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Church Commissioners

Volume 519: debated on Tuesday 30 November 2010

The hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Auckland Castle Paintings

5. What plans the Church Commissioners have for the future of Auckland castle and the Zurbarán paintings; and if he will make a statement. (27050)

8. What consultation the Church Commissioners have undertaken with organisations in the north-east on the future of the paintings of Jacob and the Patriarchs in Auckland castle. (27053)

I was grateful for the meeting yesterday that was chaired by the Bishop of Jarrow, which the hon. Lady helped to organise. As a consequence of those discussions, it was agreed that the lord lieutenant of Durham will chair a working party to consider over the next three months whether it is possible for the Zurbaráns to remain at Auckland castle.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that answer and I agree that we had a fruitful if rather cold meeting yesterday. In taking future decisions, will the Church Commissioners take account of the Christian mission in its widest sense because, as he knows, the castle is in a town with some of the poorest and most deprived wards in England?

The hon. Lady highlights the challenge for the Church Commissioners. I was grateful to her for taking me to visit Woodhouse Close church community centre and the Woodhouse Close church, which is in one of the poorest wards in the country. That demonstrates the Church Commissioners’ need to raise money to allocate to clergy in such parishes. However, we will consider carefully and seriously any suggestions that the local community makes that enable us to retain the Zurbaráns at Auckland castle. She must appreciate, however, that they are a drain on, and not an asset to, Church Commissioner funds.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s decision to initiate some new discussions with bodies that are interested in a sustainable future for Auckland castle and the paintings, but will he recognise that the paintings are a precious cultural asset of the north-east region? In their time and to this day, they make a strong statement about the emancipation of the Jewish community in the UK?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The paintings were a strong and important statement by Bishop Trevor of the Anglican Church’s support for the emancipation of the Jewish community.

The Church Commissioners, by and large, do not possess pictures—we tend to own land and property—but I am in absolutely no doubt of the importance and identity of those pictures, which is why the working party that I mentioned, which will be chaired by the lord lieutenant of Durham, will consider ways in which the Zurbaráns can stay at Auckland castle, but I say that without prejudice to the wider statutory and charitable responsibilities and obligations of the Church Commissioners.

I am not sure that the Church Commissioners fully understand the strength of feeling throughout the north-east about those paintings. I welcome the statement on the working party, but will the hon. Gentleman ensure that it includes representatives from the whole region?

The hon. Lady can rest assured that the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) and others left me in absolutely no doubt, in the four hours that we were stuck together in the snow yesterday, as to the strength of feeling about the pictures in Bishop Auckland. We fully understand that feeling, but may I explain? If the pictures were sold, they would generate something like £500,000 a year in perpetuity, which could be applied to funding clergy in deprived areas, not least in the north-east. There is a difficult balance to strike, but we understand the importance of the pictures to the north-east. We will listen, which is why I am glad that the working party, which will be chaired by the lord lieutenant, has been set up.