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Public Accounts Commission

Volume 563: debated on Thursday 16 May 2013

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—

Church Commissioners

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

Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill

4. What recent discussions the Church Commissioners have had with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. (155328)

The Secretary of State has been generous with her time, both to Church of England representatives and me, in discussing issues arising from that particular legislation.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. Will he take this opportunity to update the House on what progress has been made on whether chaplains will be allowed not only to decline to conduct same-sex marriages in a church, but to promote the values of traditional marriage?

During the two days of debate next week the House will have to consider a number of issues relating to freedom of conscience. It will also have to consider the amendments relating to the possibility of humanist weddings, which would completely change the basis of English marriage law from one that is building-based to one that is celebrant-based. I think it is important to remember that in Scotland, where that happens, pagan weddings and weddings in other formats are now taking place, which I am not sure we would necessarily want to see in England. Likewise, the House will have to take a view on whether having heterosexual civil partnerships will or will not enhance the concept of marriage. Those are all issues that the House will have to consider during the two days next week. The Government, as I understand it, have said throughout that they wish to see the institution of marriage strengthened. I hope that that will be the test by which the House addresses the issues over the two days next week.

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that in the Church of England’s formal evidence to the Bill Committee, given orally, the Bishop of Norwich made it quite clear that the Church was perfectly happy with the existing and unamended safeguards that the Government have provided in the Bill? What damage does he think it would do to the established status of the Church of England if the bishops in the other place were to use their privileged position to try to thwart legislation that had the overwhelming support of this House in a free vote?

Members of the House of Lords, irrespective of where they come from, are Members of Parliament, and the other place is a revising Chamber and has perfectly good constitutional arrangements. The right hon. Gentleman will not be insensitive to the fact that there are still concerns about, for example, the position of Church of England or faith schools that wish to teach traditional concepts of marriage and whether they will be protected under the Bill. I am quite sure that, from the position he adopts and comes from, it must be in his interest as much as in anyone else’s that we get this legislation right.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the predicament of marriage registrars because of their religious beliefs. Is he aware that the Dutch Government have recently declared in favour of conscientious objectors? What discussions has he had with the Government to ensure that marriage registrars and their employment and conscientious beliefs are secured?

The hon. Gentleman raises another issue that I am sure will be discussed or touched on over the first two days of next week—the question of registrars who are unhappy with or opposed to conducting same-sex weddings.

Church of England

5. What steps the Church Commissioners are planning to take to support the future work of the Church of England. (155329)

The Church Commissioners seek to use their funds to increase spiritual and numerical growth in the Church, reshaping and reimagining its ministry for the next century and focusing resources on areas of the country with the greatest need and opportunity.

In the few days before the Church celebrates its birthday, we have seen the recent figures showing the very encouraging signs of more baptisms, more thanksgivings for childbirth, more christenings, more young people and children going to church, and many dioceses with greater attendance numbers. Will the Church Commissioners consider trying to support every parish in reaching out once a year to every household, irrespective of its faith, to welcome it to its local Church of England parish church?

My right hon. Friend makes an extremely good point that I will certainly convey to the Archbishop of Canterbury and others. The new Archbishop of Canterbury has made it clear that he sees one of the main purposes of his ministry as encouraging the mission and growth of the Church of England in every part of the country. As Archbishop Temple once pointed out, the Church of England is an organisation that exists for everyone other than itself. It therefore has a particularly important mission in constituencies such as that of my right hon. Friend, who makes an extremely good suggestion.

Church Attendance

I am glad to be able to report to the House that in 2011, the last year for which figures are available, 2,618,000 people attended church on Christmas day—an increase of nearly 15% on the previous year. Also, baptisms are up by 3%. This is encouraging news showing that there is still strong participation in Church of England services across the country.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply, which gives the lie to the general myth that is sometimes propagated that church attendance is falling. In fact, many churches are full to overflowing, they are often using the Alpha course or Christianity Explored, and there is much to be encouraged about.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Many congregations of different backgrounds are growing throughout the country. We need to understand why that growth is happening and how we can ensure that other parts of the Church in other parts of the country can mirror it.

Religious Freedom

7. What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to ensure the protection of religious freedom. (155331)

The Church of England is working on an international and a domestic level to protect religious freedoms. The Church is in regular contact with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on areas of shared concern in many countries that feature in the “Countries of Concern” section of the FCO’s human rights and democracy report.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Christian Brethren, who carry out many charitable acts that benefit the public, have been discriminated against by the Charities Commission, which has significant implications for religious freedom? They have been refused charitable status, and that has resulted in a lengthy appeals process. Does this not have wider implications for other faith groups?

I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend, but I cannot add anything to the answer that I gave him in March, which is that Parliament decided that in respect of every charity—including the Church Commissioners, who are themselves a charity bound by the Charities Commission—there had to be a public benefit test. The Charities Commission is a statutory body that has to decide whether there is a public benefit. If there is a dispute over that, I suspect that in due course it will have to be a matter for judicial review. I understand that this matter will be tested in the High Court later this year.

I am afraid that the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) is one of the very gullible Members of this House who have been seduced by a cult that is a tiny part of the Plymouth Brethren. Their real name is the Exclusive Brethren, or Hales Brethren, and they were, rightly, the only religion of 1,178 to be refused charitable status by the Charities Commission. This was the most egregious example of intensive, million-pound lobbying by hundreds of people that I have experienced in my 25 years in the House. It is a shame that the hon. Gentleman and others have been taken in.

My hon. Friend is not in any way gullible—he is a much loved hon. Member of this House. I am surprised about this, because I would have thought that every Member, including the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), would be sensitive to the needs of religious freedom. I understand, though, that as he is a Welshman coming from a country where the Church was not only disestablished but disendowed, it is not surprising that there is not that sensitivity to religious freedom.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—

Overseas Voters

8. What further steps have been taken to make it easier for those eligible to vote overseas to register. (155332)

The Electoral Commission will run online public awareness campaigns aimed at overseas electors ahead of the 2014 European parliamentary elections, the 2015 UK general election and during the transition to individual electoral registration. These will be targeted at countries with the largest expatriate communities.

The franchise for an in/out referendum will be set out in any legislation that authorises it. If my hon. Friend wishes to make sure that expats have the vote, he ought to study the draft Bill carefully and make representations to the House.

Church Commissioners

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

English Baccalaureate

9. If he will have discussions with the Secretary of State for Education on the merits of including GCSE religious studies within the English baccalaureate. (155333)

The education division of the Church of England has continually put the case for support for religious education as an integral part of the national curriculum to officials and Ministers at the Department for Education.

Does the hon. Gentleman share the concerns of religious studies teachers in my constituency that the decision not to include the subject in the EBacc will have a negative impact on the number of young people taking it at GCSE?

Whatever anybody thinks of any other Member, I think the House will agree that the burden on the Second Church Estates Commissioner is immense and the learning and reading are extensive. We are grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

Before we move on to the next business, I inform the House that nominations for candidates for the post of Chair of the Backbench Business Committee closed at 5 o’clock yesterday afternoon. Only one nomination was received and therefore a ballot will not be taking place. I congratulate, upon her re-election as Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, Natascha Engel.