Church Commissioner Questions, Church Investors Group, Digital Connectivity, Environmental Taxation, Homelessness, the Holy Sepulchre, Church Infrastructure and Financial Education

17.12.07 Carolinespelman2On the 8th March the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the Rt Hon Dame Caroline Spelman MP answered written and oral questions in the House of Commons. Questions covered a range of issues including the Church Investors Group, digital connectivity, environmental taxation, homelessness, the Holy Sepulchre, church infrastructure and financial education in church schools.


Church Investors Group

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab)

  1. To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what proposals the Church Commissioners have as part of the Church Investors Group for holding businesses to account on executive pay and climate change measures. [904240]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman)

The Church Investors Group manages a total fund of £17 billion, approximately £8 billion of which represents the Church Commissioners’ assets. The commissioners have discharged their stewardship responsibilities for a long time by voting on issues including executive remuneration and climate change, and, most recently, adding to the criteria gender diversity on boards, the disclosure of company pay ratios, and the payment of at least the living wage to staff.

Diana Johnson: Will the right hon. Lady set out in a little more detail the approach that the Church Commissioners are taking to ensure that businesses take the issue of climate change very seriously?

Dame Caroline Spelman: That is one of the stewardship responsibilities, and commissioners will vote against chairs of companies if they are assessed as not having made sufficient progress in addressing climate change. I am pleased to be able to share the good news that when a resolution was filed by the Church Commissioners and the New York State Comptroller asking Exxon to report on how its business model would help to tackle climate change, 62.3% of shareholders voted in favour of it despite opposition from the board.

 

Wi-Fi and Broadband

Victoria Prentis (Banbury) (Con)

  1. To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what plans the Church of England has to make its buildings available for broadcasting (a) wi-fi and (b) broadband signal to improve connectivity in rural areas. [904241]

Michael Tomlinson (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (Con)

  1. To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what plans the Church of England has to make its buildings available for broadcasting (a) wi-fi and (b) broadband signal to improve connectivity in rural areas; and if she will make a statement. [904243]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman)

The Church of England recently signed an accord with the Government to enable churches to improve broadband and mobile connectivity, particularly in rural areas. It sets out how the Church can collaborate with providers to help to achieve that.

​Victoria Prentis: The tower of St Peter in Drayton, for example, could really help with connectivity in an area that suffers from a lack of connectivity. Could my right hon. Friend give my constituents some guidance as to how best to find their way through the planning system, to help them make an application in relation to the church?

Dame Caroline Spelman: My hon. Friend’s constituency has seen a significant improvement in broadband coverage, which is currently at 95.5%—up from 19% in 2010. However, there are undoubtedly not spots, and I encourage her to get churches to contact Church House to find out how they can avail themselves of this new opportunity. In this accord, the Church has reached an agreement with broadband providers to provide a standard contract to make that easy. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Lord Gardiner, for this initiative on working together to get our rural and urban mobile and broadband not spots covered.

Michael Tomlinson: I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for her part in securing the accord. On International Women’s Day, it seems appropriate to mention Lady St Mary church in Wareham, in my constituency, which is already installing telecommunications equipment in its—or her, I should say—tower. What more can my right hon. Friend do to encourage others to follow where Wareham and Dorset are leading?

Dame Caroline Spelman: My hon. Friend is doing a good job of demonstrating to the whole House the difference it can make when we, as Members of Parliament, make our constituents in not spots aware of this new agreement. If Members have churches with tall towers or spires, these can be used to bounce the broadband signal into existing not spots. The example, on International Women’s Day, of the church he refers to gives encouragement to all. I know that the Isle of Purbeck suffers from poorer coverage, and I would encourage him to get the churches in his constituency to apply too.

Dr David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I hear what the right hon. Lady says, but will she include in the work that the Church is doing churches that have been closed? They are often in the most rural and isolated areas, and their status is sometimes unclear. This could be a very important way in which we could make use of these buildings.

Dame Caroline Spelman: The Church of England has put its entire assets at the disposal of the Government to help crack the problem of the not spots—that includes its churches, its schools and its land, where necessary. For example, we can beam a signal from a church spire to the brow of a hill—the land may belong to the Church—down into the next village, which does not have a signal, and thereby get coverage. Those assets are all bound up in this accord.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I thank the right hon. Lady for her responses. It is really good news that the Church of England is making its buildings available for this purpose. However, does she agree that it is ​equally important that historical artefacts, which can be displayed tremendously in small parishes in rural communities that have dedicated Royal British Legion facilities, could also be displayed in buildings owned by the Church of England across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

Dame Caroline Spelman: This new accord on wi-fi and mobile coverage will make the churches a hot spot, not a not spot, in communities. That may well bring in people who want to have the benefit of a good signal and, by the way, to discover the wonderful heritage and artefacts that the churches offer. I should add that although this accord has been signed with the Church of England, the Government want to offer the same opportunity to other denominations, because the aim is universal coverage.

 

Environmental Taxation Funding

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)

  1. To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what steps are being taken to encourage churches and other religious institutions to apply for funding from environmental taxation. [904245]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman)

The national Church institutions provide advice to churches and cathedrals on what funding is available. The Church Buildings Council is also able to advise parishes on a number of other funds that are available besides the landfill communities fund, which is the principal source, such as the new plastic bag tax fund.

Mr Sheerman: Many of the churches and other religious buildings that I am aware of are relatively ignorant about the large amount of money from landfill tax that Entrust controls. If the Churches and religious institutions ​are engaged in broader community activities, they will qualify for such funds. Could that be made more widely known?

Dame Caroline Spelman: The fact that the hon. Gentleman has made us aware of that fact in the House, and that it will be recorded in Hansard, is extremely helpful. The landfill communities fund has spent £106 million on the restoration of places of worship since it was created, but the relatively new plastic bags tax fund is another source of funds for places of worship in our constituencies and goes beyond the 10-mile radius from a landfill site, which is a constraint on the landfill fund.

Jamie Stone (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): We have a large number of church buildings in Scotland, and the burden of maintaining them is onerous for the Churches that own them. Will those Churches be able to apply for similar funding north of the border?

Dame Caroline Spelman: I am not responsible for the Church in Scotland. The Church Estates Commissioner is responsible only for the Church of England, but I am perfectly prepared to make inquiries on the hon. Gentleman’s behalf with the Church of Scotland.

 

Homeless People

Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)

  1. To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what steps the Church of England is taking to support homeless people. [904247]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman)

The Church of England has many local parish-based initiatives to support the homeless. The ​Church also partners with organisations nationally, including Crisis. I think it will be of interest to Members to know that 3,000 people took shelter in churches last winter. That was 53% up on the year before, and I strongly suspect that that number will increase, given the severity of the winter that we have just experienced.

Rachael Maskell: I quote:

“For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me”.

We cannot wait until 2027 to see homelessness eliminated, and I would like to know how the Church of England will use its estate more to ensure that people have shelter in the coming year.

Dame Caroline Spelman: The hon. Lady reads that verse, which always challenges me. One day, when I meet my maker and he asks me, “When I was homeless, did you shelter me?” I have to be able to answer, and the best answer that I can give relates to the remarkable growing initiative within the Church for night shelters. During the recent cold snap, churches were often mentioned in the news as places where homeless people could shelter from the conditions, and I pay tribute to my former headmistress, who helped to set up a night shelter at Holy Trinity, Bishop’s Stortford. I went to see for myself how the church had been adapted, with a toilet and shower to make the accommodation suitable, and how volunteers prepared hot meals and were trained to look after the homeless people who came to take shelter.

(Via Parliament.UK)

 

Written Answers

Churches: Jerusalem – 904236

Asked by Eddie Hughes (Walsall North): To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what discussions the Church of England has had with the leaders of other Christian Churches on the closure of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Answered by: Dame Caroline Spelman: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre has reopened following three days of closure which left pilgrims and visitors praying in the square outside. The dispute was over a new tax policy and proposed land expropriation law.

Officials from Church House and staff at Lambeth Palace were in regular contact with the Heads of Churches Group in the City of Jerusalem through Archbishop Suheil the Anglican Archbishop of Jerusalem as the events unfolded. On the 5th of March, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster wrote a joint letter to the Israeli Ambassador in the UK, to say that both Churches believed “the measures being pressed in Jerusalem and in the Knesset, were a clear and evident threat to the status quo and that this risked undermining prospects for peaceful coexistence between communities, at a time of already heightened tensions.” Specifically, that, “the new policy would cause serious damage to the Christian presence in Jerusalem, to Christian families, and to the Christian institutions, including hospitals and schools, which serve many of the poorest people, regardless of their background.”

The Church of England and the Roman Catholic Bishops Conference in England and Wales will continue to work closely together on issues relating to Israel and Palestine. Bishops from around the world make an annual joint visit to the Holy Land as part of the Holy Land Coordination Group. The Bishop of Southwark along with the Catholic Bishops will be hosting a meeting for all Members on the 15th May, 3-4pm in Committee Room 2A to discuss and feedback the findings of their visit.

(Via Parliament.UK)

 

Finance: Education – 904237

Asked by Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde): To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what steps are being taken to roll out financial education in Church of England schools.

Answered by: Dame Caroline Spelman: In a recent submission to the Department for Education consultation on the future of PSHE education, the Just Finance Foundation set up by the Archbishop of Canterbury reported that 40% of UK adults have less than £100 in savings and struggled to manage money. The impact of potential lifelong indebtedness makes financial capability an issue of pressing importance for younger generations. The Church of England approached this through the foundation of an education programme called LifeSavers.

LifeSavers was designed to practically demonstrate­ how schools can weave financial education throughout the teaching and life of the school in a way that is sustainable. Funding has currently has enabled the scheme to operate in 70 schools with a further 50 next year. Half of the number of LifeSavers schools operate in Church of England schools and more than 15,600­­­ pupils have already taken part in LifeSavers, and over 1,200 teachers have been trained through its Continuing Professional Development (CPD) programme. ­The results seen by the Just Finance Foundation to their projects has led them to press the Department for Education to put financial education on an equal footing within the PSHE curriculum.

(Via Parliament.UK)

 

Churches: Bureaucracy – 904242

Asked by Richard Graham (Gloucester): To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what steps the Church of England is taking to reduce the level of administrative paperwork for church communities.

 

Answered by: Dame Caroline Spelman: The Church of England keeps the administrative burden on its clergy constantly under review. There is a current programme of work in process to simplify many aspects of its work. The simplification programme has already cut a great deal paperwork and moved much of its administration online. For example, applications for permission to make changes to church buildings under the Faculty process are now much easier and quicker. 30 of our 40 dioceses are now using the bespoke online application and file management system, which not only reduces the use of paper but also pre-completed forms, remembers past applications so text can be re-used, and stores key documents securely.

The Registration of Marriage Bills currently in front of both Houses also attempts to simplify the registration process for marriage by digitising aspects of the administration.

The Church of England has also developed a new Digital Communications team which supports the national, diocesan and parish level to improve communications through websites, social media and other digital channels.

Specifically, within the Diocese of Gloucester there is an imaginative vision in place which has four key themes around leadership, imagination, faith and engagement (LIFE). Liberating people for life-giving community engagement means looking at governance and administration in new ways.

(Via Parliament.UK)

 

Churches: Infrastructure – 904239

Asked by Robert Halfon (Harlow): To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what funding is available for church infrastructure projects.

 

Answered by: Dame Caroline Spelman: The Church Commissioners provide financial and administrative support to cathedrals and dioceses. It is up to each self-governing church or cathedral to raise funds for development projects, and the National Church Institutions provide advice and support.

The changing priorities and declining budget of the Heritage Lottery Fund is a matter of concern, as this is where much fundraising money comes from; officers at national level continue to work with the Heritage Lottery Fund on the specific issues churches face. The HLF is currently reviewing its strategic priorities and I would encourage all Hon. members to consider sending in a response, making the importance of churches as community assets clear.

The Church of England has been in discussions with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and HM Treasury about the current underspend of the Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme, reallocating the underspend would enable the Church to deliver a number of the recommendations in the Taylor Review.

(Via Parliament.UK)