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Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): Last Tuesday the General Synod debated the review group's second report, and welcomed the recommendation that employment rights under section 23 of the Employment Relations Act 1999 be granted to all clergy. The report was commended to the wider Church for comment, and an implementation group will be set up to introduce legislation.
Mr. Chapman: I welcome that news, but will my hon. Friend confirm that overall the proposals for a review of conditions of service represent a series of modernising measures? While there are legitimate concerns about security of tenure, is it not right and proper for clergy as far as possible to have the contracts, employment rights and, indeed, obligations that other members of society already have?
Sir Stuart Bell:
The Synod expressed reservations about security of tenure, and about the suggestion that legal ownership of Church property that goes with the freehold should be transferred to diocesan boards of finance. That does not, however, alter the fact that it welcomed the bid for the employment rights for which
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my hon. Friend has campaigned so hard. No one will be forced to lose the freehold, but it will be possible to opt into tenure.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the campaign he has led for so many years in the current Parliament. I am sure that when we debate legislation to implement employment rights for clergy, he will support us on the Floor of the House.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I welcome what the hon. Gentleman has just said. As one who has consistently supported both the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) and the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards) in urging the Church of England to come into the 21st century, I think that the news we have received today is positive indeed. May I, howeverwithout in any sense wishing to carppoint out that there is still serious concern about the rights of spouses of members of the clergy? One woman is currently very worried about being rendered homeless as a consequence of domestic violence inflicted by her spouse, who is a member of the clergy. Is the hon. Gentleman satisfied that adequate rights exist for spouses, or does he think that the issue needs investigation?
Sir Stuart Bell: That would certainly be a matter for investigation, and the hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to it. It should be remembered that clergy do not own property in the same way as a home owner: they do not benefit if the value of the property rises, and they do not have to fund its repairs. A spouse would clearly have a problem if her husband was the parish priest and lost his position. We will look into the matter, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising it.
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)
(Con): The Electoral Commission has recommended changes to strengthen the legal framework for postal voting, including the introduction of offences relating to undue
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influence, personation and fraudulent postal vote applications, as well as post-election security checks of postal vote stationery.
Bob Spink: I am grateful for that response, but what is being done specifically to ensure that postal ballot papers sent to residential homes or to those with learning difficulties are not hijacked and misused by people other than the intended recipients?
Mrs. Browning: My hon. Friend will know that the commission has made specific recommendations to the Government, which we hope that they will take up. In particular, we are waiting to hear from the Government about how EROs will check what has happened post election, including the checking of groups who have been identified as possible targets for some form of postal vote fraud. Such groups certainly include the vulnerable people whom my hon. Friend mentioned.
Miss McIntosh: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that answer. I commend the forum's work to the House, but I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman might explain how individual applications for such work can be made. One or two projects in the Vale of York would benefit from it, and I can think of a few others as well. Will he share with the House the best way forward?
Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments, and I am happy to look into the matter and to give her a proper response in due course. She will want to know that the Bishop of London issued Synod with a "use it or lose it" warning on Tuesday night in respect of the VAT rebate secured by the Church. Despite our best efforts to promote the listed places of worship grant scheme, take-up is disappointing. The hon. Lady will doubtless join me in urging Members to encourage parishes in their constituencies to take advantage of the scheme for which she and I, among others, have fought so hard.
Tuesday 22 FebruaryMotions relating to the draft Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order 2005 and the draft Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2005, followed by remaining stages of the Drugs Bill.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): The Leader of the House knows how seriously we view the decisions that the House will have to make about the Prevention of Terrorism Bill; indeed, such concern is shared in all parts of the House and in the country. Just this morning, I received an email from a solicitor stating that
The Leader of the House will therefore realise how angry we are at the fact that this measure is to be rammed through the House, with our time for debate ruthlessly curtailed. The Bill should not be guillotined and it should have a proper Committee stage. The Government say that this legislation is urgent, but they have had more than three years since 9/11 in which to take the necessary decisions, and two months since the court case that prompted these changes. Is the House really to have just two days in which to consider these important matters? At one time, the Leader of the House would not have defended such proposals, which are redolent of the measures that he fought against so fiercely in South Africa. Will he think again about this Bill and, more importantly, about the time allowed for debate?
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