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Bede Griffiths Charitable Trust and Southern India

Volume 588: debated on Tuesday 25 November 2014

It is a pleasure, Mr Gray, to serve under your chairmanship. It is good to see you again for the second time this morning—we had breakfast together.

On the evening of 15 December 2005, a young man called Tim attended a Christmas party in the City of London. Tim had recently left Chigwell school in Essex and was doing work experience before going to university. He was a decent, popular and intelligent boy at school, and he clearly had a great future ahead of him. At the end of the evening, he left the party, happy and sober, to travel from Liverpool street station to his parents’ home in Goodmayes. At the station, he took a late train home.

The next day, I was having lunch at the Army and Navy club with Dr Tony Pruss, an old school friend and also Tim’s father. Tony, his brother Adrian and I had all been pupils at Chigwell school and were reminiscing over lunch about the old days, as friends do. After lunch, just as we were leaving the club together, Tony received a mobile phone call from Mary, his wife. She was frantically worried because Tim had not returned home the night before. He would normally contact her to say where he was, but Mary had heard nothing.

Tony was instantly concerned and with good reason. Shortly thereafter, Tony and Mary were told that Tim’s body had been found alongside the railway track at Shenfield station. The world fell around Tony and Mary Pruss. Like any loving parents, they simply could not believe what had happened, but tragically it was the truth.

A few weeks later, I attended the inquest into Tim’s death in support of my friends, Tony and Mary Pruss. The coroner heard evidence that Tim had been hit by a train coming into the station having walked off the platform for some reason. Nobody knew why, but it might have been to excuse himself because, at the time, no lavatory facilities were open at the station. Tim was certainly not inebriated or drugged. The coroner heard evidence that Tim’s death must have been instantaneous—thank goodness. His death was deemed to have been a dreadful accident.

The death of Tim Pruss hit Chigwell school hard. As I have said, Tim had been hugely popular and a great character when he was there. The school was established by Archbishop Harsnett of York in 1629 and was very much a Christian foundation, and to this day takes its heritage very seriously. It has and continues to have contacts with missionary activities abroad and, at this time, particularly in an area of southern India called Tamil Nadu. There it supports the Bede Griffiths Charitable Trust’s work among the local people. Indeed, the school often sends out parties of students to visit, to learn and to try to help people less fortunate than themselves.

Tim Pruss had told his parents that he would like to go to Tamil Nadu but, as is the way with the young, he just did not go. However, Tony and Mary Pruss remembered that Tim had wanted to go there and it gave them the idea, too. They decided to look at the work of the Bede Griffiths Charitable Trust in Tamil Nadu and flew there. Once in India, they realised that they could help. They decided to use the money they had set aside for Tim’ education and inheritance to good effect. Shortly thereafter, the Tim Pruss Memorial school was established as a part of the Bede Griffiths Charitable Trust.

Bede Griffiths, the Benedictine monk after whom the charity was named, was born in 1906. He studied English literature and philosophy at Oxford and graduated in 1929. By 1932, he was a Benedictine monk and he ministered in England and Scotland until the early 1950s. He then joined a well-established Benedictine community in south India at Shantivanam in Tamil Nadu state. It was not long before people of all religions in the area came to regard him as a very special person and one whose views were well worth hearing. His Shantivanam ashram—a sort of cross between a monastery, centre of learning and community centre—became renowned principally because of Bede Griffiths. Although he died in 1993, his thoughts live on in his books and writings.

In this country, the Bede Griffiths Charitable Trust was established in 2004. To avoid confusion, may I point out that there is also a Bede Griffiths trust in the United States, but they are not linked in any way? The Bede Griffiths Charitable Trust has the specific task of helping to fund worthwhile projects in and around Shantivanam. The main aim of its projects is to help some of the most deprived people who live there.

Bede Griffiths Charitable Trust projects focus on education and training, with particular support for children, women and the elderly. For example, last year the trust did considerable work in Tamil Nadu state. The biggest project was the Tim Pruss Memorial school, but there were a few other equally worthy activities, such as providing educational expenses for children; provision of milk and rice for the poorest people, and of food and clothing for the elderly; and the running costs of a kindergarten, a tuition centre, a community centre and a home for the elderly. In 2013, the trust received more than £37,000 from donations and charitable events. The majority of that money—£23,000—went to the Tim Pruss Memorial school.

Early each year, the trust managers in India submit an application to the trustees for grants for their financial year commencing in April. Applications are normally accompanied by a financial statement of the project’s income and expenditure in the previous year and, of course, audited accounts. The trustees, some of whom are not far from me at the moment in the Gallery, visit Tamil Nadu at their own expense once a year on average, and the project managers show them where the money they have raised and donated has been spent. In addition, evidence is gathered by regular updates from the relevant project managers. The work of the charity is undertaken entirely by volunteers, with the result that there are very few overheads and that 98% of the income raised goes directly to supporting activities in Tamil Nadu.

The Tim Pruss Memorial school is at Inungur, which is a remote area where pupils have great difficulty in getting to a Government school. They are taught in English and are well funded by Bede Griffiths Charitable Trust grants, as well as by a small number of contributions from individual donors.

The school has 275 pupils aged between three and 11 years old. It provides an English-based education under the leadership of the headmaster, Mr Senthil Kumar. Obviously, the biggest costs are staff salaries, which come to close to £23,000 per annum. Parents make a small contribution where they can. The school has been operating since 2007 and has expanded one building at a time. After an initial grant of £7,000 in 2008, a junior school building was erected, and by 2009 it was officially named as the Tim Pruss Memorial school. In 2012, Tim’s brother, Michael Pruss, who is also an old Chigwellian, raised a further £10,000 by running a marathon in Long Beach, California. He is something to do with the film industry, and quite powerful in it. The money he raised was used to build a new hall. Of course, Tim’s parents, Mary and Tony, have played a key role in all the developments.

One of the founding trust members was the Rev. Dr Chris Collingwood, then Chigwell school chaplain. It was he who invited older pupils and parents on an annual school trip to experience life in the Indian subcontinent, particularly after the 2004 Boxing day tsunami. During those visits, pupils saw the work of the trust in some of the projects in the local community and around Shantivanam. Chigwell school continues to support the trust and send annual trips to Tamil Nadu. The students learn a lot during such visits. To start with, they get to understand a little of India and its geography, climate and people. They also experience life in the Christian monastic community at the Shantivanam ashram, where they stay. They are encouraged to join in at least some of the chapel services, and to attend some of the talks that are led by the priests and lay brothers who live at the ashram. Most of all, they see the positive effects of social projects in poor rural areas.

In 2013, those on the Chigwell school trip completely redecorated the older part of the old people’s home, an old house that had become drab and dirty. The students brought paint with them and, under the supervision of a qualified surveyor, completed the decoration within a day. Eighteen students, six parents or former pupils, a school governor and two trustees went on a self-financed trip to Tamil Nadu. A multi-purpose hall for meetings and school meals in the Tim Pruss Memorial school has been built with more than £14,000 raised by fundraising and donations. Additional money has been allocated by the trust to cover the running costs of a tuition centre, two kindergartens, a home for the elderly and two centres training adults in typing, computing and tailoring.

The home for elderly people established by the trust has 17 residents, of whom one is a Muslim and one a Christian—the remaining 15 are Hindu. Fourteen of the residents are from local villages but three are from further away. The home is an old house with a new block providing accommodation behind it. The £13,000 to build the new block came from one donation from a Chigwell school family. Since then, the Bede Griffiths Charitable Trust has helped towards the running costs of the home by contributing £1,000 a year. Residents live in twin single-sex rooms in the new block but come together in the old house for meals and social events. A warden and a part-time assistant run the home.

Recently, a gift of more than £1,500 enabled a brick-built home to be constructed following a fire that destroyed a single-parent family’s home, which had been constructed from wood and leaves. Altogether, around 15 homes have been built following trust donations. However, Chigwell is not the only school involved in fundraising for the trust. The Prince’s Mead school in Winchester, whose head teacher is Ms Penelope Kirk, has also been a terrific donor. It supported the school when it was just one small building, prior to 2007, and continues to do so. I should declare my interest in the Bede Griffiths Charitable Trust: recently, because of my friendship with Dr and Mrs Tony Pruss, as well as my links to Chigwell school, I was asked to be involved and am now a patron.

I should like to say how fitting and appropriate it is that my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr Evennett), who is the pairing Whip and a very good friend, is replying to the debate. By chance, his son Tom, who also attended Chigwell school, was a good friend of Tim Pruss’s brother, Michael, whom I mentioned on account of his raising a lot of money for the Tim Pruss Memorial school. In a way, this is rather a family occasion all round.

The charity is clearly exceedingly well run by its trustees, who are Adrian Rance, the chairman, Mark Bradbury, the secretary, Greville Norman, the treasurer, Tony and Mary Pruss, Helen Dixon, who is in the Gallery, Elizabeth Tysoe, Pippa Mistry-Norman—also at Chigwell—and David Gower, second master at Chigwell school. I hope the debate will raise the profile of the Bede Griffiths Charitable Trust. I commend the trust to the House and ask the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office to note the excellent, well supervised work being done by that great charity.

I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), on securing this important and timely debate. I commend him on his excellent, thoughtful speech, and apologise for the absence of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for International Development, who is appearing at the Select Committee on International Development this morning. I have been asked to respond as the DFID Whip, and am delighted to do so on behalf of the Government.

I offer my condolences to Tim’s family on what was a tragic loss for them and his many friends. I know Chigwell school, as my hon. Friend mentioned, because my sons Mark and Tom both went there, and I went to the neighbouring grammar school, Buckhurst Hill county high school for boys, which was next door but is now sadly no more.

We have today learned an awful lot about the Bede Griffiths Charitable Trust and its work, and the problems of southern India. We have also heard about Tony and Mary Pruss’s dedication. I commend them for their endeavours in memory of their son, and for their huge contribution to helping the less fortunate in Tamil Nadu state. The trust does vital work there. We have heard about its important provision for the poorest people, those who are suffering, the elderly and the young; and about its support for local community facilities. The Tim Pruss Memorial school in Inungur is helping 275 pupils in a remote area of the country who would otherwise have had great difficulty in going to a Government school. Those are positive, constructive approaches to assist a part of the world with considerable disadvantages.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham knows, the Government have made a commitment to international development, and I am proud that Great Britain was the first G7 country to reach the target of 0.7% of national income for aid spending. Not only do the Government play their part in helping a variety of causes globally, but the great British public also do their bit to support those aims. One need only think of the extraordinary response to the Philippines appeal after Typhoon Haiyan last year, or the millions donated to help tackle Ebola in west Africa in the past few weeks. We as a country can be proud of the contribution that our people are making in voluntary donations.

One can also see that compassion and dedication clearly in the sheer number of fantastic civil society organisations in this country, such as the Bede Griffiths Charitable Trust, that make a difference in the developing world. Working with civil society organisations forms an integral part of DFID’s approach to reducing poverty, promoting wealth creation, achieving the millennium development goals, tackling climate change and dealing with conflict.

Civil society can play an important role in reaching poor and marginalised people and communities in places that the Government and private sectors have not been able to reach. They do so through their ability to build relationships, trust and legitimacy, their grass-roots knowledge of needs in developing countries and their responsiveness. It is a crucial part of creating the open societies required for tackling poverty and its underlying causes and creating economic growth and development. Many smaller and medium-sized groups such as the Bede Griffiths Charitable Trust are more out of sight and perhaps receive less fanfare, but they do powerful work on the ground, which is why debates in the Commons to highlight them are important. The good work being done needs to be recognised and publicised. My hon. Friend has done a marvellous job in doing so today.

There are many organisations running projects that no one else thought of doing. In fact, it is often smaller grass-roots organisations that can make connections on the ground and help to change how people act for the better. Of course Government support is vital, which is why the UK Government support smaller civil society organisations through DFID’s global poverty action fund, which provides grants to charities across the UK to help them fight poverty in the world’s poorest countries. For example, the charity Women and Children First UK is helping reduce maternal and newborn mortality in Mumbai.

Such schemes have achieved great results, supporting some fantastic organisations, which is why UK Aid Direct was launched, a new £150 million funding scheme to support small and medium-sized national and international civil society organisations in reducing poverty over the next five years. As a successor to the global poverty action fund, UK Aid Direct will build on the success and momentum created by that fund. It will also bring more flexibility and allow the work with civil society to respond to opportunities as they arise. The scheme highlights DFID’s ongoing commitment to the role of civil society in poverty reduction and recognises the important contributions made by small and medium-sized civil society organisations.

Applications for the first £30 million funding round for UK Aid Direct closed today. In the first funding round, projects will focus on finishing the job on the health millennium development goals, and particularly on sexual and reproductive health and rights. It is a particularly important focus for development at this time, as the MDGs for reducing child mortality, improving maternal health and combating HIV/AIDS and other diseases are off-track. DFID is looking for innovative, ambitious projects whose proposals will demonstrably have a tangible impact on our efforts to achieve the off-track MDGs.

On that point, it would be lovely if DFID would consider a grant to the Bede Griffiths Charitable Trust if possible. It is an extremely well run charity, and it undoubtedly offers value for money. I just make that point.

I note my hon. Friend’s plea. I know that my officials have listened to it, and I will respond in a moment.

The poorest areas civil society programme works with Indian civil society organisations in the seven poorest states and helps socially excluded groups claim their rights. The programme has led some impressive initiatives, such as the campaign for complete abolition of the inhuman practice of manual scavenging, a caste-based practice in which human excreta are cleaned manually by individuals from the Dalit and Muslim communities in India, who face untouchability and social exclusion.

Faith-based organisations such as the Bede Griffiths Charitable Trust play an important part in reducing poverty in developing countries. Religion unquestionably plays a role within civil society, and we can use that to help advance the development agenda. Faith is often part of individual or group identity, which gives faith groups considerable legitimacy; they are often seen as more embedded in the local community than some development actors. Faith groups inspire confidence and trust. Indeed, they are often the first groups to which the poor turn in times of need and crisis, and to which they give in times of plenty. Faith communities can be motivated by different ethical values and beliefs from most secular organisations, including a sense of service, selflessness, generosity, mindfulness and compassion. They are often less transient than many secular civil society organisations and can mobilise many adherents and significant financial resources. Faith groups make a significant contribution to poverty reduction.

I now have an answer to my hon. Friend’s question. We are happy to provide information to him, so that the trust can get in touch after the debate. I cannot promise any more than that, but we in the Department are always willing to consider any opportunity.

Faith groups are a key development partner. They empower poor people so that their voices are heard. They can subject Governments to critical scrutiny and bring distinct and valuable perspectives to policy formulation processes. To strengthen our relationship with faith groups, the UK Government have launched the faith partnership principles paper, and we are working with faith groups to ensure that those principles are put into practice. The paper sets out the principles—transparency, mutual respect and understanding—that will guide our relationship with faith groups, as well as plans to build a common understanding of faith and development, document the impact of faith groups through systematic research and discuss areas of difference in a constructive way without threatening wider collaboration. DFID’s work with faith groups over the last 10 years has benefited many millions of men, women, boys and girls. My hon. Friend referred particularly to the generosity, commitment and hard work of Tim’s family, the trust and others with counterparts in India.

India has grown rapidly in the last decade and is now one of the world’s major economies, but remains home to one third of the world’s poor. In recent years, India has rapidly increased its spending on health, education and other development issues. In recognition of India’s changing place in the world, the Secretary of State for International Development announced in a statement to Parliament in November 2012 that we have agreed with the Government of India to move to a new type of development relationship. After 2015, our partnership will focus on sharing skills and expertise, making private-sector investments that will help the poorest people and generate returns, and strengthening partnership on global development issues such as food security and climate change.

UK aid is delivering results in India; for example, it is reaching out to 3.6 million pregnant women and to children under five through nutrition programmes, and will give roughly 2 million people access to improved sanitation by 2015. This Government are assisting civil society organisations of all shapes and sizes in playing a critical role in fighting poverty, and we will continue to do so. The world has made unprecedented progress in the fight against poverty in the last two decades.

In this debate, with a great deal of interest, we have learned all about the Pruss family and their commitment, the Tim Pruss memorial school and the Bede Griffiths Charitable Trust. I am pleased to acknowledge the trust’s commitment to making a difference, and the time and effort given by Dr and Mrs Pruss and all those involved in this important charity. I hope that we have been able to put on record the work that has been done; my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham has done a superb job in doing that. After this debate, we in the Department will certainly consider in what ways we might assist, but the most important thing is to congratulate the trust and all involved in it, and to support it in continuing the good work that it has done so far.

Sitting suspended.