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16 Jan 2003 : Column 847—continued

Mr. Bryant: I hesitate to correct the hon. Gentleman, but there is significant concern in the Church of England about many cases in which groups of people have tried to take over the local church. That is a worry in many parishes and the Measure is important.

Mr. Tyler: I would not for a moment suggest that the Measure is not important. I accept the six-month requirement. It is perfectly right and proper, although the same entryism could happen in six months and a day. In the end, however, that is democracy, as the hon. Gentleman's party knows only too well. Entryism was a major feature of the Labour party in the 1980s and he is right to be worried.

It is important that we recognise that the recommendation by the Ecclesiastical Committee is sensible. It is a useful compromise and, as I understand it, accepted by the entire Synod. I accept that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) has particular expertise in the Church and direct personal knowledge of it, but we are more likely to look for more recruits for parochial church councils rather than to worry about too many suddenly arriving. I was nominated to a PCC, but we held the first election to it in recent memory, which ensured that better candidates were selected than me. So I am well aware of the ways in which the electoral system works.

The proposals are intended to improve the flexibility of democracy in the Church of England. Paragraph 4 of the report recommends a more realistic approach than that set out in the present arrangements, especially for smaller parishes. My parish in Cornwall is relatively small and we want to ensure that democracy is as healthy as it is in more populous parishes.

Continuity is also important. The way in which elections are held has been dealt with intelligently and sensibly and we have managed to avoid a problem.

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I understand the argument for a minimum size for the diocesan synod, but how many are in the band under consideration? The proposal is that the minimum size should be reduced from 150 to 120. I do not know how many diocesan synods would fall into that category. There was a suggestion to reduce it to 100, which might be more practical and effective in some circumstances.

The schedule is the critical consideration. The Synod team has been considering it for, I think, nine years, which is a long time.

Mr. Bell: Since 1997.

Mr. Tyler: But much work was done before that. The gestation period has been long. There is always a worry with any Measure that the road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but the detail should fulfil the aspirations of those who want to make the reforms. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reassure us that the changes have the unanimous support of those in the Synod who proposed them, so that the Measure fulfils their expectations and aspirations.

I end as I began by saying that I am not only a loyal and supportive member of the Church of England, but a dedicated supporter of disestablishment. I hope that when we reach the second phase of the measures on democracy, we are able to let the Church of England be a democratic institution for the first time in its life since its creation by Henry VIII.

2.9 pm

Mr. Bell: With the leave of the House, I will respond to some points. The electoral roll has preoccupied many Members. The Measure makes a change to eligibility. Parishes are experiencing difficulties in being able to inspect the civil electoral civil roll, which they used to do for the purposes of electing church wardens, and we are looking into that matter.

A lay person is entitled to have his name entered if he is baptised, 16 or over, has signed an application form and declares himself to be either a member of the Church of England or of a church in communion with it and resident in the parish or to be such a member not being resident in the parish habitually having attended public worship in it during a period of six months prior to enrolment. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) was absolutely right. The original period was one year but, following debate, was reduced to six months.

The third condition is to be a member in good standing of a church that subscribes to the doctrine of the holy trinity although it is not a church in communion with the Church of England. The person must also be prepared to declare himself a member of the Church of England, having habitually attended public worship in a parish during the six months prior to enrolment. The hon. Member for North Cornwall was perfectly right to remind me that although the Bridge report on synodical government was produced in 1997, discussion and research took place over several years beforehand. We heard that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but the mills of God grind slowly and exceeding small. They certainly ground exceeding small in respect of that Measure.

When the report was published, response to it was divided. There were a number of controversial proposals, chiefly with regard to the size and

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composition of the General Synod. The hon. Gentleman made an important point about the reduction in the number of members from 150 to 120 and specifically asked for the context. I will be glad to give him a reply in writing. I said earlier that the Ecclesiastical Committee did not challenge the Measure, but that does not mean that the Committee did not debate it in depth. It was a contentious proposal but it went unchallenged. I refer to the requirement that a lay person should be on the electoral roll of the parish for at least six months before qualifying for election to the parochial church council or deanery synod.

The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) made a pertinent comment about the Measure's relevance and answered a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant), obviating the need for me to intervene. He referred also to the Church-state relationship that brings us to the Floor of the House, to which reference was made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall and, in a sedentary intervention, by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda.

I hear a lot of propositions—I am propositioned all the time—about disestablishment but no one makes any specific proposals. We have had a lot of time since the days of Henry VIII. It has taken 100 years to get around to reforming the House of Lords, so I dread to think how long it will take to get around to disestablishment. However, I shall be happy to hear from anyone with proposals to make. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) referred to the various problems that have arisen and spoke about a more proactive Church. I think that we would all say amen to that.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said earlier that we should not believe everything that we read in the newspapers and that sometimes stories are invented. However, I was sorry to read that the hon. Member for North Cornwall will be retiring at the next election. The hon. Gentleman also gave his age away. I will not divulge it on the Floor of the House. In one conversation with him, I mentioned that I had been to 25 Labour party conferences and felt proud of that achievement. He replied that he had attended 40 Liberal party conferences. Anyone who can attend 40 Liberal party conferences in his lifetime merits great congratulations from Labour Members.

The hon. Gentleman described my speech as elegant, and I hope that he also found it eloquent. I shall not go into detail about his speech. However, he referred to the work of the Ecclesiastical Committee and wanted to be advised of the next planning stage. We shall certainly take him up on that. On the issue of 150 or 120 members, he said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and referred to the need for detail. Of course, the devil, who is never far away, is in the detail. He also mentioned total unanimity in the Synod, which, like this Parliament, is never likely to achieve unanimity.

I am grateful that our short debate on synodical government has received the approval of the House and has been wide ranging in the best traditions of the House. I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): In case it was not entirely clear from the Order Paper, this debate will conclude at 6 pm. I should also tell the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

2.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): I beg to move,

As I reported to the House in the pre-Fisheries Council debate on 21 November, the December Council was always going to be exceptionally difficult. It involved major decisions on the common fisheries policy and the review; the major issue of the cod recovery programme in the North sea; and effort management. The council was held over a five-day period, and involved a great deal of work and discussion. I pay tribute to my officials, my colleague in the Scottish Executive and the fishermen's leaders, who were actively engaged in discussions throughout the week.

In our previous debate, I set out the Government's objectives and our intended action against the background of scientific advice that the North sea should be closed to all fishing for cod-related stocks and the serious consequences of that advice for the fishing industry. I made it clear that total closure of the North sea, or an 80 per cent. reduction in fishing effort, which is frankly hardly different from total closure, or, indeed, the seven days a month limit were not acceptable and would simply destroy the infrastructure of the UK fishing industry. There would not be much point in introducing difficult and painful stock recovery programmes if there was no infrastructure left in the UK to benefit in future.

Those proposals were successfully resisted, but I have no illusions about the severe impact that the recovery proposals that were finally agreed will have on sections of our white fish fleet—I shall say more about that in a moment.

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