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Covid-19: Churches and Places of Worship

Volume 804: debated on Thursday 9 July 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the restrictions in place to address the COVID-19 pandemic on the financial sustainability of churches and places of worship.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and declare an interest as Master of the Guild of St Bride’s, on Fleet Street.

As of 4 July, places of worship were allowed to reopen with social distancing in place. We are engaging with faith groups to understand the pressures they are facing during Covid-19, and we continue to listen to and understand the ongoing impact of the loss of income. Faith organisations can apply for a range of government-backed financial packages to support charities and businesses at this time.

My Lords, churches and places of worship are not simply where we go to pray. They bring the joy of music, support tourism, offer significant community provision and, importantly, are custodians of our heritage. All are essentially self- funding and require a sustainable income, which has simply evaporated as a result of lockdown, leaving many in extreme difficulty. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that ensuring the long-term financial sustainability of our churches should be a strategic priority of the Government? Does he also agree that it is folly to extend the congestion charge in London to Sundays and evenings, placing an intolerable price tag on worship for many who want to attend church services in London on a Sunday, or a concert in the evening, and making a desperate financial situation even worse?

My noble friend is right that churches and all places of worship play a crucial role in the cultural, as well as spiritual and moral, life of our country. Where possible, we should therefore seek to support as a priority the long-term sustainability of places of worship. As to the decision to extend the C-charge to a Sunday, I am wholly opposed to it. That decision was made by the Mayor of London.

My Lords, legislation has not kept up with the practice of public giving or developments in technology, especially now, when, as a result of the pandemic, cash carries the risk of infection. Charities, including churches, can currently claim only on cash and contactless gifts—not on online gifts and donations. Will the Government consider allowing online donations to qualify for gift aid, as part of the gift aid small donations scheme?

We have given guidance to churches on the safe handling of cash, which can continue, and we encourage contactless where possible. We will certainly look to see whether we should extend this to small gift aid donations online. In the meantime, we encourage churches to get people to register, so that the whole amount of their donation can be claimed.

My Lords, I declare an interest as listed in the register, as chairman of the trustees of the Royal College of Organists. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that, at least in our cathedrals and larger parish churches, the financial stability of churches includes the financial stability of their musicians? Organists are at last now able to play their instruments, but recitals cannot be given, thus denying funds for the churches and fees for the organists —and singing in church is not allowed. Can my noble friend tell the House what progress is being made on research into viral transmission through singing? If this is not swiftly resolved, Britain’s great choral tradition is in considerable peril.

My noble friend is right that organ recitals are a key part of our cultural and religious life. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is about to publish guidance for the performing arts to return safely to training, rehearsal and performance during Covid-19; I refer my noble friend to that guidance. In addition, Public Health England is looking into and researching how we can minimise transmission through singing and chanting, as this is such an important part of faith practice.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Council of Reference of Westminster Abbey. Is the Minister aware of how close to home—that is, to Parliament—the financial worries of churches are? The abbey will have a shortfall of about £12 million this year, and £9 million next year, and has decided to shut down the Sunday services at our church, St Margaret’s. However, the dean is now under pressure from the House of Commons to keep those services open, without the money to do so. I wonder whether the Government can support the abbey.

I note the comments on the financial state of the abbey and St Margaret’s. We are looking to see what we can do. As I mentioned in my previous answer, there are a number of schemes available to churches to support them during the pandemic.

My Lords, apart from cathedrals and larger parish churches, what about the ordinary street-corner churches? These offer community services, and in the case of the one I attend, concerts and cultural events, visits to care homes, accommodation for rough sleepers during the winter months, and art classes, with some 10% of the income it raises given away to charities. Will the Government recognise that if, as the Minister says, there are indeed avenues of help available, they must be well enough known for those in need to take advantage of them?

My Lords, my department, MHCLG, is making that information available to all faith communities and places of worship. It should be noted that the Prime Minister has asked Danny Kruger to look into how we can support those that provide many of the community services referred to by the noble Lord, and the social action that has been so helpful during the recovery phase of Covid-19.

My Lords, churches and places of worship have suffered during the pandemic because of the lack of giving on the plate or in the collection bag, and from the lack of fundraising events. Since 1922, the state has had an involvement with places of worship through the deed of covenant scheme, replaced in 1990 by gift aid. Would it not be a wonderful thing if the Government were to double gift aid in the tax year 2020-21? Will the Minister speak to the Chancellor accordingly?

My Lords, that is obviously something that would have to be considered as part of the comprehensive spending review that will take place this autumn. We recognise the importance of gift aid in supporting the financial sustainability of our places of worship.

My Lords, this morning, I attended morning prayers at Marble Arch synagogue. It was good to be back, although the new regulations will take some getting used to. At my synagogue in Borehamwood, Rabbi Alex Chapper explained some of the challenges going forward as synagogues reopen—especially financial ones, as synagogues generally raise funds by voluntary contributions from members, many of whom are facing financial uncertainty. I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister that he has reached out to many communities, including the Jewish community. Is he able to update the House on those discussions?

I thank my noble friend for his kind words. I have had discussions as recently as last week with representatives of all Jewish communities, including the Orthodox community that he refers to. I am pleased to see that many synagogues are reopening, and that people are taking the appropriate decisions to keep their staff, volunteers and congregations safe, in line with public health advice.

My Lords, cathedrals and churches are part of the great architectural heritage of England. Will the Government consider relaxing VAT on the repair and reinstatement of our churches and cathedrals? Will they ensure that any support goes to all faiths? For example, the Islamic religion is increasing at a rate at which it may become the main religion in England, and the evangelical and reformed churches have already replaced the Roman Catholic Church as the second largest in this country.

I refer noble Lords to the fact that there is in place a listed places of worship scheme, which supports the refund of VAT on repairs and maintenance. This will be in place until March 2021; whether it will be extended is a matter for the spending review. I note the noble Lord’s points.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a Church of England priest. Like my noble friend, I have seen churches and places of worship working flat out in the pandemic, supporting the sick and bereaved, feeding the hungry, and caring for the homeless and the lonely. Our communities need them to survive the pandemic. Have the Government considered the request that has been made specifically for an equivalent to the small business grant fund for charities and places of worship? These are often the heart of our communities; we need them to be there on the other side of Covid.

I looked at the suggestion of a small business grant fund with my colleague and noble friend Lady Barran, and we have already had a bilateral on this to see how we can move forward. It should be noted that the charity support fund provided by the National Lottery fund is open to places of worship that are registered charities, and that is some £200 million.

Will the guidance to which my noble friend the Minister referred in answer to my noble friend Lord Glenarthur include the safe resumption of choral singing, something for which our choirs, cathedrals, churches and their congregations yearn?

I thank my noble friend for raising the importance of choral music and choirs to our places of worship. My understanding is that it is included in the guidance, which will be published shortly.