Church Commissioner Questions – Syrian refugees, fossil fuel investments, hedgehogs

On the 17th December 2015 the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Rt Hon Caroline Spelman MP, answered four oral questions in the House of Commons about Syrian refugees, fossil fuel investments and the protection of hedgehogs.

Church Commissioners

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

Fossil Fuel: Investments

2. David T. C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): What the Church Commissioners’ policy is on investing in fossil fuel companies. [902794]

CarolineThe Second Church Estates Commissioner (Mrs Caroline Spelman): The Church Commissioners published a comprehensive ethical investment strategy in May 2015. They do not invest in fossil fuel companies that derive more than 10% of their revenues from the extraction of thermal coal or the production of oil from oil sands.

David T. C. Davies: I wonder whether the Church Commissioners might reconsider given the enormous exponential increase in living standards during the past 200 years as a result of our exploitation of fossil fuels. Does my right hon. Friend not think that the Church should sometimes put aside the Greenpeace manuals and look at Matthew 25 and the parable of the talents?

Mrs Spelman: My hon. Friend may not agree with me about the underlying causes of climate change, but I think he has to accept that, with the collapse in the oil price and the volatility of oil as a commodity, it makes eminent good sense for the Church Commissioners to diversify their portfolio, particularly away from the extraction of materials that may be detrimental to the environment.

Dr Rupa Huq (Ealing Central and Acton) (Lab) rose—

Mr Speaker: Dr Huq, we will get to you. Your question is different, but we will reach it.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): In people’s minds, fossil fuels are obviously a cornerstone of the Paris accord. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the involvement of faith groups was absolutely vital in getting that agreement? Everyone from the Pope to Christian Aid, and many other organisations, was fundamental in making sure that the moral case for tackling climate change was heard.

Mrs Spelman: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The engagement of faith leaders in securing a successful agreement in Paris last weekend was very important. I want to commend the work of the Bishop of Salisbury, who led an initiative in which 200 pilgrims from the Church of England walked 200 miles to Paris to show their commitment to reaching an agreement.



3. Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): If the Church Commissioners will provide guidance to dioceses on ensuring that church property is hedgehog-friendly. [902796]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Mrs Caroline Spelman): My hon. Friend has pricked all our consciences with his campaign for the protection of the hedgehog. The Church of England recognises that its churchyards are important not only as places of burial and quiet reflection, but for their characteristic habitats and as refuges for wildlife and plants. The conservation movement Caring for God’s Acre recognises the hedgehog as a flagship species in need of protection.

Oliver Colvile: The Church of England is one of the largest landowners in the country, so do the dioceses across the country have ecology strategies for the protection of animals and wildlife throughout their churchyards?

Mrs Spelman: The dioceses give proper weight to the conservation of natural heritage. I refer my hon. Friend to the ChurchCare website, which provides guidance on managing churchyards for wildlife, including by carrying out surveys and managing grassland. The aforementioned initiative, Caring for God’s Acre, encourages all of us as MPs to talk to our local churches about leaving some sections of their churchyards in a state that is conducive to the protection of species that are endangered, such as the hedgehog.



4. Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op): What support the Church is providing to people in Syria. [902798]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Mrs Caroline Spelman): I am very grateful for the hon. Lady’s question, which focuses on providing support for people in Syria. International aid agencies, many of which are Christian in origin, always stress that it is important to provide for refugees in situ, so that they can subsequently help with the rebuilding of their country. The Church is working with the Department for International Development to get the aid committed by the UK Government to those in need and is assisting those who remain in the camps with clothing, health and hygiene kits, shelter and education.

Rachael Maskell: York Minster is playing a pivotal role in welcoming refugees to our city. However, Christians in Syria remain at risk and many do not feel safe to go to the UNHCR camps. What steps is the Church taking to ensure that Syrian Christians and other minority groups can find a place of sanctuary?

Mrs Spelman: That excellent point was raised by the Archbishop of Canterbury, when he pointed out that the percentage of Christians in the camps is below the percentage of Christians in the population of Syria before the start of the conflict. Through the ecumenical networks, we are trying to help the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees to reach Syrian Christians who may be fearful of presenting themselves in the camps.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I am sure that many hon. Members have received generous offers of accommodation for Syrian refugees. Many of those have come from members of church groups, which are able to offer the support structures that are so necessary to look after refugees when they come to this country. Has my right hon. Friend had any conversations with the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees, because all the offers of accommodation are currently going through local authorities and churches have a real role to play?

Mrs Spelman: I spoke to the Minister as recently as this week, because the Church has made a number of offers of accommodation. The Christian charity, Home for Good, has 8,000 families who are willing to offer accommodation to an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child. He reassured me that he is speaking to faith groups and that 50 local authorities across the length and breadth of the land are taking the offers from the Church very seriously indeed.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): While it is important that we look after the people in Syria, it is also important that we look after the Syrian refugees. Just this week, Northern Ireland has taken in its first Syrian refugees, who have arrived in Belfast and Londonderry. Will the Second Church Estates Commissioner outline the ways in which the commissioners can assist Northern Ireland to settle these first Syrian refugees?

Mrs Spelman: It is true that the first Syrian refugees are coming to our country. I believe that the Prime Minister said yesterday that 1,000 will have arrived before the end of the year. There are many ways in which churches can help. The Under-Secretary of State for Refugees has asked the Church for volunteers to help with learning English and with welcoming the refugees. Many dioceses are preparing themselves to make the refugees feel welcome in our midst.



6. Michael Tomlinson (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (Con): What support the Church of England and the diocese in Europe are providing for Syrian migrants in Europe. [902801]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Mrs Caroline Spelman): Within the diocese of Europe, the Anglican chaplaincy of Athens and the chaplaincy to Southern Italy are supporting migrants and refugees by providing spiritual and psychological support, clothing and healthcare. Local churches across the diocese of Europe are also acting as a messaging service to try to bring families back together if they have been disunited.

Michael Tomlinson: I am grateful for that answer. Further to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), many churches and other local groups have contacted me in my constituency and the wider county of Dorset, offering help with accommodation. Will my right hon. Friend set out how those offers can be logged, assessed and, where appropriate, taken up?

Mrs Spelman: That is an important point that the Minister responsible will want the House to take on board. We need social landlords who are willing to offer accommodation to refugees, so that if possible we do not add to housing waiting lists and cause cohesion issues in our society. Within the Church of England we are looking for Christian social landlords who will provide accommodation for refugees which the Government will pay for.

(Via Parliament.UK)