HC Deb 11 March 1980 vol 980 cc1293-6

10.3 pm

Mr. William van Straubenzee (Wokingham)

I beg to move, That the Deaconesses and Lay Workers (Pensions) Measure, passed by the General Synod of the Church of England, be presented to Her Majesty for Her Royal Assent in the form in which the said Measure was laid before Parliament. I shall be brief without being discourteous to the House. This is a short, and I hope non-controversial, measure that will bring an element of justice to a small but worthy group of people who are in full-time work with the Church of England. It will primarily benefit those who have already retired. Consent has already been given to this measure by the House of Lords.

Many of those who will be affected have already retired on pensions that, the House will agree, are totally inadequate in modern times. The measure is broadly analogous to one that was debated some days ago concerning payments to former hon. Members who were not members of our pension scheme.

The effect of this on those deaconesses and lay workers currently in service is not so dramatic, largely because of the great response from the Church in recent years, having recognised its responsibility for those in full-time work. Nevertheless, the effect of the measure is beneficial in three ways to such people. First, it enhances their initial pension entitlement modestly. Secondly, it provides for increases not at present provided for; and that is most important in this age of inflation. Thirdly, it introduces entitlement to a lump sum payment. Therefore, although the measure will largely be of greatest benefit to those who have already retired, it still makes not insubstantial improvements for those in service now.

I wish to make it clear that the term "lay worker" is defined in the canons. It does not mean "lay readers" who are technically readers. I make that clear in case it is the subject of misunderstanding.

At present there are about 600 deaconesses and lay workers in service in the Church of England and, in addition, there are about 350 who, after a lifetime of service, are now retired and entitled only to a minimum pension as of right. Perhaps this one example will give an illustration. One deaconess, now aged 85, retired in 1960 after 42 years of service. Her existing pension as of right is £52 a year only. It is true that there are augmentation grants from charitable funds, but even so the present total of her pension in respect of 42 years' service is £413 a year. The effect of this measure—if the House so decides—will be to raise her pension as of right from 1 April to £2,000 a year. I am not suggesting that this is a princely sum, but it is a very different outlook from her present woefully inadequate provision as of right, for a deaconess who had given 42 years loyal service to the Church.

The cost to the central fund of the Church Commissioners will be about £600,000 a year. There will be certain savings to charitable funds, largely but not exclusively administered by the dioceses which have been augmenting the figures that I have quoted.

The House may want to know whether the Church of England has itself approved this measure. Final approval was given by the unanimous consent of members of the General Synod, present and voting. The measure has the total mind of the Church of England behind it. As is right and proper, the Church Commissioners, who are answerable to this House, cannot spend their moneys in the way outlined without the express consent of Parliament. That is the object of my coming to the House today with this explanation of the measure.

10.9 pm

Mr. Frank R. White (Bury and Rad-cliffe)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) on the manner in which he presented the measure. The official Opposition welcome the initiative of the General Synod in this matter and give the measure their full support.

I find myself in a rather elevated position this evening having been gently pushed from the Back Benches where I last spoke on Church matters. I carry now the same conviction that I had then —that this House should demonstrate very serious and real concern before disagreeing with or refusing any measure that has been passed by the General Synod. I say that without in any way wishing to undermine the responsibility of the House, but rather more as giving full recognition to the unique, broad-based level of involvement and discussion that the elected Church Synod itself brings to its deliberations and decisions. Happily, I do not believe that the measure before us will be the subject of a Division.

As the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) said, in November 1977, during the General Synod debate on the motion that preceded the measure before us, it was stated that it was important that the Synod demonstrated the will to put right what appeared to be a manifest injustice—an injustice in the light of the disparity between one group of retired Christian professional workers and another group. I agree fully with that statement. Whatever detailed considerations hon. Members have towards the measure, the removal of that injustice must be our clear and united objective.

The hon. Gentleman has given an adequate account of the need for the measure, especially in view of the benefits paid to clergy and incumbents under the 1961 measure, which does not apply to deaconesses and licensed lay workers. I shall not test the patience of the House by repetition.

At a time when much debate is taking place about employment legislation, both in the country and in Standing Committee, it is more than welcome to see positive employment practices taking the place of outdated misconception. It is surely a misconception that, after a lifetime of work in the ministry of the Church, an individual should receive financial support during retirement on the basis of grants from charitable funds. That is undignified, and all the more so when one considers that in industry and commerce it is now considered, and basically accepted, that pensions are deferred pay. They are not a bonus or a charitable donation from a grateful employer, albeit the Church in this case. They are paid as of right, and as a direct consequence of employers seeking to establish good employee relations.

We welcome the provision for pension benefits contained in the measure, especially the basic right of qualification. Of special interest to us, and an example worthy of repetition by other employers outside the Church, is the provision for tax-free lump sum payments on retirement. That measure allows for those payments based on length of service up to a maximum slightly in excess of £3,000. In the immediate post-retirement period that will greatly assist in domestic resettlement problems.

I welcome the fact that, as a result of the measure securing the approval of the House, about 350 deaconesses and licensed lay workers at present in retirement will receive substantial increases in pension benefits as outlined by the hon. Gentleman. In addition, 600 at present in service can look forward to a more secure retirement.

I trust that the improved conditions will assist in encouraging new entry into the Church. I assure the House that, despite the narrowness of my majority at the last election, I speak with no pecuniary interest in the measure.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to impress upon the Church Commissioners and the pension board the desirability of ensuring that pension benefits and lump sum payments maintain their purchasing power, especially during periods of high inflation. The House will appreciate that indexing of benefits is not the most fashionable phrase to use these days. I am sure that we all share a common concern that those on low income benefits should not suffer unduly.

In July and November 1979, the General Synod approved the measure, without amendment, by unanimous consent. I commend it to my hon. Friends, and to the House, for their support.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Deaconesses and Lay Workers (Pensions) Measure, passed by the General Synod of the Church of England, be presented to Her Majesty for Her Royal Assent in the form in which the said Measure was laid before Parliament.