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18 Nov 2002 : Column 361—continued


The hon. Member for Middlesbrough was asked—

Clergy (Employment Rights)

32. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): To ask the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, what representations he has received about the employment rights of the clergy. [81526]

34. Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): To ask the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, what recent discussions the Church Commissioners have had on employment rights for clergy. [81523]

36. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): To ask the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, when an announcement is expected on the review of employment rights for clergy. [81530]

Second Church Estates Commissioner (Mr. Stuart Bell): Hon. Members may recall from an answer I gave some months ago that the Church of England is considering the Department of Trade and Industry discussion document on employment status in relation to statutory employment rights. The Church will make a formal response by 11 December.

Mr. Bercow : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his typically helpful reply. Does he agree with me that the idea that the spiritual nature of the work undertaken by the clergy should continue to prevent them being granted contracts of service is now thoroughly anachronistic, and that a compelling case has been made for the use of the power in section 23 of the Employment Relations Act 1999 to extend proper employment rights to members of the clergy, who are frequently under-rewarded, but who should be equitably treated?

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question; it is a pleasure to have him back at Church Commissioners Question Time. In the interests of Parliament, I hope that it is a brief sojourn and that he will not be with us for too long. [Laughter.] The Second Church Estates Commissioner can be dispassionate about these matters.

The Church is fully cognisant of the view that the hon. Gentleman expresses, which has been expressed on the Floor of the House on previous occasions. Clergy do not have legal protection against unfair dismissal, as they

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are not employees but office holders. As part of formulating the Church's response to the DTI on 11 December, we are examining the employment status of atypical workers. Consideration will be given to the issue, and the hon. Gentleman's comments and support will be helpful to the Church.

Mr. Edwards : My hon. Friend may recall the question I put to the Prime Minister on this very issue. I have some faith that the Government will be persuaded to grant employment rights to clergy and ministers of religion, but less faith that the Church will campaign for that as vigorously as it could. May I urge my hon. Friend to work with the Church Commissioners to ensure that the submission they make to the consultation supports the campaign for employment rights for clergy?

Mr. Bell: Yes, I was in the House when my hon. Friend put that passionate question to the Prime Minister, and I think that we all felt for him at the time. The person to whom he was referring is not in the Church of England but in another Church. We have campaigned on the matter, and thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman), who has also asked a question, there has been a consistent campaign in the House for five years. The Church is listening carefully and the bishops have discussed the matter. I am hopeful that we will come to a conclusion that will satisfy my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards) and the House.

Mr. Chapman: It is important that we move forward from this out-of-date position whereby the clergy have spiritual rather than temporal contracts and poor conditions of service, and they are effectively excluded from employment rights and legislation. It is good that we will have an early announcement, and I hope that it is as positive as hon. Members have suggested it ought to be.

Mr. Bell: The Church of England is working closely with ecumenical partners on this issue because it realises that it crosses many boundaries and involves many Churches.

The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) mentioned stipends. In the 1990s the national average stipend was #11,668, and by 2001 it was #17,030, so we are generous to our clergy. We hope to move to a salary of #20,000, and that fact should be recognised as we consider employment rights.


37. Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): To ask the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, what assessment he has made of the effect on the Church Commissioners' assets of the fall in the value of shares. [81531]

Second Church Estates Commissioner (Mr. Stuart Bell): Following their detailed triennial review as at the end of 2000, the Commissioners' actuaries carried out an interim review of the fund's position at the end of 2001 and concluded that the forecast distributions for

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2002–04 were not likely to lead to an adverse consequence for the long-term financial position of the Commissioners.

Sir Sydney Chapman : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that answer. Does he recall that a few years ago the Commissioners were taken to task for allegedly investing too much of their money in property? Now that the cycle has gone full circle, does not the moral stand—that in their investments the Commissioners ought, if he will accept the phrase, to have a policy of a catholic spread?

Mr. Bell: I am always grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his contributions. When I took over this post five years ago I was assured that it had more to do with the balance sheet than the Bible, and I am happy to see that the Church's assets have increased from #3 billion to #4.5 billion under my stewardship. If victory has a thousand fathers, I may be No. 995.

In answer to the hon. Gentleman's substantive question, we have 60 per cent. of our assets in shares and the remainder in property, which means that we are less subject to the volatility of the stock exchange than we might be. Our distribution policy has not therefore been affected by a fall in shares on the stock exchanges of the world.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): My hon. Friend will realise that it will be shown that the Church Commissioners could have done slightly better on the stock exchange if they did not have an ethical investment policy. However, does he accept that the majority of people in the Church and in the House believe that it is right to continue to pursue that ethical policy and that income is not always the main criterion to be taken into account?

Mr. Bell: My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point. If the Church had invested in British American Tobacco and breweries, we would be doing better on the stock

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side. However, we have an ethical investment policy—I nearly said ethical foreign policy—which aims to obtain the best long-term return on our investment without undue risk, and we are committed to that policy.

English Cathedrals

39. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): To ask the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, what steps the Commission is taking to allocate sufficient funding for the maintenance of the fabric of English cathedrals. [81534]

Second Church Estates Commissioner (Mr. Stuart Bell): The Commissioners will continue to liaise closely with the Association of English Cathedrals, the body responsible for negotiations on public funding, and the Church Heritage Forum, which is now working towards a policy statement to inform development of a strategy on the future funding of church buildings.

Michael Fabricant : The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Association of English Cathedrals. Is he aware that there are two groups in that association—the wealthier cathedrals, and the respected older cathedrals such as Lichfield which may not have quite as much money. What consideration has he given to creating a sub-grouping in the association so that smaller cathedrals like Lichfield can seek additional funds, whereas cathedrals like Westminster abbey, which are well funded, may not need money so urgently?

Mr. Bell: I know that the hon. Gentleman has a strong interest in the subject—he has written to me and I wrote back on 15 November. On structures and groupings, he will be aware that each cathedral is responsible for assessing its fabric repair costs to help it meet the requirements of the Cathedrals Measure 1999 and the Care of Cathedrals Measure 1990. On the groupings to which he referred, I am happy to give any assistance I can to make it easier for cathedrals such as Lichfield to get a little extra grant.

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Welfare-to-Work and Benefit Uprating

3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Andrew Smith): With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the next stage of our welfare-to-work strategy for people with health problems or disabilities and to report to the House the annual uprating of benefits.

On the benefits uprating, I can confirm that most national insurance benefits will rise by the retail prices index—that is, by 1.7 per cent. For the third year running, retirement pension will be uprated by more than the RPI, with an increase of #100 a year from next April for single pensioners and #160 a year for couples. The minimum income guarantee will rise by more than #200 a year, in line with the Government's aim of targeting extra help on the poorest pensioners. There will also be above-inflation rises in maternity allowance and statutory maternity pay, which will be uprated from #75 a week to #100. Most income-related benefits will rise by the Rossi index—1.3 per cent.—in the normal way. I shall place details of the uprating in the Vote Office and arrange for figures to be published in the Official Report.

Ensuring that as many people of working age as possible are in employment is central to the Government's strategy to tackle poverty and social exclusion. We inherited a major problem of worklessness, not just among those traditionally seen as unemployed, but for millions of other people who were offered little or no help to find work. Between the 1970s and the mid-1990s, the number of lone parents on benefit and the number of people claiming sickness and disability benefits both trebled. As industrial restructuring took place, one in three men aged between 50 and state pension age were out of work and reliant on benefits, and one in five men between 50 and state retirement age were receiving an incapacity benefit. At a time when many people should have been given the help they needed to find other work, they were effectively written off.

Over the past five years, we have started to tackle that legacy through economic stability and our active labour market policies, providing people with individually tailored help to move into work. As a result, employment is at record levels, with well over a million more people in work than in 1997. Long-term unemployment has been massively reduced and the number of lone parents in work continues to grow. But there is still more to do; almost 4 million people of working age are out of the labour market and on benefits. Of those, 2.7 million are receiving an incapacity benefit—nearly three times the number on jobseeker's allowance. However, as is clear from surveys, many people with health problems and disabilities want to work. Indeed, more than three quarters of a million people on incapacity benefits tell us that they want a job—just because people are on IB, it does not follow that they cannot work. Indeed, nine out of 10 people who start a claim for incapacity benefit expect to get back to work. It is right that we provide the proper support to help them to do just that.

We must continue to reform the tax and benefit system from one based on what people cannot do to one based on what they can do. For people who are off

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work—through illness or disability—it is often a lack of confidence or knowledge about the support and advice available which stops them getting back to work. Today, I want to announce the first steps in a new approach to remove those barriers and help people realise their potential.

Our proposals are set out in the consultation paper, XPathways to work: Helping people into employment", which sets out a new framework of help for those who through illness or disability have applied for incapacity benefit. It combines better and more intensive advice with mandatory work-focused interviews, new opportunities for rehabilitation and new financial incentives to encourage people to move into jobs. We propose phased pilot schemes of the new approach in six areas around Great Britain from next autumn.

Let me make it very clear that this is not about forcing sick or disabled people into work. It is about encouraging people to look at their options and helping those who want to work to achieve their goal of getting a job. I should like to reassure the House that those with the most severe conditions will not be required to attend the ongoing intensive interviews. We all understand how important it is that the development of the initiative does not threaten their security and the vital support that incapacity benefit provides for them.

Our new approach has a number of aspects. First, we need to provide the right support from the outset of a claim. We will build on the framework offered through Jobcentre Plus, and ensure that new claimants get early and frequent support once their claim has been sorted out. We will train a new team of specialist personal advisers to help claimants to stay focused on their capabilities—building on their expectation that they will return to work. We want as many as possible of those moving on to incapacity benefit to be seen as people with a working future, not as people at the end of their working lives.

Secondly, some people with disabilities and health problems of course need specialist help to get back to work. In the past, that has not been available. So, we will introduce groundbreaking rehabilitation programmes, working with the national health service, general practitioners and occupational health specialists, to combine work-focused support with health-focused rehabilitation for conditions such as back pain and depression. The programmes will be tailored to people's individual needs—helping people to understand the effects of their condition and working to increase their confidence to move back into work.

Making the move from welfare to work is a big step; it creates uncertainty and, often, financial worry. There is already a range of extra help available. The disabled persons tax credit guarantees a weekly income of #167 for a single person working 30 hours. That will increase to #189 a week from April next year when new tax credits are introduced. Today I can announce that we will build on that support by piloting a return to work credit for people leaving incapacity benefit for work. It will be paid at #40 a week for 52 weeks where personal income is less than #15,000 a year. For someone returning to work for 30 hours on the national minimum wage and the new working tax credit, that will guarantee an income of at least #229 a week for the first year in work, compared with #167 under the current system, and just under #80 a week on incapacity benefit.

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We realise, too, that the first step into work is a big one. Finding money for the first month's bus pass or for work clothes can too often be barriers to work. That is why I also announce today that we will extend access to the advisers discretion fund, enabling advisers to make awards of up to #300 to spend on anything that will help their clients move into work.

Better support for people with health problems will not stop at incapacity benefit. We will also increase support for people with less severe health problems who move from incapacity benefit to JSA, but who might none the less face significant barriers to work, by ensuring that they automatically see a specialist adviser when they first claim JSA. I can also announce that we will refer those people to tailored support through the relevant JSA new deal, without the usual waiting period of 18 months. We will further reform the system so that people awaiting an appeal are not moved on to reduced rate income support, but receive JSA and work-focused support.

People with health problems or disabilities get support from a number of sources. Today I have outlined the role that the state will play, but others have an important role, too. We want to encourage an environment where as many employers as possible are managing health at work actively and positively. That makes good business sense. In an era of full employment and a tight labour market, people with health problems or disabilities are an untapped resource that employers and the country cannot afford to ignore.

We also want to support doctors, who can sometimes face pressures to sign off people from work. There is now clear evidence of the medical, psychological and therapeutic benefits that work can have, so we will work with doctors to raise awareness of the importance of work retention or resumption in improving the health of their patients.

To conclude, this package of reforms is about providing support to help people with health problems or disabilities to move back into work. It is about them fulfilling their desire to work and realising their own ambition. It is about changing attitudes, both their own and those of others. Those claiming IB will, I believe, respond to a focus on what they can do, rather than on what they cannot do. We are not abandoning them and denying them opportunity, as in the past, but supporting them with help towards a better future.

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