Church Commissioner questions: religious freedom, schools, recycling, thefts from churches

On 26th April 2018, questions were put in the House of Commons to Rt Hon Dame Caroline Spelman MP, representing the Church Commissioners. Dame Caroline was asked by MPs about freedom of religion in the Commonwealth, recycling, rural schools, out of school education settings and thefts from churches. A full transcript is below.

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

Freedom of Religion or Belief

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con)

  1. To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what discussions the Church of England had at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2018 on freedom of religion or belief; and if she will make a statement. [904962]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Commonwealth initiative for freedom of religion or belief convened a two-day summit at Lambeth Palace ​last week involving 40 parliamentarians and religious leaders from 11 Commonwealth countries. The aim of the meeting was to look at ways in which parliamentarians and leaders from across the Commonwealth could champion freedom of religion or belief.

Martin Vickers: That is encouraging to hear. The Commonwealth and the Church of England have similar values where they overlap. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the two organisations continue to work in unison to influence Governments in countries where freedom of religion is not respected?

Dame Caroline Spelman: The geography of the Anglican Communion and the Commonwealth do overlap; in fact the communion is larger still. The charter of the Commonwealth contains a commitment to freedom of religion or belief, but the truth is that not all members abide by that. The personal relationships built at Commonwealth meetings and across the Anglican Communion mean that faith communities must advocate for the same global standards for freedom of religion and belief.

Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab): It is sad to see Commonwealth countries on Open Doors UK’s world watch list of Christian persecution around the world. What further can we do following the Heads of Government conference to promote tolerance between people of faith and none in the long term in the Commonwealth?

Dame Caroline Spelman: A number of actions were agreed at that seminar. For Lambeth Palace and the Anglican Communion, freedom of religion remains an important priority. Every time the Archbishop of Canterbury visits a Commonwealth country where there is a problem you can be sure, Mr Speaker, that he will raise it.

Part of the initiative in the Commonwealth involves developing a toolkit that Members of Parliament can use to champion issues of freedom of religion and belief in our constituencies.

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): Is the Church of England aware of deeply disturbing reports that restrictions on the freedom of Christians to practise their faith have severely increased this year in China, including a ban on taking children under 18 to church? If so, what step is the Church taking on this?

Dame Caroline Spelman: The Church of England is very aware of those reports, and China is a priority for the Archbishop of Canterbury. He hopes to be able to take up the invitation to go there, when I am sure he will raise these issues. Even before such a visit, Church officials are engaging with Chinese officials to discover the implications of the new five-year plan on religious engagement and raise concerns where it appears that Christians are being oppressed.

Circular Economy

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

  1. To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what assessment the Church of England has made of the potential merits of the circular economy. [904964]

Dame Caroline Spelman: The Church has for many years been involved in recycling, reuse and repurposing of materials. It completely embraces the circular economy. Most recently, the Church’s environment programme ran a “Lent Plastic Challenge”, which was supported by 40 MPs. It produced a calendar of things we could do on each of the 40 days of Lent, and it was helpful to all who took part to see how much we can do individually.

Rachael Maskell: Last weekend I attended the launch of the Catholic diocese of Middlesbrough’s book about how we can live simpler lives. What is the Church of England doing to further its reach into communities to help people to change their behaviours and lifestyles?

Dame Caroline Spelman:  As I have said, all of us as MPs had a golden opportunity during Lent to use the calendar produced by the Church of England, which was available to all Church members and was very popular throughout the Church community. Every day it set a challenge to each of us to do something to change the way we live our lives so that they are simpler and embrace the circular economy. Within the Church, a number of churches embrace the concept completely, with 860 participating as eco-churches in the Big Church Switch, for example, which is looking at ways to ensure that the energy we use comes from renewable sources. We promote the circular economy right across the Church of England.

Rural Schools

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab)

  1. To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what plans the Church of England has to support rural schools. [904965]

Dame Caroline Spelman: Yesterday I hosted a reception to highlight the interest of the Church of England in working with the Government and others to support a viable future for rural schools. The Church has published “Embracing Change: Rural and Small Schools”, which I commend to the House.

Helen Goodman: The Church obviously should be taking a long-term, if not eternal, approach on rural schools. People in Startforth were disappointed when a brief dip in performance led to the closure of that Church school, so in future will the Church take into account the significance of rural schools as community assets?

Dame Caroline Spelman: The Church of England has 4,700 schools, of which 53% are in rural areas. That often presents challenges—for example, the difficulty in recruiting and retaining teachers—but the report that I have referred to highlights those challenges. In addition to that report, we have a Church of England educational leadership foundation, which is designed to encourage and retain teachers, to ensure that children in small rural schools do not suffer as a result of the shortage of teachers.

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

Mr Speaker: The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) can bang on about out-of-school educational settings instead.

Out-of-school Education

Michelle Donelan (Chippenham) (Con)

  1. To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what assessment the Church of England has made of the Government response to the consultation on out-of-school education settings. [904966]

Dame Caroline Spelman: Following the publication of the findings from the Department for Education’s consultation on out-of-school settings, I am pleased to say that the Government have sharpened their focus on tackling risks associated with unregulated out-of-school settings and have come up with proposals that are far more proportionate for use. The Church of England has welcomed this.

Michelle Donelan: Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is essential that the Government combat radicalisation, but in a way that does not mean the state encroaching on the realm of religion or crossing the Rubicon in a way that could one day lead to the assessment of Sunday schools and the like?

Dame Caroline Spelman: Of course, the Church of England completely underlines the importance of tackling radicalisation, but the original proposals might have caught education in out-of-school settings such as Sunday schools, where teachers are subject to Criminal Records Bureau checks—as everybody in this place who has ever taught in one will know—and domestic premises used to teach children out of school have to be inspected too. The new proposals are proportionate to use and have been welcomed by the Church of England.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): The right hon. Lady knows that I have been a champion of forest schools and out-of-school education with the John Clare Trust over many years. Even more worrying is out-of-school education in foreign parts. Many churches support orphanages around the world, but very often they are not orphanages and are not for orphans, but are used in child trafficking. Many churches support these so-called orphanages, so will she look into that?

Dame Caroline Spelman: The hon. Gentleman raises a serious point. I heard the broadcast of the “Sunday” programme about an Australian Senator who is pioneering an amendment to Australia’s modern-day slavery legislation to ensure that the whole world wises up to the risks associated with donating to orphanages that might be a scam or a front for children who are subsequently trafficked, or certainly put at risk. All of us need to be aware in our dealings with our constituents and their churches of the need to look carefully at where those resources go and how they are used.

Protection of Churches

Grahame Morris (Easington) (Lab)

  1. To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what recent discussions the Church of England has had with local authorities on protecting historic church buildings and settings. [904971]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): The Church works closely with Historic England and other bodies to provide advice and guidance for local authorities. In most cases, good and sensible decisions are made. Disputes do arise in a small number of cases, such as at my own parish church, where the argument was eventually won that we could use a lead substitute product after the lead had been stolen twice.

Grahame Morris: I am grateful for that answer. St Mary the Virgin’s church in my constituency is a rare and beautiful example of one of the finest small Anglo-Saxon churches in the country, going back to the 7th century. It is threatened by a large-scale development and it has fallen to Historic England to submit objections. Historic England indicates that the proposals would have a harmful impact on the setting of the church and, indeed, of Seaham Hall. Is there a role for the Church of England or the Church Commissioners to object to such developments in order to protect the setting of churches of historical importance?

Dame Caroline Spelman: I understand that the local authority has taken a decision that would adversely affect the setting of this beautiful grade I listed Anglo-Saxon church. I will be in discussion with the diocese about what support we can provide as a stakeholder in this important decision.

Theft from Churches

Sir David Amess (Southend West) (Con)

  1. To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what recent discussions the Church of England has had with the Government and the insurance industry on the theft of metal, stone and decorative objects from churches. [904972]

John Grogan (Keighley) (Lab)

  1. To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what recent discussions the Church of England has had with the Government and the insurance industry on the theft of metal, stone and decorative objects from churches. [904973]

Dame Caroline Spelman: The Church is concerned about the significant rise in metal theft, which is not unconnected to the fact that the price of lead and copper on world markets has risen by 65%. Our advice to churches follows that of the police, which is to do target hardening wherever possible. There are a certain number of practical suggestions that I can provide that may assist with this inquiry.

Sir David Amess: While all thefts should be condemned, it is particularly despicable to steal from churches and their graveyards. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what impact the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013—pioneered by Sir Richard Ottaway—has had on the situation?

Dame Caroline Spelman: There is no question but that the private Member’s Bill promoted by our dear friend and former Member of this House gave rise to a ​change in Government legislation on metal theft. However, there are new thefts—not just of metal, but of stone, ornamental artefacts and even, recently, some 12th-century keys. This is why I have joined the revised all-party parliamentary group on metal and stone theft, and I encourage other Members to support its work in Parliament.

John Grogan:  Will the Church Commissioners urge Ministers to introduce a scrap stone Act along the lines of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013, which improved councils’ regulation of metal and stopped the trading of scrap metal in cash?

Dame Caroline Spelman:  Just as with metal, it is very important to mark artefacts with smart water, dye or in other ways where possible, so that thieves may be caught and ultimately prosecuted when artefacts turn up in dealers’ yards. The APPG will be involved in this work and the Church of England will actively support it.



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