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Access to Churches

Volume 450: debated on Monday 9 October 2006

22. What assessment the commissioners have made of the insurance implications of keeping churches open to the public. (92603)

That is a matter for individual churches and their insurers and it depends largely on local circumstances. However, we know that the major insurer encourages churches to remain open during the day.

That is the problem, is it not? We have 16,000 Church of England churches, more and more of which are closing their doors to the public outside service times because they fear vandalism and theft. Why is it not possible for churches to get a better deal by pooling their insurance premiums?

As my hon. Friend says, it is unfortunate that many churches feel the need to close their doors to protect themselves. The major insurer—Ecclesiastical Insurance—has suggested that an active, well-visited church should deter arson, theft and vandalism. Advice on extra security measures is available and the insurance company provides a security marking system free of charge to all churches. However, my hon. Friend’s suggestion is worth taking up with Ecclesiastical Insurance, and I will do so.

A benefice in my constituency consisting of eight churches, with a church roll of 2,500 people, has to find a diocesan contribution of £63,000 a year—and that is before it has started paying for insurance premiums and the maintenance and repair of buildings. Will the hon. Gentleman convey to the church authorities the funding crisis in rural parishes in constituencies such as mine that cannot afford the contributions that they have to make to the diocese as well as to the maintenance and insurance of these buildings?

I am grateful for, and would be happy to make, the hon. Gentleman’s point. However, I could not make it better than he has done and I congratulate him on that. He is right that there is a huge problem with church funding, which is reflected in the questions that I am asked in the House, between what the state and what the Church can provide. We have seen many articles in the newspapers about cathedrals and churches that are in difficulty. The question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) is about that. We need to deal with the matter and, to do so, the state must take a much more proactive role.

There is a growing problem with insurance, whether the churches are open or closed during the day, arising from the increased ingress of bats. If only they would stay in the belfry, but they do not. In several churches—especially in Norfolk, I am told—bat excrement is causing serious damage to the interior fabric of churches, at the cost of thousands of pounds and the great inconvenience of those who wish to worship.

Before the recess, I saw a bat in the House of Commons corridor. I do not know whether it had come from the Chamber. However, the hon. Gentleman’s point is valid. The problems add to those that the Church already has with repairs, security and those to which my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle referred.