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Church Commissioners

Volume 527: debated on Thursday 12 May 2011

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

Churchyard Trees

4. What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to ensure that ancient trees in churchyards are protected. (55124)

8. What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to ensure that ancient trees in churchyards are protected. (55128)

Ancient yews are defined as trees older than 250 years and possibly as much as 5,000 years old. Yew trees were felled on a huge scale for English longbows between the 13th and 16th centuries. The yew tree has been an important part of historical religious practice, and in Britain the Celts and Romans thought it to be associated with immortality, regeneration and protection from evil.

In large numbers of cases, the ancient yew trees in churchyards are significantly older than the churches occupying the surrounding land. Many yew trees trace their history back to sacred groves and other such significant sacred places of earlier civilisation. There are eight sites of ancient yew trees recorded in Warwickshire and 12 in Cheshire.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. As well as being the final resting place of the great bard, William Shakespeare, Holy Trinity church in Stratford-on-Avon has 12 yew trees representing the 12 tribes of Israel and is home to a yew tree that is estimated to be several hundred years old. Does my hon. Friend agree that the protection of such trees is extremely important in maintaining the historic settings of our great churches?

It is fantastic that Holy Trinity, Stratford, has planted 12 new yew trees, but my hon. Friend highlights the fact that a number of older yew trees, designated as ancient or veteran, have not had adequate statutory protection. The Church of England is determined to do all that it can to ensure that every yew tree in our churchyards is properly protected.

It is excellent to hear from my hon. Friend that ancient yew trees are being preserved and protected in that way, but even with best practice no tree will last for ever. What is being done to introduce new trees to our churchyards so that future generations might enjoy that attractive part of our churchyard heritage?

I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend that on the eve of the millennium the Conservation Foundation charity presented churches throughout the country with some 8,500 young yew trees, propagated from trees estimated to be at least 2,000 years old. We are now asking churches that planted millennium yews to record their growth and condition on Biodiversity day, which is on Sunday 22 May. I hope, however, that a number of churches up and down the land will follow the example of Holy Trinity, Stratford, and consider planting 12 new yew trees to represent either the 12 tribes of Israel or, indeed, the 12 apostles.

Biodiversity in Churchyards

5. What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to encourage churches to develop and foster biodiversity in churchyards. (55125)

The Church of England, through its own environmental campaign “Shrinking the Footprint”, along with Natural England is supporting an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund by the charity Caring for God’s Acre to extend its work encouraging and supporting churchyard biodiversity schemes nationwide.

North Wiltshire has some of the finest and oldest churchyards anywhere in England—one thinks of Malmesbury abbey, St Bartholomew’s in Wootton Basset, St Mary’s in Calne—and dozens of tiny, ancient, hidden churchyards miles from anywhere. What can the Church Commissioners do to encourage greater biodiversity in them while preserving their peaceful, quiet charm?

The Wiltshire living churchyards project has 45 participating churchyards, helped and supported by the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, Wiltshire Churches Together and Social Responsibility in Wiltshire. As my hon. Friend tells the House, Wiltshire has a unique and rich diversity of landscape, and there are annual seminars at which Wiltshire living churchyards awards certificates for continued wildlife management. The Bishops of Bristol and of Salisbury and the Church locally are determined that churches throughout Wiltshire should be opportunities to celebrate biodiversity.

Gift Aid

Church of England parishes recovered £82 million in gift aid from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in 2009, which is the last year for which we have data. Over the past 10 years, we believe that the Church has recovered a total of nearly £713 million from parish donations; this excluded donations made at cathedrals.

I welcome the recent measure in the Budget to allow donations up to £5,000 for which declarations have not been made to have tax recovered on them. What measures are the Church Commissioners taking to ensure that parishes take up this welcome opportunity?

That provision in the Budget was very welcome, as was the provision for the small donations gift aid scheme, because each year, in addition to using planned giving envelopes, people put into the collection plate some £58 million of loose change, and the scheme will be of considerable assistance in recovering tax on that money as well. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Church has to make the best possible use of funds that are given to it in meeting social need and ensuring that churches can be places of community resource. That also means their being places not just of worship but for the widest possible community use, whether it be for cafés, concerts, crèches or other uses for the community as a whole.

Lead Theft

7. What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to reduce the level of lead theft from church buildings. (55127)

Last year, churches in Manchester had more lead theft than in any other area of the UK, with a significant number of insurance claims being made. Metal theft, particularly the theft of lead from church roofs, is the most serious problem facing the maintenance of the historic legacy of church buildings, with Wakefield cathedral being the most recent case. The Church recently sent a report to the Home Office in which it makes recommendations for the greater regulation of the scrap metal industry.

What advice, if any, has the Church Buildings Council been able to give churches to advise them on how to help to deter thieves?

The Church is giving all possible advice to churches about effective deterrents, including what they should do regarding wireless roof alarms and other things. Frankly, though, it is a broader issue than that. The Church Buildings Council is of the view that the regulation of scrap yards is fundamental to reducing the level of metal theft. It is all too easy for roofs to be stripped of lead one night and the lead to be sold for cash the next day. We want cash transactions for lead to be made illegal, a requirement for scrap yards receiving lead or traders selling it to be licensed specially for that activity, a requirement to show documentary proof of identification when selling lead and to photograph each person when their identity is checked, and a requirement on scrap yards to report suspicious activity or persons to local police forces.

It is difficult to underestimate the damage that this is doing. The number of claims—

Order. It would be very difficult for me to underestimate the comprehensiveness of the hon. Gentleman’s reply, which I think I can safely say is unsurpassed in the House.

Women Priests and Bishops

9. What recent assessment the Church Commissioners have made of the financial consequences for the Church of England of (a) women priests and (b) women bishops. (55129)

The General Synod of the Church of England legislated to make special financial provision for the 441 clergy who resigned from ministry between 1994 and 2004 as a result of opposition to the admission of women to the priesthood. The total cost of that to the Church Commissioners was £27.5 million plus a further call of £2.4 million on the unfunded pension scheme. The draft legislation to enable women to become bishops makes no financial provision for those who might leave should it in due course pass into law.

Now that the last remaining people who had a long-term philosophical commitment to opposing women in the ministry appear to have left the Church of England, may I urge the Church Commissioners to move with all speed to do what the vast majority of Church of England members want, which is to make sure that women can become bishops, as well as priests, at the earliest available date?

My views on this matter are well recorded. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, this matter is now out with the dioceses. I am sure that the Archdeacon of Southwark, who is a strong campaigner on this issue, will keep him informed. The dioceses are reviewing the matter and will vote on it in the near future. If they vote in the affirmative, the matter will go to the General Synod. This matter is being dealt with as speedily as is possible.

I apologise to the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House, but the House must hear from Mr Brian Binley.