Church Commissioner Questions: social media, telecommunications masts in parishes, FCO support for persecuted Christians, festivals in cathedrals, funding for Keighley constituency

On 25th July 2019 MPs asked questions of Rt Hon Dame Caroline Spelman MP, the Second Church Estates Commissioner. Questions were asked about social media, telecommunications masts in parishes, FCO support for persecuted Christians, festivals in cathedrals, and funding to the Keighley constituency:


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

Behaviour on Social Media

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con)
1. What steps the Church of England is taking to promote positive behaviour on social media. [912171]

Dame Caroline Spelman: The Church of England supports the Government’s aim to make this country the safest place to go online and has submitted evidence to the Government’s online harms White Paper. On 1 July, the Church launched its digital charter, which thousands of individuals around the globe have signed up to and which the Government have welcomed and support.

Daniel Kawczynski (Con): I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I am sure that she will share my serious concern about the level of hatred, intolerance and rage that appears online, especially on Twitter, sometimes with devastating consequences for young people who are very vulnerable. We have seen tragic examples of that. Will she take our appeal to the Church of England, asking that it does everything possible to work with other organisations to try to instil and inculcate in the next generation the importance of behaving normally and politely on social media?

Dame Caroline Spelman: As one of the largest providers of school education, the Church of England is encouraging all its schools to support the digital charter initiative. However, safe internet use applies to people who have faith or have no faith at all, and those of all ages. All Members of this House will be aware of the hate and hostility that many in this Chamber face on a daily basis. I urge all colleagues to consider joining up and supporting the digital charter so that we can foster a more positive experience for people online.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Can I urge the right hon. Lady to make sure that all the bishops—we seem to have a lot of them in the Church of England now—lead this campaign? I am sure that Rose, our wonderful chaplain, is going to be a very energetic Bishop of Dover. We all wish her well and will miss her, but let us get these bishops doing a bit of leadership on issues such as social media.

Dame Caroline Spelman: The bishops are all participating in social media and they are signed up to this charter. Let me share with colleagues some of the things that the charter advocates: that “what we post online” ought to be “fair and factual”; that we should engage constructively and think “the best of people”; that we should consider “the language we use”; and that we should

“use social media in a way that genuinely engages others.”

These are good principles.

Since the Speaker’s Chaplain has been mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, I say for the record that I condemn absolutely the very unpleasant article in The Spectator about the Rev. Rose, who has served this House outstandingly; I spring to her defence.

Mr Speaker: I am very grateful to the right hon. Lady. I am bound to say to her that I do not read the organ in question and therefore I am not familiar with that piece. I have no idea about it and frankly have absolutely no interest in it whatsoever. I know the Rev. Rose extremely well. She has proved to be a magnificent and enormously popular servant of this House. She will be a wonderful bishop. Dover’s gain is our loss, and we should take vicarious pride in the fact that someone valued and cherished by us is valued and cherished by the Church of England. Scribblers scribble; they matter, frankly, not a jot.

Telecommunications Masts in Parishes

Sir Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) (Con)
2. If the Church of England will expedite the process by which parishes apply to host telecommunications masts. [912172]

Dame Caroline Spelman: Following on from my right hon. Friend’s question to me last month, I raised these concerns with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and I have met with BT, EE and some of the small providers, including one from my right hon. Friend’s constituency, to discuss the challenges of providing reliable rural communications infrastructure.

Sir Desmond Swayne: Will my right hon. Friend also have a go at the Ministry of Justice and ask it to put sufficient resource into the tribunal system, so that case law can be expedited to make the new telecommunications code work?

Dame Caroline Spelman: I absolutely say yes to that. Perhaps my right hon. Friend would like to join me in going to meet the new occupants of the positions concerned. It appears clear that the new digital code tends to favour large providers, and the consequence of their preference for using existing infrastructure is a greater digital divide.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Churches, by their very nature, are historically and architecturally important, and new telecommunications masts could have an impact on buildings. What is being done to preserve these buildings and ensure that their architectural and historical value is retained?

Dame Caroline Spelman: That is a very important question, because the Church of England has put its entire infrastructure at the disposal of providers, so that we can, using towers and spires, beam a signal into notspots. Historic England is quite comfortable about listed buildings carrying small signal boosters, which are not intrusive.

FCO Support for Persecuted Christians

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab)
5. What steps the Church of England is taking to help implement the recommendations in the final report of the Bishop of Truro’s independent review for the Foreign Secretary of FCO support for persecuted Christians. [912175]

Steve Double (St Austell and Newquay) (Con)
8. What steps the Church of England is taking to help implement the recommendations in the final report of the Bishop of Truro’s independent review for the Foreign Secretary of FCO support for persecuted Christians. [912178]

David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab)
10. What steps the Church of England is taking to help implement the recommendations in the final report of the Bishop of Truro’s independent review for the Foreign Secretary of FCO support for persecuted Christians. [912180]

Dame Caroline Spelman: First, I would like to pay tribute to the outgoing Foreign Secretary for having the vision to commission a report on the support that the Foreign Office provides for persecuted Christians. It was warmly welcomed by both the Church of England and the Catholic Church, and I sincerely hope that the new Foreign Secretary will follow through on the its recommendations.

Diana Johnson: On 8 July, the now Prime Minister said:

“If I am fortunate enough to become PM, I will always prioritise protecting religious freedoms and stand up for those facing persecution.”

I know that it is very early days, but what plans does the right hon. Lady have to speak with the Prime Minister about exactly what he will do to support persecuted Christians around the world?

Dame Caroline Spelman: We have had quite a lot of opportunities at hustings to ask quite a few leadership contenders what they would do about the report on Foreign Office support for persecuted Christians, and I am pleased to say that the new Prime Minister did give a pledge to follow through on this. If hon. Members have time to read the report, they will find that it is very revealing, and it acknowledged that a great deal needs to be done to provide more support for persecuted Christians around the world.

Steve Double: One of the many important findings of the Bishop of Truro’s report is that it highlighted a lack of religious literacy at the Home Office, particularly when dealing with Christians fleeing persecution and seeking asylum. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Home Office should take heed of this recommendation, and does she believe that the Church has a role to play in improving religious literacy across Whitehall?

Dame Caroline Spelman: The report, which of course is a Foreign Office report, does reveal that lack of religious literacy, but the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster both wanted the proposal for improving religious literacy to extend to all Departments, because in a way there is hardly a Department that is not touched by the need for better religious literacy. I know that the issue of religious literacy in asylum applications has been raised in the other place and that bishops have had meetings with Ministers.

David Hanson: In a letter to me, the Government have indicated that they will look at sanctions against those who persecute Christians, or indeed those of other religious beliefs. Has the right hon. Lady had an opportunity to discuss with the Government what form those sanctions might take?

Dame Caroline Spelman: I have not discussed that with the new incumbent at the Foreign Office just yet, but I think that we need to go through all these serious recommendations that were made through the excellent work of the Bishop of Truro. For example, one of the recommendations, which I commend to the House, is a UN resolution to better protect Christians in the middle east and north Africa, whose population has dwindled from 20% to just 4%.

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): Last week, a number of MPs were the target of some really unpleasant social media attacks, simply for speaking and then voting in a conscience vote in this place according to their biblical beliefs on marriage and the sanctity of life. What is the Church of England doing to uphold freedom of speech and religion for Christians in the UK? This is a growing concern for thousands of Christians in this country today.

Dame Caroline Spelman: The hon. Lady might not have heard the answer to an earlier question, but actually the Church has seized the initiative by launching its own guidelines on safe and positive conduct on the internet. I commend that guidance to all Members present. It is certainly important that religious difference is respected. Dialogue is a two-way business, but as the Archbishop of Canterbury has said, the Church needs to model disagreeing well.

Festivals in Cathedrals

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con)
7. What recent assessment the Church of England has made of the effect of holding festivals in cathedrals on the number of visiting (a) worshippers and (b) non-worshippers. [912177]

Dame Caroline Spelman: Cathedrals all run a series of events and religious festivals throughout the year, which vary in size, and collectively they host over 11 million visitors a year. Lichfield cathedral, in my hon. Friend’s constituency, is an outstanding example of that and welcomes around 120,000 people a year to its excellent exhibitions.

Michael Fabricant: I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for her answer. She will know that the Lichfield festival itself attracts over 50,000 people to the city of Lichfield and brings at least 10,000 people into the cathedral itself, so what action is her Department taking to encourage other cathedrals to do similar initiatives?

Dame Caroline Spelman: I find it an interesting idea that I have a Department, but the Church of England will seize the initiative next year; it is a great year for anniversaries in the Church of England, with the Pilgrim Fathers and Thomas à Becket, and it will be a year of cathedrals. The Association of English Cathedrals will provide a pilgrimage passport for those at home and abroad who want to visit as many cathedrals as possible.

Strategic Development Funding: Keighley

John Grogan (Keighley) (Lab)
9. Whether the Church of England plans to allocate strategic development funding to Keighley constituency. [912179]

Dame Caroline Spelman: Mr Speaker, since this is the last question, I think, for me today I want to thank the parliamentary division in Church House and Simon Stanley in particular, as I do not yet know if I will be renewed in post; I sincerely hope so, but I imagine this is not high on the list of the Prime Minister’s priorities at the moment. I am delighted to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman that the Archbishops’ Council recently awarded funding totalling over £1 million for Leeds diocese, £490,000 of which will be awarded to the Anglican churches in Keighley.

John Grogan: I feel that I will speak for many in saying I hope that the right hon. Member is reappointed by the Prime Minister by lunchtime, but further to her reply, does she agree that the work of the united parishes of Keighley is perhaps one of the finest examples in the north of England of faith in action, along with the work of the Catholic Good Shepherd Centre, the Salvation Army and, indeed, Keighley’s mosques?

Dame Caroline Spelman: In the diocese of Leeds, Bowling, Idle, Great Horton and Clayton have a strong focus on deprived areas and groups that the Church of England found hard to reach, and that is why this large sum of money has been conferred by the Church Commissioners to the diocese.


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