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16 Jan 2003 : Column 840—continued

1.35 pm

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): I warmly welcome the Measure, which I hope will pass speedily through the House. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) for the way in which he presented the issue, which is of great significance to a substantial number of people in my constituency in the diocese of Salisbury. There has been unhappiness in several areas for some time. It is important that the Church realign its resources in this way, streamline its administration, and change the basis of the funding of pensions for the clergy and their spouses.

I broadly welcome clause 3 on housing and residences, as there had been an anomaly. The Church is not immune from the ways of the world today, and, sadly, when spouses divorced after retirement, the Church Commissioners had no power to assist in housing the divorced spouse. That anomaly is put right by this Measure, which is extremely important. I dare say that there will be further amendments in that line.

Finally, the Measure illustrates the importance of the relationship between the Church of England and the state, which I welcome. It illustrates not only that the Church of England is undoubtedly in a privileged position, but that that is not just symbolic but, at a practical level, alive and well and working in the interests of the clergy of the Church of England. Having read the whole of the minutes of the deliberations of the Ecclesiastical Committee, which was quite a task and required several gin and tonics in the middle, I can say that it was worth the read. It illustrated how seriously Members of both Houses take their responsibilities on the Ecclesiastical Committee, and how they bring to bear their wisdom and experience, which has been to advantage in this case. The substantial change made by the Ecclesiastical Committee, which was accepted without difficulty by the Synod, illustrates clearly once again how the relationship between the Church of England and the state is flourishing, and I hope that that will continue for many years.

1.37 pm

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): I have a feeling that my declaration of interest may last longer than my remarks. As my wife is an Anglican priest of three years' service before the changes were introduced, we have several pennies at stake on this Measure. We hope, however, that that will not bias my comments unduly.

My colleagues and I also welcome the Measure. We note that when the General Synod considered its original version, it was approved by 366 votes to one—

Mr. Key: Name him.

Mr. Webb: A bishop; I do not know who.

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Parliament is in the absurd position of considering the matter for the third time. Given that Synod and the Ecclesiastical Committee have already considered it, we should be cautious about seeking to amend anything that has the overwhelming support of the Church. Having said that, Parliament has a historic role in overseeing these processes.

Like other Members who have spoken, we very much welcome clauses 1 to 4, which allow the discretionary funds of the pensions board to be used more flexibly than hitherto, which seems sensible and appropriate. We welcome the fact that divorced spouses of clergy—in post-retirement divorces—will have some possibility of having their housing position protected. Several of my friends are clergy and clergy spouses, and many feel insecure about their housing position, both while in active ministry and after retirement. A provision that recognises that relationships break down and that individuals should not be dependent on a spouse for a roof over their head, possibly at short notice, is entirely to be welcomed. The changes on retirement housing are therefore good.

On the pension arrangements, we become nervous when we hear that pension payments will be made by running down the capital of a pension fund. However, the simplest analogy would be to think of this as a closed pension fund in which no new liabilities accrue and in which existing ones may run on for many decades. It is appropriate that we plan ahead for a measured and orderly financing of responsibilities.

I do not think that the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) mentioned this point, but it is worth touching on the fact that the Ecclesiastical Committee prompted one change to the Measure. The Committee felt that, in a further seven years, the House should have a substantive opportunity to review the processes and reconsider whether the run-down of capital was being handled in the right way. It felt that the Measure should not go through on the nod under the negative resolution procedure for statutory instruments. That was probably a constructive suggestion, and I know that the Synod approved it without demur.

Overall, we are comfortable with the proposal. In the unlikely event that the House should seek to divide, I will encourage my colleagues to support the Measure.

1.41 pm

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): I am a member of the Ecclesiastical Committee, and the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) pointed out the overwhelming majority that the Measure enjoyed in the Synod. It was even bigger than the majorities that we encounter in the parliamentary Labour party.

I have one concern to put to my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell). The commissioners have a range of discretionary responsibilities for parish ministry support, bishops' working costs, grants to cathedrals and money given to other bodies. When the Ecclesiastical Committee discussed the Measure in April 2002, I made the point that the sums that are currently being used to bridge the gap between funds and pre-1998 liabilities were on a substantial rising curve. Is my hon. Friend confident

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that there will be little, if any squeeze, on the worthy work that the commissioners do on parish ministry support, bishops' working costs and on the others things that I mentioned?

To clarify my earlier question about the renewal of the seven-year arrangement, I was referring to the seven-year transitional arrangements that allow sums to be paid to the boards of finance in particular dioceses. That arrangement will help them with their liabilities, but it will end, as I understand it, on 31 December 2004. That new burden, which will be unrelieved by any contribution from the Church Commissioners, concerns me in the light of current diocesan financial pressures. I would like reassurance on that point.

1.43 pm

Mr. Bell: With the leave of the House, I wish to respond to some of the points that have been raised. I am grateful to hon. Members for the manner in which they have raised them and for their constructive approach to the Measure.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) asked about the commissioners' power to spend capital. We have the power to spend capital to help dioceses with new pension schemes. As he is aware, that power ends in 2004 and that is to protect the power of the commissioners' fund so that we can help poorer dioceses in other ways. The timetable for phased transitional relief has been agreed with all the dioceses. I shall return to his other points shortly.

I shall deal chronologically with the points made by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key). He made the important point that one of the attractive features of the Measure is that it will help divorced spouses who might lose their homes after a separation. That problem is now being rectified, and we have powers to help a spouse or former spouse in that position. He mentioned the Church-state relationship, but I do not wish to widen the debate.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): Go on.

Mr. Bell: I certainly do not want to do that when my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) is in the Chamber. I do not want to encourage him to take part in the debate at this stage. We are dealing with one of the interstices in the Church-state relationship, but that relationship is a matter for another debate. I am always willing to listen to contributions on that subject.

I welcome the contribution of the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb). If I may paraphrase the words of a famous former Prime Minister, I assure the hon. Gentleman that his wife's pension is safe in our hands. [Interruption.] This might not be the right place to come to buy a second-hand car, but we are certainly looking after his wife's interests and her pension.

The hon. Gentleman agreed with clauses 1 to 4 and welcomed the provision on divorced spouses. He made an interesting point that I did not cover in my opening speech because I did not want to bore the House with the intricacies of the relationship between the Ecclesiastical Committee and the General Synod. However, as the matter has been raised, the House might now be aware that one aspect initially concerned the Ecclesiastical

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Committee. In addition to the Measure providing an initial extension of seven years up to 2011, it also provided for an indefinite number of further extensions after 2011. The General Synod would have been able to obtain them via a statutory instrument that would have been subject to annulment in Parliament.

As the hon. Member for Salisbury said, and the hon. Member for Northavon emphasised, the importance of the Ecclesiastical Committee's role in the Church-state relationship meant that the Committee thought that it would be inappropriate for the power to be extended by statutory instrument. Instead, it decided that that should be done by means of a Measure that could be brought to the House for a debate like today's. The Measure returned to the General Synod and was amended by omitting the power to obtain further extensions through statutory instruments. The Ecclesiastical Committee was happy that the Church was prepared to amend it in that way, and co-operation between the Committee and the Synod has led to the Measure being debated on the Floor of the House.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire rightly referred to the additional powers and responsibilities of the commissioners. They have a range of responsibilities upon which they expend their funds. They include parish ministry support, bishops' working costs, grants to cathedrals and money given to other bodies to support their administrative expenditure. As he said, much of that help is discretionary, and we are aware of the additional role. Non-pension responsibilities, however, stand alongside our statutory responsibilities for pensions arising for service from before 1998.

The key issue facing the commissioners is the management of their assets and income in the most effective and strategic way, so that they can make the best possible investment returns at the same time as they carry out their spending in a planned and coherent fashion. To take up my hon. Friend's point, providing discretionary funds to the parishes that are in need has led to us making substantial contributions of at least #20 million a year and they have been worked out with the Archbishops Council.

I trust that I have dealt with the points that have been raised. I again commend the Measure to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

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