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Session 2008 - 09
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Public Bill Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Roger Gale
Bell, Sir Stuart (Second Church Estates Commissioner)
Boswell, Mr. Tim (Daventry) (Con)
Brown, Mr. Russell (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab)
Cormack, Sir Patrick (South Staffordshire) (Con)
Crabb, Mr. Stephen (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con)
Farron, Tim (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)
Gray, Mr. James (North Wiltshire) (Con)
Hamilton, Mr. Fabian (Leeds, North-East) (Lab)
Hughes, Simon (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD)
Kemp, Mr. Fraser (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab)
Osborne, Sandra (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab)
Roy, Mr. Frank (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Stanley, Sir John (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con)
Stringer, Graham (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab)
Wicks, Malcolm (Croydon, North) (Lab)
Wright, Mr. Anthony (Great Yarmouth) (Lab)
Sara Howe, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 24 March 2009

[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Ecclesiastical Offices (Terms of Service) Measure
4.30 pm
The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Ecclesiastical Offices (Terms of Service) Measure (HC 270).
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the Church of England Pensions (Amendment) Measure (HC 268).
Sir Stuart Bell: Good afternoon, Mr. Gale. This is the first and possibly the last time in this Parliament—who can tell?—that I shall be in a Committee with you as Chairman. As we have been in the House for many years together, it is a great pleasure to find us in the same Committee.
I wanted to begin the debate on the Measure with the Lateran Council 1215 resolution, which began it all. However, as I am here to get hon. Members’ support, not to have them begging for mercy by the time I reach the present age, I shall begin with the contemporary position, which is that the Measure represents a very significant development in the life of the Church of England. It puts in place a legislative framework to facilitate the introduction of new terms and conditions of service for clergy and stipendiary lay ministers. Its object is to equip and support those who are called to ministry and the people whom they serve, by establishing fair and clearly stated terms of service, which will deliver the security that is needed for ministry to flourish, while also providing a proper measure of accountability.
The Measure has been more than six years in preparation. The work began in 2002 with the commissioning by the Church of a comprehensive review of its conditions of service, in response to a Government consultation on the position of atypical workers, including ministers of religion, who do not have employee status. The proposals that emerged from that review have been the subject of extensive consultation and thorough debate. The Measure before us commands the overwhelming support of the General Synod and has been found expedient by the Ecclesiastical Committee.
One might ask why the legislation is needed. Clergy in the Church of England are office holders, not employees. In the past, the great majority of clergy held freehold office as incumbents of a benefice, which gave them tenure for life, ownership of the church building, the parsonage house and the income from tithes, glebe land and parish endowments. Although the freehold has been greatly modified over the years, those who hold it still enjoy a very high degree of security. However, times have changed. Clergy with freehold are now in the minority. Other clergy, including many with full responsibility for a parish, are licensed to their offices by the bishop, and their security of tenure is very limited, as the bishop has the power to revoke their licences, either summarily or on reasonable notice. However, extending the freehold to all, even if that were practicable, is not the answer.
The Church needs common terms of service that will give clergy a fair measure of security and ensure a proper balance of rights and responsibilities. The Measure addresses that need for change by making provision for new conditions of service, to be known as common tenure. The intention is that these conditions should eventually apply to clergy and stipendiary lay ministers across the board, from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the person just starting out in ministry. Common tenure is designed above all to promote justice and fairness. It gives clergy for the first time the great majority of the rights enjoyed by employees, including the right to a stipend and to annual leave.
Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North) (Lab): Am I right in thinking that in summary this is a modernising Measure? Given that the word “fairness” has been used, can we assume that the measure will enable women as well as men to become bishops and archbishops?
Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that last point. I presume we will get women bishops at some point, but not, I would surmise, in the present Parliament. As he knows:
“Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small;Though with patience he stands waiting, with exactness grinds he all.”
I am sure that we will get there in the end, but not in this Committee.
The Chairman: Order. Sir Stuart has answered the question but, of course, it has nothing to do with the Measures before us.
Sir Stuart Bell: My right hon. Friend made a second point on the question of fairness. He was perfectly right to say that the Measures are part of the process of advancement of fairness within the Church that was instigated by the Government in 2002. We decided to look at the question of atypical workers, so he is perfectly right in that sense.
The Measure protects the status of the clergy as office holders, which reflects how their ministry is best exercised. Clergy enjoy a large measure of autonomy in their work. The provisions give them the freedom to respond flexibly to the various demands of day-to-day ministry. The Church recognises that that is a good thing, as do the clergy. In fact, when they were consulted, the great majority wished to retain their office holder status rather than to become employees.
With a view to enhancing the security of clergy who do not enjoy the freehold, the Measure removes the bishops’ power to terminate a licence summarily, and closely defines the circumstances in which an office can be terminated. There is provision for limited term appointments in only a few cases, such as training posts and appointments that are subject to sponsorship funding. Furthermore, the right to compensation when an office is abolished because of pastoral organisation, which currently applies only to certain freeholders, will be extended under common tenure to all office holders.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Is the Commissioner not making the bull point that shows why the Measure is really good? It will give almost everybody certainty of status, without time limit, with all the employment rights, and not as an employee. It has a huge number of pluses, and to the vast majority of the people currently working for, and being paid by, the Church of England, it will be of positive benefit and no disadvantage.
Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point. I will repeat the point I made earlier: it is remarkable that up to the present time, those who are not in a freehold do not have a right to a stipend or even to annual leave. The Measure rectifies that and brings together the concepts of office holder and of employee, which was discussed with the trade union Unite. Although the union would like all clergy to be employees, it nevertheless welcomes the Measure and the extension of employee rights to them.
The changes are all directed at providing a proper and common level of security for the clergy, but provision is also made under the Measure to ensure that the clergy are properly accountable both to their congregations and to the wider Church. To that end, it provides for regular development reviews and continuing education to ensure that clergy are effectively supported and equipped in their ministry. At the same time, accountability will be strengthened through the introduction of a capability procedure that enables bishops to address, through a fair and transparent process, the problem that arises when the clergy fail, for whatever reason, to perform their duties to an acceptable standard.
The procedure is designed to be supportive and to give clergy the time, the training and the resources that they need to improve. If, as a last resort, an office holder is removed from office under the procedure, he or she will have the right to bring a claim of unfair dismissal in an employment tribunal.
That, in summary, is what the Measure seeks to achieve by laying down basic principles and providing for the making of regulations to set out the detail of common tenure. Those regulations will make provision for matters such as written particulars of office, entitlement to stipend, leave—including time off for public duties—and sickness benefit. They will also contain the authority to introduce fairly worked-out capability and grievance procedures.
Draft regulations have already been considered by the General Synod, and should the Measure find approval in this Committee and in another place, they will be further debated in Synod later this year. In their final form, they will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny as a statutory instrument.
The Measure does not undermine the historic independence of the clergy. That is why the Church has not sought to make clergy employees. It recognises that the culture of line management is not appropriate.
The Measure does not compel existing freeholders to change their conditions of service. Apart from the two archbishops, who have already agreed to transfer to common tenure, all other freeholders will be able to choose, if they wish, not to opt into the new system until such time as they take up a new post.
The Measure does not materially affect the position of patrons, who retain all their current rights in the appointment process. Nor does it make any change to the ownership of property. However, it strengthens the position of clergy who are provided with housing, giving them for the first time the right to a reasonable standard of accommodation and to object to any proposal to sell the house that they occupy.
The Measure will not impose an excessive burden on the Church. Much of the infrastructure is in place.
The Measure is vital to the future health of the Church. It is also an opportunity to make a new covenant between parishioners and their clergy—one that is fit for the 21st century and which enshrines the essential principles of fairness, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North mentioned, clarity and collaboration. It enables clergy to have the confidence that comes from knowing where they stand, from understanding what is expected of them and what they have a right to expect in return, and from being supported by a Church that is committed to their well-being and development.
The Church of England Pensions (Amendment) Measure is perhaps the shortest Measure that I have seen in my time as Second Church Estates Commissioner. It seeks the renewal for a further seven years of the Church Commissioners’ existing power to spend their capital for pension purposes. Parliament conferred that power on the Church Commissioners by passing the Church of England (Pensions) Measure 1997. Parliament supported the renewal of that power when it passed the Church of England (Pensions) Measure 2003. The existing power expires at the end of 2011, and the Church seeks its further renewal until the end of 2018.
The Measure is before us today because although a negative resolution procedure for statutory instruments might have achieved renewal, the Ecclesiastical Committee did not welcome such a suggestion and preferred that we seek renewal by the primary legislation route, given the origins of some of the funds conferred by Parliament. The Church welcomes the fact that Parliament continues to take an interest in safeguarding the Church’s historic assets.
The Measure would do nothing more or less than provide for a seven-year renewal of existing powers. I hope that I have not detained the Committee overlong, but the Measure is important to the Church and to the Church-state relationship, which is why it is before the Committee today. I am happy, therefore, to commend both Measures to the Committee.
Simon Hughes: On a point of order, Mr. Gale, do I deduce from earlier remarks that although we are voting on the two Measures separately, you are content for us to comment on both during one contribution?
The Chairman: That is correct. It was put to the Committee and agreed at the start to take the measures together.
4.45 pm
I shall not make a long speech, but I wish to say a few words about the ecclesiastical offices Measure, about which there is great unease in the Church of England, despite what the hon. Gentleman said in his honeyed words. I served on the General Synod as an elected member for 10 years. I did not seek re-election in 2005 for many reasons, one of which was that I do not believe that it is at all representative of the Church of England as I know and love it. The General Synod is elected in a rather peculiar way, by members—
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Prepared 25 March 2009