MPs Questions to Church Commissioners

In Church Commissioners Question Time on Thursday 4th July 2013, Sir Tony Baldry MP answered questions on bats in churches, pastoral care, closed churches, financial performance, credit unions, cathedrals and street pastors

14.03.20 WH debate

Bats in Churches

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): What recent assessment the Church Commissioners have made of the effects of bats in churches; and if he will make a statement.

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Tony Baldry): A small number of bats living in a church can be manageable, but parish churches are finding an increasing number of bats taking up residence in large roosts. There are significant costs in financial and human terms to those who worship in these churches, and to the wider community. The present situation is simply unsustainable.

Mr Nuttall: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. As a church warden, I know that many members of parochial church councils live in fear of bats taking up residence in their church buildings, because of the damage bats cause and the difficulty they have in removing them because of EU rules. Will my hon. Friend give the House some idea of what costs can be incurred by churches that have to remove a colony of bats?

Sir Tony Baldry: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Parish churches have to raise the money for bat litigation at considerable cost to their community, and that can prevent their own mission and ministry. The sums of money can be large. For example, the church of St Hilda’s in Ellerburn in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) has spent a total of £29,000 so far, which is a significant sum for a small congregation to finance. As yet, there is no resolution in sight, but I was grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) for indicating in a recent debate in Westminster Hall that there might be a prospect of St Hilda’s, Ellerburn at last receiving a licence from Natural England to resolve this issue.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): I must say that I rise with some trepidation on this topic, given the explosive response from the Second Church Estates Commissioner to my gentle question in a Westminster Hall debate last week. Since then, I have been told that the Bat Conservation Trust and the Church Buildings Council were having productive conversations on the bats, churches and communities pilot project funded by Natural England until February this year when they stalled. Will the hon. Gentleman use his good offices to bring the two together to continue those conversations?

Sir Tony Baldry: My concern with the hon. Lady’s approach and the Bat Conservation Trust is that they seem to think that this is an issue that can somehow just be managed. I have to keep on saying to her that this is not an issue that can be managed. Large numbers of churches are being made unusable by large numbers of bats roosting in them. Churches are not field barns; they are places of worship. Following my debate in Westminster Hall, I had a number of letters from clergy up and down the country saying how distressing it was for them, before they could celebrate communion on Sunday, to have to clear bat faeces and bat urine off the altar and the communion table. That is not acceptable.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): May I take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend the Second Church Estates Commissioner and the Under-Secretary for helping St Hilda’s, Ellerburn? It is a matter of urgency that the congregation can reclaim their church from the bats.

Sir Tony Baldry: Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes an important point. [Laughter.] This is not a joking matter. This is serious and people have to understand that. I am grateful for the attention paid to this issue by the Under-Secretary. We are making real progress, but we need to ensure that places such as St Hilda’s, Ellerburn can continue to be places of worship and are not closed as a consequence of bat faeces and bat urine.

Pastoral Care

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): What guidance the Church of England plans to issue to parishes and Church schools on pastoral care for same sex couples and their children.

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Tony Baldry): The House of Bishops issued a pastoral statement before the Civil Partnership Act 2004 came into force in 2005. I expect that the House of Bishops will want to issue a further statement before the legislation on same-sex marriage comes into force. The House of Bishops is due to consider this December a report on sexuality, chaired by former permanent secretary Sir Joseph Pilling. The work of that group will assist the House of Bishops in its deliberations.

Mr Bradshaw: I am grateful for that reply, because I recently came across a case of a Christian couple in a same-sex relationship and with children in the local Church primary school to whom it was made clear by the local conservative evangelical church that they would not be welcome to worship in it. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that such intolerance and bigotry have no place whatever in the Church of England? When the Church issues guidance, it is very important that that is made quite clear to both parishes and Church schools.

Sir Tony Baldry: Of course I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about that. If he would like to give me the details of that case, I will most certainly take it up with the diocesan education officer. Children in Church schools come from a wide variety of family backgrounds, and teachers offer the same compassion and care for all. Each child is valued as a child of God and deserving of the very best that schools can offer. I would not expect any Church school to discriminate against any child, whatever their personal or family circumstances. If any right hon. or hon. Member comes across any instance where he feels that a Church school is in any way falling short of the standards that this House would expect, I hope they will get in touch with me.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): Notwithstanding any differences we may have over the same-sex marriage legislation, does my hon. Friend agree that one immediate contribution that the Church of England could make towards improving pastoral care for same-sex couples and their children would be to recognise blessings for civil partnerships in churches?

Sir Tony Baldry: Those are all matters that I suspect the House of Bishops will give thought to in its considerations following the Pilling report.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): Further to the important question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), is the Second Church Estates Commissioner aware that one of the weaknesses of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill is that the rights given to children of same-sex couples are not planned to be the same as those for children of traditional couples? Will he have a word with his colleagues on the Front Bench about rectifying that?

Sir Tony Baldry: The hon. Lady makes an important point. Perhaps she would like to talk to me about it in greater detail afterwards. If this is an issue that needs to be resolved, it will have to be resolved in the other place, where the Bill currently lies.

Closed Churches (Alternative Use)

Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): What the policy of the Church Commissioners is on finding alternative uses for churches which are closed.

Sir Tony Baldry: Under the Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011, the Church Commissioners are responsible for settling the future of closed church buildings. For most, we are able to secure suitable alternative uses in partnership with a local diocese, but I should stress that the Church of England is not in the business of closing churches unless absolutely necessary.

Andrew Stephenson: Although I hope that churches will always remain principally used for worship, it was great to visit the grassroots family centre at St Philip’s church in Nelson recently and see the job club IT courses and other programmes now being run from the building by the Blackburn diocese. That stands in stark contrast to St Mary’s in the same town, for which the Church Commissioners have not had responsibility for over 20 years and which has remained boarded up since it was deconsecrated back in 1987. Does my hon. Friend agree that the St Philip’s family centre is a great example of an alternative use for a church building?

Sir Tony Baldry: What has happened at St Philip’s in Nelson is outstanding. I pay tribute to all who have made it happen. St Philip’s now homes a Sure Start project, a drug rehabilitation project and an Early Break project. I hope that churches and church buildings can always be at the centre of the community for wider community use.

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Lab): It is also important to prevent churches used by other denominations from closing. Will the hon. Gentleman look at the situation facing St John’s, an historic building in Burslem? A different denomination wishes to continue worshipping there, but urgent action is needed to ensure that all the community groups can continue to use the church as well.

Sir Tony Baldry: I have sufficient difficulties sorting out the problems of the Church of England. I do not have responsibility for how other denominations open or close their churches. That will be, if anything, a matter for the local planning authority.

Financial Performance

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): What assessment he has made of the financial performance of the Church Commissioners in 2012; and if he will make a statement.

Sir Tony Baldry: For the financial year 2011-12, the commissioners achieved a total return of 9.7%. Over the last 20 years the commissioners have returned an average of 9.9%, which outstrips our personal aim of meeting the challenging target of retail prices index inflation plus 5%.

Fiona Bruce: Can my hon. Friend update the House on the current ethical investment policies of the Church Commissioners?

Sir Tony Baldry: The Church of England has very tough ethical investment policies, and we can demonstrate that the Church Commissioners have significantly outperformed the market while investing ethically, and that it is possible to invest ethically and get a genuinely good return on those investments.

Credit Unions

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): What support the Church Commissioners plan to give to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s initiative to promote credit unions; and if he will make a statement.

Sir Tony Baldry: Archbishop Justin wants to see a more flourishing community finance sector, and he has asked those responsible at Church House to explore how the Church of England can support the credit union movement. The Church Commissioners have agreed to provide support for that initiative.

Simon Hughes: Following the welcome summit called by the Government on payday loan companies, and given the view of many in this House that there should be a cap on the interest that such companies can charge, will my hon. Friend suggest that an all-party group goes to see Ministers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to encourage support for the Church’s credit union initiative and to persuade the Government that we need to cap the interest on payday loans?

Sir Tony Baldry: I agree with my right hon. Friend. The Anglican Mutual credit union is raising capital from a number of sources to increase its capacity. I have been checking, and I think that practically every book in the Old and New Testaments exhorts against usury. In the other place, the Archbishop of Canterbury wisely stated:

“The Financial Services Act provides for a study of the consequences of a cap to be looked at and then for the cap to be brought in at an appropriate level. Caps are needed at a sensible level that does not choke off supply and send people into the hands of loan sharks…Caps are there to prevent usurious lending…We need to…cut out legal usury from our high streets.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 June 2013; Vol. 746, c. 485.]

I entirely agree that we need to work out how we can prevent legal usury from continuing in this country.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): May I press the hon. Gentleman on this matter? Surely what was said at the G8 about social impact investment is manna from heaven for the Church of England, because it can be used to provide an alternative for social enterprises at the heart of the community. This is not just about payday loans; fixed-odds betting is the curse of our urban communities.

Sir Tony Baldry: I am not entirely sure where the hon. Gentleman seeks to differ from me on this. I certainly think that we need to sort out legal usury, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) and I will form part of an all-party delegation to discuss with Ministers how we can cap those rates of interest that seem somewhat usurious.

Association of English Cathedrals

Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): What recent discussions have taken place between the Church Commissioners and the Association of English Cathedrals.

Sir Tony Baldry: Recent discussions between the Church and the Association of English Cathedrals have covered such topics as promoting the impact of cathedrals on their locality and on national tourism, and determining how best to fund fabric repairs and maintenance.

Hugh Bayley: English cathedrals are among the cornerstones of English culture, of our music, of our art, of our sculpture, of our writing in the English language and even of our engineering innovation. Unlike our museums and art galleries, however, they get no regular Government funding. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) has agreed to meet representatives of the Association of English Cathedrals. Will the hon. Gentleman tell us when that meeting will take place?

Sir Tony Baldry: York Minster is one of the glories of England. Maintaining our cathedrals is a huge responsibility. The hon. Gentleman was present when the Under-Secretary met cathedral deans recently. That meeting raised a number of issues, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary agreed to meet representatives of the association. I hope that the meeting will take place shortly, and I will try to ensure that the hon. Gentleman can attend.

Kettering Street Pastors

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What he learned from visiting the Kettering street pastors on 8 June 2013.

Sir Tony Baldry: I was greatly impressed by my visit to the street pastors in my hon. Friend’s constituency; they do outstanding work.

Mr Hollobone: I thank Sir Tony for his late-night visit to the Kettering street pastors. Does he agree that their work is making Kettering town centre a better place, and that the country would be a better place were it to follow Kettering’s example?

Sir Tony Baldry: No greater luck hath an hon. Member than to spend a Saturday night with my hon. Friends the Members for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) and for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and their street pastors. The work that the street pastors do is genuinely impressive. Large numbers of volunteers from all denominations are concerned to ensure that those who are enjoying the night economy are well looked after and that they get home safe and sound. I pay tribute to both my hon. Friends for the support that they are giving to those initiatives.

Mr Speaker: I do not want to delay for long, but before the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) explodes, we must hear from him.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The secondary reason why my hon. Friend came to the two constituencies was to judge the night life. Will he please tell us whether Wellingborough or Kettering had the better night life?

Sir Tony Baldry: Well, I fear that however I answer this question, I am likely to receive invitations from right hon. and hon. Members of all parties to go and sample the night life in their constituencies. I thought the way in which the night economies were managed by the police, by the street pastors and by everyone in Wellingborough and Kettering made them both attractive destinations for people to go and visit.

Mr Speaker: That was a diplomatic answer of the kind that one would expect from a former Minister at the Foreign Office. We are grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

Taken from Parliament UK