are dealing with the matter in this Bill because of the very strong views about the vulnerability of 16 and 17-year-olds of both sexes expressed during debates on equalising the age of consent held in the House and another place last summer. Proposals to change the age of consent brought that concern to the surface. We decided, therefore, that it was only right to deal with it when we brought the issue of age of consent before this House for a second time. I express my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and other hon. Members on both sides of the House for the tenacious and constructive way in which they raised the issue.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East): My right hon. Friend speaks of equality before the law; but cannot the principle of equality often give way to broader public interest considerations, such as the protection of younger people? Given the widespread concern about older men luring younger men into a life style that is not their own, will my right hon. Friend explain why he did not include safeguards in the relevant clause of the Bill that became the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, and why the safeguards are now so limited--excluding, for example, vicars and boy scout leaders? Why is he being so timid and so limited on that subject? Given the importance of the protection issue, why did he not consider it earlier?

Mr. Straw: In response to my hon. Friend's second point about not considering it earlier, I must say that we are damned if we consider everything in advance and then serve things up to this Chamber; we are also, apparently, now damned if we listen to debates and seek to respond to them. I plead guilty to the second charge.

I accept that what is before the House, with what I regard as extensive revisions on the abuse of trust, is an advance on what was before the House in summer 1998. We brought it before the House because of concerns expressed in the House and in the other place. As for whether it is extensive, I should be grateful if my hon. Friend would listen to my explanation, and I shall give way again if he asks me to. He also has every opportunity to make a speech in his own way.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): To save the House a great deal of time in later debates and

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help the motion to be effective, will the Secretary of State let us know now whether it is true or not true that, since the Sutherland decision of the European Court in 1994, there have been no prosecutions for consenting homosexual activity and a limited number of prosecutions involving assault or rape? Whatever happens, could we not save a great deal of time by not bothering to debate all this, as we often do in the House, when decisions have already been taken by European courts on our behalf?

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