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Simon Hughes: Absolutely—that is a really important point because, with the best will in the world, some incumbents who are appropriate and entirely competent at the time of their appointment become less so. They become less well or less mentally and physically capable, or they become more erratic and less diligent. I would not dare name any, but I could give more than one example from my constituency—where I have been the MP for 26 years—when a parish has not had such a good service from its incumbent. That could equally happen in Chelmsford.
The hon. Gentleman, who has much experience as an MP and as a member of the Church is right to point out that the Measure gives the Church authorities the right to deal with such a situation. It is important that the Church has that right. In our jobs, we are held to account by our local party executives and within our parties. If we do not do a good job somebody can complain and say, “Look, the MP isn’t doing their job properly.” We can be deselected and we need not to be nominated for the next election, quite apart from the electorate’s entitlement.
If someone had what was a freehold, they could stay from the age of 25 or 30 until retirement age, which I think is 70 in the Church of England. We must have protection against things going wrong. Some members of the clergy lose the confidence of their parish and their parochial church councils. They may not technically have been in breach of something that occasions a disciplinary inquiry, but we must have the confidence that bishops, who now have a much less authoritarian role in the Church, on advice—normally with suffragan and assistant bishops, bishops’ counsel and lots of consultation—can make a decision to initiate a process and say that a person cannot continue in office.
Sir Patrick Cormack: They do that now.
Simon Hughes: There is a process now, but the real benefit of the Measure, which is why Unite is so supportive of it relative to the current position, is that we need to give, as far as possible, employment rights to clergy. We are not talking about the full, traditional employee relationship, just as we MPs do not have an employee relationship. It is different. It is an office holder relationship, which is what gives it its justification. It is a move from a combination of statuses—freehold and other—to a special status that is almost unique and gives clergy the rights that any worker would expect. The clergy need those as much as anybody else. In a modern, pressurised age, it is important that we give our clergy that support. It is important that they have the knowledge that they have the personal back-up, with assessment of their performance and support—we have heard good evidence of that in the Committee—as well as the ability to claim entitlements. There is an appeals system under the new regime so there can be an appeal if there is disciplinary action.
I entirely respect the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, as he would expect, and I understand that the Measure is a very significant change in the arrangements for the Church of England, but I think it reflects the age we are in. It moves the Church, which is a much more diverse organisation than it ever was when the freeholds were set up, to a position where it can cater for its modern needs. The Church is no longer only a parish ministry—it is an industrial chaplaincy, a prison chaplaincy and a hospital chaplaincy. From my family’s experience, I know that such chaplains do a fantastic job, and I commend them without reservation. When our mother was ill and eventually died in the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham, wonderful service was given by the hospital chaplain’s team. My brothers and I will never fail to admire them for what they did for us and for everyone.
The Church has youth chaplains. It has other people doing other jobs. We have to recognise a much more complex ministry. We need a system that allows people to move around in the Church—to move from one job to another—knowing that they have the security, respect, status, dignity and protection that should be given to them.
I hope, therefore, that although the hon. Gentleman has concerns and other people may have concerns, we will see the Measure as an opportunity, rather than a threat. It is not about any individual being a problem; it is about respecting everyone. No one who currently has a freehold will lose it, but the Measure will mean that the next generation of people coming into the Church have equal status and there will not be two tiers of people—those who have a freehold and those who do not—which has sometimes meant that people have felt less valued than they should have done. The Measure gives people equal status, whatever their type of ministry. I think that it is a good thing and I hope that the Committee will support it; I certainly shall.
5.16 pm
Mr. Boswell: May I first welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Gale? It is evident that I am not a member of the Ecclesiastical Committee, nor have I ever served on it, although I should declare my interest as a dyed-in-the-wool member of the Church of England and my wife’s interest as a clergy daughter from the Church in Wales. I therefore have an interesting perspective, which does not lead me to the conclusion that the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey reached, in favour of disestablishment. I remain a supporter of establishment, although equally, as I shall explain in more detail, I am a supporter of both Measures. The two issues should not be confused.
As part of a general statement, I should also like to say that I am no supporter of the unbridled power of bishops to tell parochial clergy what to do. I am certainly sensitive to the eloquent defence made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire of the history of the freehold system, but I share the view of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey that it is now time to move on from that, particularly in relation to the two-tier system, which he touched on.
Before I deal with that, I shall comment on the pensions Measure. I commend it to the Committee, although I do have one question for the hon. Member for Middlesbrough. This is, as it were, a concession—the spending of capital. Now is a difficult time for the world markets, which may strengthen the argument in favour of the spending of capital in order to safeguard the payment of current pensions. However, is it envisaged in the present circumstances that it will be necessary to introduce a further Measure in seven years’ time, or is this thought to be the last occasion on which the exception will have to be made?
Turning to the ecclesiastical offices Measure, may I share briefly with the Committee a moment of personal history? I was the employment spokesperson for my party at the time the National Minimum Wage Bill and the subsequent Employment Relations Bill were passing through the House. I vividly recall an incident at the end of an all-night sitting in Committee when we had reached 11 am and I regaled the Committee—I think it was for the first and only time—with some excerpts from “Harvey on Industrial Relations and Employment Law” that were about office holder status. I pointed out to the Committee that the employer of the clergy was held to be not any human agency but, in effect, God.
I am happy that that concept—that we are not simply dealing with some kind of ecclesiastical or secular bureaucracy—is maintained in the Measure, but from that time I became uncomfortable about and conscious of the difficulties that the Church had as an employer, in effect, in dealing with its non-parochial clergy in a decent and proper way. I make no secret of the fact that I had private discussions in Church House at that time about how that question should be taken forward. I was very pleased when the Government rolled it into a wider review of related issues of employment law some years later.
The process has been long, but it has come to fruition with a thoroughly well balanced Measure relating to that increasingly preponderant group of clergy who are not freeholders and who hold other offices in the established Church. I feel strongly that it is right to give them proper, safeguarded rights under the control of the Church rather than of this place or of general employment law. However, it is right that those rights should reproduce employment law, because the Church needs to be seen to look after its people properly.
We then come to the critical issue of extension: whether we should, creepingly and progressively, abolish the freehold. It is a balance of advantage. I understand what has been achieved and the need for safeguards in the past. That was in the days of authoritarian diocesan bishops, long before employment law was conceived or invented, let alone the law replicated in the Measure. We do not need that sort of protection now. The best protection is, if I may say so, the self-denial of the diocesan bishops, who do not set out on that authoritarian route. If they were disposed to do so, as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey has pointed out to the Committee, they would be inhibited by the Measure.
I am concerned that, for reasons I can understand, diocesan bishops have not been appointed to freehold. There is a particular reason for that, but whether or not we set out this afternoon to defend the freehold system, it would be progressively eroded by indirect means. It is better to introduce the Measure, which safeguards those who have freehold, provides a measure of tenure and support to those who do not and is balanced. I do not always agree with what comes up from Synod, and I certainly hold no charter for what might be called diocesan Episcopal authoritarianism or ecclesiastical bureaucracy, but on this occasion, at least, the Church has introduced Measures that have got the balance right.
5.22 pm
Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful for the comments Opposition Members and glad that those in my party have listened carefully to a Church debate that is profound and interesting, covering history as well as the present concepts of bishops, their dioceses and their relationship to the clergy.
I shall move backwards, responding first to the points made by the hon. Member for Daventry. He is perfectly correct: under the Measure, bishops do not have unbridled power. There is a balance between the rights of the clergy and of the bishops. I was glad that he referred to employment law, as he has sat in Committees on the matter, and this is a Measure of employment law. It responds in many ways to criticisms of the Church that the clergy had no rights or were limited in their rights. There was a big move by Unite and others within the Church who felt that that was wrong and that there ought to be a response. The Government considered what were called atypical workers, which included clergy. They might have included Members of Parliament as atypical workers, although had they had done so, we might not be where we are today. However, the Government proposed considering the matter and the Church took it up. Consideration went on for six years—the Church, of course, works slowly. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire, who has now returned to his seat, said that there had been no recent appointments to the freehold. In the six years in which the Church has been considering the issue, it is not surprising that no further appointments have been made.
On the pensions Measure, it is significant that Parliament wishes to conserve the right to consider the Measure and to check and challenge the Church on the balance of using its capital to cover pensions. People such as I were concerned by that concept and thought that we ought to be careful in the use of capital, as our view is intergenerational—we look to future generations. The Measure will need to come back to the House in 2018, but in the meantime it depends on the valuation of liabilities and assets made by the actuaries. However, it is an important and significant point.
The question of establishment and disestablishment comes up from time to time; and I may come to that later, but it is not pertinent to the present discussion. I therefore turn to the other points made by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey. He asked about the relationship between pensions and capital or assets, and he went through the percentages. He wanted me to give the formulae for calculating pensions. I will be happy to write to him, as I do not have them with me.
As for the percentages, the hon. Gentleman should know that between 1 January 1998, when the power came into effect, and the end of 2007, the commissioners spent £405 million of capital, but the value of the fund increased by £2.2 billion. That is why the percentage has decreased. Indeed, the commissioners are to be congratulated on the fact that the value of their portfolio has risen so steeply during the years during which I have been Second Church Estates Commissioner. I am glad that it has happened, as it enables us to meet our pension requirements. The hon. Gentleman also asked whether more people will be added to the rolls. It will be only those who were in the pensions scheme before 1997 and who are still in service. From 1997 onwards, the commissioners are no longer liable.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned disestablishment. Disestablishment in Wales came from a Liberal—Lloyd George. I can share with the Committee the fact that Lloyd George made his name through his Friday speeches and his wish to disestablish the Church of Wales. Once he had achieved that, he left the subject alone and never returned to it. The Church in Wales became disestablished in 1919. It will take some time before we get around to disestablishing the Church of England.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether the bishops could use their powers to clear out, but he answered his own question. That is not how the Measure will work. We are bringing in workers rights for the clergy, and that is extraordinarily important for them. The clergy will have workers rights, but they will still be office holders. We are keeping a sort of balance between the two.
I am now able to come back to the point made by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire. He called me his hon. Friend, so I shall return the compliment. My hon. Friend and I have worked together in the interests of the Church for many years, and I have great respect for him. He made a fluent and eloquent speech—one that he made also to the Ecclesiastical Committee. He mentioned the greater needs of the Church on the matter, and he also mentioned the English Clergy Association. The association canvassed us, wrote to us and lobbied us, and that was taken into account by the Ecclesiastical Committee.
It would not help the Committee if I were to go into the mechanics of elections to the General Synod. It would not necessarily take us far. My hon. Friend said that the Church has been a bedrock through the ages and mentioned Margaret Laird. She was our third commissioner for many years. She is a distinguished person, and her husband has the honour to be the parish priest for the Salisbury family at Hatfield. My hon. Friend also mentioned 400 years of commonality, which was an interesting point. However, as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey said, it is time to move on.
The hon. Member for South Staffordshire spoke about freehold. That leads me to share with the Committee the fact that not only are there 5,000 freehold clergy, but there are 7,000 licensed clergy. There are more clergy in the profession without a freehold. There are 1,600 chaplains and clergy who are employed; stipendiary readers and lay workers also come within the framework of the Measure. In the search for commonality, having the same rules and regulations throughout the Church, it is important that the Measure is passed.
Some have talked of abolition of freehold, but I can tell those of my hon. Friends who may not be members of the Church that it is not abolition as such but a phasing out. It is clear that anyone who has a freehold now can keep it. It will not be taken from him. He may opt out of the system if he so wishes, but he will not be coerced to do so. The freehold offices should be phased out—that is the essence of the Measure—but those holding such an office when the Measure takes effect will not be obliged to surrender their freehold while they continue to hold the office.
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