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20 Jul 2000 : Column 642

Church of England (General Synod) (Measure)

7 pm

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): I beg to move,


This Measure of the General Synod deals with uncontroversial items and relatively minor matters, which would not necessarily ordinarily merit free-standing legislation. In parenthesis, may I add how much I welcomed the maiden speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy)? He is a member of the General Synod and the Archbishops Council. He will find the House hospitable, rather than hostile. That is certainly so when we deal with Church legislation.

The Measure contains a number of important clauses dealing with the devolution to dioceses of functions of the Church Commissioners following the passage of the National Institutions Measure 1998 through Parliament. In that sense, the Measures are like stepping stones across a stream, one following another on to the statute book. I should say at the outset, however, that the provisions have been discussed and agreed with the dioceses.

The provisions are dealt with in clauses 1 to 11 and schedules 1 to 6. Clause 4 and schedule 2 provide in financial matters for the transfer of the diocesan stipend funds' accounts and the associated income accounts to diocesan boards of finance. Clause 10 and schedule 6 provide for the transfer of diocesan pastoral accounts to dioceses to formalise the devolved administrative arrangements already in place in respect of these accounts.

The draft Measure provides a vehicle for streamlining and lightening the commissioners' regulatory role in areas such as parsonages, glebe and those associated with the Pastoral Measure 1983. It is estimated that cost savings for the commissioners could amount to about £50,000 per annum if the House and the other place approve these proposals and they are implemented. None of these costs would fall on the dioceses instead, and it is expected that there would be savings in dioceses as well, especially in terms of time spent on seeking the commissioners' approval for various transactions.

Similar proposals are suggested for glebe matters, in which the commissioners' main role would be reduced to considering transactions that do not meet agreed criteria and to carrying out the appellate function set out in paragraph 9 of schedule 5. Again, cost savings for the commissioners are expected to be about £50,000 per annum, and none of those would fall on the dioceses instead.

As to other miscellaneous matters, perhaps I should draw the attention of the House to clause 12. This makes a useful provision for use where the office of rural dean is vacant, or where the rural dean is unable to carry out his or her functions.

Clause 15 brings the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963 into line with other categories of appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council by providing that an appeal may be made only with leave to appeal. The Privy Council has signified its agreement to this amendment.

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Clause 17 amends the Patronage (Benefices) Measure 1986, which was introduced not that long ago. I always like to throw a little poetry into a debate, so let me quote:


Enough of the "backward stream" has passed since 1986 to make it necessary to amend the 1986 Measure and render it possible for the transfer of right of patronage to be registered even when presentation to the benefice has been suspended under the Pastoral Measure 1983.

To conclude, the measure is useful, if uncontroversial, and will streamline some of the procedures of the Church. I therefore trust that the House will agree to the motion in my name on the Order Paper, and I commend the Measure to the House.

7.5 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): I am delighted to respond to the wise words of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell). I am somewhat surprised that the House is not packed, and that you have not already had to call us to order several times, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): It is packed on this side.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Of course it is. On this side, as on that side, there are lots of people waiting to speak on the wonderful Measure. To be serious, as a Front-Bench spokesman I can, for once, agree with everything that has been said from the Government Front Bench. This is a tidying-up measure or series or measures.

I join the hon. Member for Middlesbrough in welcoming, in absentia, the new hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), who has an important role to play in the Church of England. I hope that, having made his maiden speech this afternoon, he will now contribute to our debates on Church affairs. It will be most useful to have his contributions, and I am sure that we all look forward to them.

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough went over some of the more important provisions in the Measure, and discussed rural deans. The one thing that he did not mention, which is expressly provided for in the Measure, is the fact that at the discretion of the bishop, rural deans can now be called area deans, which in built-up urban areas, obviously makes a degree of sense.

This is a series of small but important tidying-up measures. It is right that the House should have the opportunity to discuss the Measure, but it would be wrong to contemplate sending it back to Synod, or anything similar. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's words, warmly endorse them, and hope that the Measure will pass swiftly on to the statute book.

7.7 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): One of the paradoxes of this place is the fact that a Scottish Deputy Speaker is presiding over Church of England business, which requires the usual assent of hon. Members, regardless of their origin, the country that they represent, or their theology. As someone who normally looks after home affairs, I reflect that it is just my luck that on the only day in something like six months on which there has been no home

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affairs business, the only other thing for which I have technical responsibility--Church of England business--pops up on the agenda, making sure that I cannot go far away.

As the Second Church Estates Commissioner and the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) both made clear, the Measure is unusual in being almost entirely uncontroversial. The Ecclesiastical Committee of both Houses has recently considered many Measures that have been unusually difficult, to say the least. Indeed, the Ecclesiastical Committee recently stood its ground for the first time against the combined weight of the General Synod, saying that it had a function to perform. We sent back a Measure concerning the power of church wardens and the powers of bishops in relation to them, because we were not happy with it. I believe that we were right to do that, and there was wide consensus.

Mr. John Austin (Erith and Thamesmead): In case my presence is misunderstood, I shall explain my position. The hon. Gentleman referred to the Measure as uncontroversial. I regard it as very controversial. The hon. Gentleman will know that I am a member of the all-party humanist group and a sponsor of the early-day motion calling for the disestablishment of the Church of England, for which I shall continue to press. It is inappropriate for these matters to be debated in this House at all, as they should be dealt with in Synod. However, I am here because I am waiting for the petition.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. We will come on to the petition quite soon, so long as we keep to the Measure before us. These other matters are nothing to do with the Measure.

Mr. Hughes: There is no risk at all of my straying from the Measure. The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Mr. Austin) may have registered this point, but it would be discourteous of me not to point out that although I speak on these matters for my party, my view, and that of my party, is that the Church of England should be disestablished, and that this matter should not come before the House. The hon. Gentleman and I therefore share that view, irrespective of our difference of belief.

I want to talk about only two matters in relation to a Measure that has the unanimous support of the bishops and the clergy, and the support of all but two members of the laity. As someone who was a member of the General Synod for a short time, I know that that is pretty unusual. The first matter is the provision mentioned by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), which is the power for a bishop to redesignate rural deans as area deans. That is extremely welcome, and not before time.

Representing an urban seat in the diocese of Southwark, I know that it does not help the Church's credibility to have senior people in its hierarchy designating as rural deans people who work in places that could be regarded even as partly rural only on a very good day, with a great stretch of the imagination. Southwark used to be in the county of Surrey, and extremely rural, but we are down to two urban farms and a few parks; that is the extent of our rurality.

The second matter worth comment is that the Measure--which is like a Law Commission consolidation provision, in that it tries to bring a lot of legislation up to date--allows a new procedure for changing the name of

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a diocese. It is important to bring that up to date. The debate was triggered by controversy about the diocese of Ripon. It was so named for important historical reasons, but the name could be regarded as deceptive and unhelpful, given that the largest population centre in the diocese, Leeds, does not feature in it. It is proper to provide a way of dealing with a desire, not to get rid of the Church's important historical centres, but to rename dioceses to reflect changing populations.

Having spent a short time as a member of the General Synod, I too welcome the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) to the House as a fellow London Member and a fellow member of the Church of England.

The principal job of the Church of England is to reach the parts that other theologies and faiths do not reach, and to recruit people to be followers of Jesus Christ. The trouble with an established Church--perhaps with any Church--is that there is a huge amount of bureaucracy and paperwork, as the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) will know better than me. The Measure reflects acres of paperwork that has gone into the process of revising legislation.

This is not a matter to be dealt with today, but I wonder whether it would not be helpful if the Church, to make its life easier, set up a one-off Church law commission to consider all existing Church legislation; to consolidate it where appropriate, and to get rid of the remainder that is out of date. That need not be a threatening or undermining process, and it would deal with the fact that, as in this place, there is a huge amount of legislation that is out of use and inappropriate. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues may reflect on whether that is possible.

I pay tribute to those who do the work, because a huge amount of work has gone into the Measure, but I suggest that we might be able to reduce their work, and that of others, if we swept up Church legislation once and for all, and brought more consolidating and tidying-up Measures to the House. The Measure is welcome, and like colleagues from other parties, the Liberal Democrats support it.


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