Church Commissioner questions: Israel/Palestine, human trafficking, prisons, social media, low carbon economy, tourism, lead theft

On 19th January 2017 the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Rt Hon Dame Caroline Spelman MP, answered questions in the House of Commons from MPs on Israel/Palestine, human trafficking, prisons, social media, low carbon economy, tourism and lead theft. The transcript is below:


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

Occupied Palestinian Territories

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab)

1. What support the Church of England is giving to Christians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. [908240]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): The Bishop of Southwark is currently visiting the west bank and Gaza and the Archbishop of Canterbury also intends to visit later this year. He is very keen that the House should know about the work of Embrace, whereby the Church of England is in partnership with 23 Palestinian Christian organisations to end poverty and bring justice to the Occupied Palestinian Territories—to Muslims, Christians and Jews alike.

Helen Goodman: Palestinian Christians are suffering the effects of the settlement. Two weeks ago, I stood on the hills behind Bethlehem and saw how the six-lane motorway and the wall carve through Palestinian farmland. Their houses are being demolished and I met a young man whose family had lost 18 trees, which are now being sold on the internet for £30,000. When the Archbishop and the Bishop go to the occupied territories, please could they make vocal their witness to the injustice that is happening?

Dame Caroline Spelman: Speaking out about injustice is precisely what Church leaders do, and they do it well. When the Archbishop visits, I am sure that he will look closely at the injustice that the hon. Lady described. It is scandalous that infant mortality is increasing in the occupied territories when, on the whole, it is in decline around the world. The Church supports the Anglican Al Ahli hospital, where 1,000 children and more than 15,000 adults are treated, so we give practical support to the territories.

Sir Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) (Con): There is an increasingly militant settler movement that treats Palestine like its own biblical theme park. To what does my right hon. Friend attribute the radical decline in the numbers of Palestinian Christians living in the west bank?

Dame Caroline Spelman: Both my right hon. Friend and the hon. Lady have the advantage over me in having actually been to the occupied territories. I have not been there. Sadly, there is a huge pressure on Christians in the middle east. About 8% of the population of the middle east is Christian, with 80% concentrated in Egypt. As we saw at the Open Doors launch in Parliament last week, religious persecution is one of the main drivers of out-migration.

Ruth Cadbury (Brentford and Isleworth) (Lab): Best wishes, Mr Speaker. Will the right hon. Lady consider visiting Christians and others in the Palestinian west bank very soon? Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), I too saw the land owned by 53 Christian families near Beit Jala, and the monastery and the convent. Despite protests and support from Christian leaders around the world, the wall proposal is going ahead through those lands. I hope the right hon. Lady will visit very soon.

Dame Caroline Spelman: I would love to have the opportunity to visit this very troubled part of our world and to see for myself the impressions gained by several hon. Members. The Church actively encourages its members to go and see the reality of life for Palestinian Christians. About 750,000 parishioners have taken advantage of this opportunity. I hope to add to their number.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I declare my interest, as I was on the same visit as the hon. Members for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) and for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury). It might surprise people to know that there are Christians in the Palestinian Cabinet. The Palestinian Authority are responsible for both Jesus’s birthplace and his family home. May I encourage my right hon. Friend to encourage the Church to develop as close relationships as possible between the Church in this country and Christian communities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories?

Dame Caroline Spelman: That is exactly the purpose of Embrace the Middle East. We are in partnership with 23 Palestinian Christian organisations. The value of the support we give through this scheme is equivalent to £1.25 million.

Human Trafficking/Vulnerable Women

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab)

2. What steps the Church of England is taking to (a) tackle human trafficking and (b) support vulnerable women. [908241]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): The Church of England has launched a new project specifically to equip and resource Church of England dioceses to tackle modern slavery and human trafficking. The Lord Bishop of Derby has pioneered this practical support to tackling trafficking. Working together with local charities and the Mothers’ Union, the Church seeks to support vulnerable women alongside those who suffer domestic violence.

Chi Onwurah: Happy birthday, Mr Speaker. I pay tribute to the work of the Church and to the many generous Geordies who help to support vulnerable and trafficked women in Newcastle, which is proud to call itself a city of sanctuary. Unfortunately, it is not enough and not every woman has the support they need. What is the Church doing to work more effectively with local authorities and police forces, which are suffering extreme cuts, to ensure that every vulnerable woman has someone to turn to?

Dame Caroline Spelman: The Lord Bishop of Derby’s initiative I referred to is known as the Clewer Initiative. The objective of the Church is to share best practice in Derby with different dioceses. For example, Portsmouth diocese has expressed an interest in taking up what has been learned in Derby. Tackling trafficking and violence is about spotting the signs. Training will be given to parishioners and to members of the public, so that we all have our eyes opened to what is going on around us.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Adult victims of human trafficking are looked after by the most excellent Government scheme, which is administered on an umbrella basis by the Salvation Army. Many of the people who actually look after the victims are Christian groups. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is exactly how it should work?

Dame Caroline Spelman: I am sure we all remember the work of Sir Anthony Steen in raising our awareness of the terrible blight of trafficking. It is often down to local voluntary groups to provide that arm of practical support to the victims of trafficking, who are all around us in our society.

Prisoners and Prison Chaplains

3. How the Church of England plans to support prisoners and prison chaplains across the prison estate. [908242]

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): 6. How the Church of England plans to support prisoners and prison chaplains across the prison estate. [908245]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): The work of prison chaplains is especially important given the current pressures in the prison system. The Bishop to Prisons, the Lord Bishop of Rochester, will shortly be bringing Church of England chaplains together for a training and support event.

Bob Blackman: I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. My private Member’s Bill combating homelessness is currently proceeding through the House. One aspect of the Bill is to help ex-offenders leaving prison to find a proper place in society. What further action can the Church take to prepare ex-offenders for a life outside prison so that they do not reoffend in the future?

Dame Caroline Spelman: I commend my hon. Friend for his private Member’s Bill. We are all keen to see it become law and for action to flow from it. The Bishop of Rochester is sponsoring a new national initiative called “Prison Hope” designed to increase the level of volunteering around prisons, and I have seen it working in practice in my own constituency. A charity called Yellow Ribbon provides prisons with mentors from the parish to help offenders prepare for life outside and for going straight, with a job, a place to live, clothes to wear and some money to live on.

Mr Nuttall: Will my right hon. Friend explain what measures are in place to monitor prisoners’ commitment to the Christian faith after their release from prison? It is sometimes suggested that prisoners only start attending church services in the belief and hope that it will help them gain parole. If prisoners at least know that their continued adherence to the Christian faith is being monitored, they might think twice before trying to take advantage of the genuine support offered by prison chaplains.

Dame Caroline Spelman: Prison chaplains are highly experienced and welcome all those who show an interest in matters of faith, but they have become reasonably expert at spotting those for whom it is perhaps a means to a short-term end. It is important to remember that the primary aim is not to check ex-offenders—there is a statutory process for that, not a Church process—but to encourage whatever degree of personal faith, however small or doubtful, might possibly provide a resource to help an offender go straight.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Many prisoners are veterans who have served in the Army and other armed forces. What deliberations has the right hon. Lady had with veterans charities and Army charities to ensure that specific help is given to veterans in prisons to support their spiritual or physical health?

Dame Caroline Spelman: I have not had any specific conversations with the Army charities, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We have seen from the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), whose Bill is focused on homelessness, that there is a worrying nexus or correlation in relation to veterans leaving the Army and sometimes ending up homeless or getting caught up in a life of crime. All institutions, including the Church of England, need to work together to stop that happening.

Social and Digital Media

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con)

4. What steps the Church of England has taken to reach new audiences through social and digital media. [908243]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): In the last year, the Church of England has been promoting a range of new social media projects. For example, 750,000 people watched the “Joy to the World” videos—among them, Mr Speaker, was your chaplain, which is perhaps cause alone to share a piece of birthday cake with her today. The Church is also engaging over other social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook.

Oliver Colvile: What is the Church of England doing to promote the Book of Common Prayer, especially traditional evensong, online?

Dame Caroline Spelman: It is merely four years since the 350th anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer, and I am delighted to be able to reassure my hon. Friend that the service of evensong is showing significant growth, including, interestingly enough, among students and young professionals. Obviously, every church can now easily broadcast its services over the internet, and clearly evensong and the Book of Common Prayer find a place in our society today.

Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab): Many constituents have written to me concerned about religious persecution around the world. Does the right hon. Lady agree that digital and social media, through their very interconnectedness, offer an opportunity to promote interfaith tolerance?

Dame Caroline Spelman: I could not agree more. The digital world opens the world to our own eyes, and we become aware of the suffering of those who are being persecuted for their faith, which is something that our country stands up to combat. The Church will play its role in making more of us aware of religious persecution and seeing what we can do in action and prayer to combat it.

Lead Theft

Tom Pursglove (Corby) (Con)

5. What assessment the Church of England has made of recent trends in the level of theft of lead from church buildings. [908244]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): The Cathedral and Church Buildings Division works closely with Historic England to monitor lead theft occurrences. The Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 has substantially reduced the instances of churches having their lead roofs stolen, but I know that in the diocese of Southwell and Nottingham, lead theft remains a persistent problem.

Tom Pursglove: Happy birthday, Mr Speaker. St John’s church in Corby Old Village has suffered a significant number of lead thefts in recent years, which has resulted in very high repair bills. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning those who are responsible for those thefts, and will she also congratulate the congregation on their spirited efforts to put things right?

Dame Caroline Spelman: I am sure that we all condemn thieves who steal lead from church buildings, not least because communities face very big bills for its replacement. My own parish church is in the same position. After such thefts, it becomes difficult to insure churches again.

I commend the congregation at my hon. Friend’s local church. I point them to the ChurchCare website, which shows that there are now ways of fixing lead, and marking systems for signature materials to help to deter thieves.

Low-carbon Economy

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)

8. In what way Church of England asset investments support a low-carbon economy. [908248]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): I am delighted to be able to announce that last month the Church of England received three awards at the Investment & Pensions Europe awards ceremony, including the award for climate-related risk management, which recognised, among other things, the Church of England’s comprehensive climate policy and commitment to ensuring the reduction carbon in its own portfolio.

Kerry McCarthy: I welcome the Church of England’s moves in this regard, but how does commitment to a low-carbon future sit with reports today that the Church has given the go-ahead for fracking on Church land?

Dame Caroline Spelman: It is not a question of a Church of England go-ahead. This is part of Government policy. On Tuesday, the Church released an updated briefing paper on shale gas and fracking. It does not endorse or reject the outright prospect of fracking, but fracking is acceptable to the Church only if it turns on three points: the place of the shale gas in the low-carbon economy, the adequacy and robustness of regulation, and the robustness of local planning. Of course the Church sympathises with the concerns of individuals and communities that are directly affected by it.


Christian Matheson (City of Chester) (Lab)

10. What steps the Church of England has taken to promote churches and cathedrals as tourist destinations. [908251]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): The Church of England actively promotes its 42 cathedrals as visitor centres, and together they contribute £220 million to the national economy. There are 10 million visitors to them annually, and 7,000 people are employed by them, supported by 15,000 dedicated volunteers.

Christian Matheson: Is the right hon. Lady aware of the excellent work of the clergy at Chester cathedral in increasing visitor numbers through tourist attractions, which of course has the added bonus of getting people into the cathedral for its original purpose of worship, and is there a lesson for other cathedrals to learn from this?

Dame Caroline Spelman: Yes, and I encourage all Members to visit Chester cathedral. Last year I invited the vice dean, Canon Peter Howell-Jones, to come and talk to us about how he had turned the fortunes of Chester cathedral around, making it a very attractive visitor attraction, and introducing a brewery and a falconry centre, opening the tower for tours and, intriguingly, removing the entry charge for all of that. He has now moved on to a new appointment and I wish him every success in that new cathedral.

Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con): Happy birthday, Mr Speaker. Torbay as a tourist destination is blessed with places like Cockington parish church and the historic Paignton parish church. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that those who go to a church find the Holy Spirit, particularly if they are in distress, and an easy way of finding a place for prayer, rather than a ticket desk?

Dame Caroline Spelman: Yes. I have just been talking about Chester cathedral, where visitor numbers significantly increased with the removal of the entry charge. A church has always got to be a place where we can all go to find our spiritual base and recharge our spiritual batteries and, as my hon. Friend says, meet with the Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit.


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