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Church Commissioners

Volume 639: debated on Thursday 26 April 2018

The right hon Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Freedom of Religion or Belief

1. To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what discussions the Church of England had at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2018 on freedom of religion or belief; and if she will make a statement. (904962)

The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Commonwealth initiative for freedom of religion or belief convened a two-day summit at Lambeth Palace last week involving 40 parliamentarians and religious leaders from 11 Commonwealth countries. The aim of the meeting was to look at ways in which parliamentarians and leaders from across the Commonwealth could champion freedom of religion or belief.

That is encouraging to hear. The Commonwealth and the Church of England have similar values where they overlap. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the two organisations continue to work in unison to influence Governments in countries where freedom of religion is not respected?

The geography of the Anglican Communion and the Commonwealth do overlap; in fact the communion is larger still. The charter of the Commonwealth contains a commitment to freedom of religion or belief, but the truth is that not all members abide by that. The personal relationships built at Commonwealth meetings and across the Anglican Communion mean that faith communities must advocate for the same global standards for freedom of religion and belief.

It is sad to see Commonwealth countries on Open Doors UK’s world watch list of Christian persecution around the world. What more can we do following the Heads of Government conference to promote tolerance between people of faith and none in the long term in the Commonwealth?

A number of actions were agreed at that seminar. For Lambeth Palace and the Anglican Communion, freedom of religion remains an important priority. Every time the Archbishop of Canterbury visits a Commonwealth country where there is a problem you can be sure, Mr Speaker, that he will raise it.

Part of the initiative in the Commonwealth involves developing a toolkit that Members of Parliament can use to champion issues of freedom of religion and belief in our constituencies.

Is the Church of England aware of deeply disturbing reports that restrictions on the freedom of Christians to practise their faith have severely increased this year in China, including a ban on taking children under 18 to church? If so, what step is the Church taking on this?

The Church of England is very aware of those reports, and China is a priority for the Archbishop of Canterbury. He hopes to be able to take up the invitation to go there, when I am sure he will raise these issues. Even before such a visit, Church officials are engaging with Chinese officials to discover the implications of the new five-year plan on religious engagement and raise concerns where it appears that Christians are being oppressed.

Circular Economy

2. To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what assessment the Church of England has made of the potential merits of the circular economy. (904964)

The Church has for many years been involved in the recycling, reuse and repurposing of materials. It completely embraces the circular economy. Most recently, the Church’s environment programme ran a “Lent Plastic Challenge”, which was supported by 40 MPs. It produced a calendar of things we could do on each of the 40 days of Lent, and it was helpful to all who took part to see how much we can do individually.

Last weekend I attended the launch of the Catholic diocese of Middlesbrough’s book about how we can live simpler lives. What is the Church of England doing to further its reach into communities to help people to change their behaviours and lifestyles?

As I have said, all of us as MPs had a golden opportunity during Lent to use the calendar produced by the Church of England, which was available to all Church members and was very popular throughout the Church community. Every day it set a challenge to each of us to do something to change the way we live our lives so that they are simpler and embrace the circular economy. Within the Church, a number of churches embrace the concept completely, with 860 participating as eco-churches in the Big Church Switch, for example, which is looking at ways to ensure that the energy we use comes from renewable sources. We promote the circular economy right across the Church of England.

Rural Schools

3. To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what plans the Church of England has to support rural schools. (904965)

Yesterday I hosted a reception to highlight the interest of the Church of England in working with the Government and others to support a viable future for rural schools. The Church has published “Embracing Change: Rural and Small Schools”, which I commend to the House.

The Church obviously should be taking a long-term, if not eternal, approach on rural schools. People in Startforth were disappointed when a brief dip in performance led to the closure of that Church school, so in future will the Church take into account the significance of rural schools as community assets?

The Church of England has 4,700 schools, of which 53% are in rural areas. That often presents challenges—for example, the difficulty in recruiting and retaining teachers—but the report that I have referred to highlights those challenges. In addition to that report, we have a Church of England educational leadership foundation, which is designed to encourage and retain teachers, to ensure that children in small rural schools do not suffer as a result of the shortage of teachers.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) can bang on about out-of-school educational settings instead.

Out-of-school Education

4. To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what assessment the Church of England has made of the Government response to the consultation on out-of-school education settings. (904966)

Following the publication of the findings from the Department for Education’s consultation on out-of-school settings, I am pleased to say that the Government have sharpened their focus on tackling risks associated with unregulated out-of-school settings and have come up with proposals that are far more proportionate for use. The Church of England has welcomed this.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is essential that the Government combat radicalisation, but in a way that does not mean the state encroaching on the realm of religion or crossing the Rubicon in a way that could one day lead to the assessment of Sunday schools and the like?

Of course, the Church of England completely underlines the importance of tackling radicalisation, but the original proposals might have caught education in out-of-school settings such as Sunday schools, where teachers are subject to Criminal Records Bureau checks—as everybody in this place who has ever taught in one will know—and domestic premises used to teach children out of school have to be inspected too. The new proposals are proportionate to use and have been welcomed by the Church of England.

The right hon. Lady knows that I have been a champion of forest schools and out-of-school education with the John Clare Trust over many years. More worrying is out-of-school education in foreign parts. Many churches support orphanages around the world, but very often they are not orphanages and are not for orphans, but are used in child trafficking. Many churches support these so-called orphanages, so will she look into that?

The hon. Gentleman raises a serious point. I heard the broadcast of the “Sunday” programme about an Australian Senator who is pioneering an amendment to Australia’s modern-day slavery legislation to ensure that the whole world wises up to the risks associated with donating to orphanages that might be a scam or a front for children who are subsequently trafficked, or certainly put at risk. All of us need to be aware in our dealings with our constituents and their churches of the need to look carefully at where those resources go and how they are used.