HC Deb 12 April 1988 vol 131 cc133-8 11.22 pm
Mr. Michael Alison (Second Church Estates Commissioner, Representing Church Commissioners)

I beg to move, That the Church Commissioners (Assistance for Priority Areas) 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.

The general aim of this Measure is twofold. First, it updates some existing powers of the Church Commissioners so that they may assist the dioceses with finance for church buildings in any area where social or economic changes have taken place. "Church buildings" here means buildings of any description provided or adapted for church purposes, and could include, for example, facilities for youth clubs or even sheltered workshops or a day nursery or some other such provision. Secondly, it gives the Commissioners separate, discretionary powers to make payment to the Church urban fund, which has been established by the Church of England to target financial assistance to urban priority areas.

As regards the church building provisions, the Commissioners currently have the power under the New Housing Areas (Church Buildings) Measure 1954 to make payment out of their general fund towards suitable buildings for use by or in connection with the Church in areas of substantial housing development.

That Measure reflected the special need for such buildings in the aftermath of the second world war, when local sources of finance were unable to keep pace with the demand for such buildings created by the huge mushroom growth in new building. This power was exercisable in areas of recent housing development, which the 1954 measure defined as the provision of new dwellings after I April 1945. That is well over 40 years ago now. Wartime developments also qualified if the Commissioners were satisfied that the lack of suitable Church buildings was due to wartime conditions.

The 1954 definition of recent housing developments has been blunted by the passage of time, since it now includes developments which took place, as I have said, over 40 years ago. So clause 1(1) of the new Measure substitutes a new definition which limits eligible developments to those completed during the period of 25 years preceding a request to the Commissioners for assistance under the 1954 Measure, thereby telescoping the eligible time frame.

Clause 1(2) is a transitional provision to ensure that requests for assistance received by the Commissioners before clause 1 of the Measure before us tonight comes into force will be dealt with by them in accordance with the definition as originally enacted.

The Commissioners have become increasingly aware that the concentration of the 1954 Measure on new housing areas touched only a part of the problems facing us today. Social and economic changes on their own can create a new need for suitable Church buildings of the kind I have already described. This point was well made in the report of the Archibishop's commission on urban priority areas.

Accordingly, clause 2(1) gives power to the Commissioners to make grants or loans for or towards the provision of Church buildings in any area where there are not enough suitable Church buildings because of social or economic changes in that area. And these, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will be glad to hear, need not be limited to urban priority areas. The rural community—my right hon. and hon. Friends and right hon. and hon. Gentlemen will be glad to know that the rural environment has not been lost sight of in this Measure—will also be eligible.

Clause 2(2) supplements this by incorporating certain provisions of the 1954 Measure, the most notable of which is section 1(5), which defines the provision of Church buildings as including their acquisition, or the acquisition of sites for them, their erection, enlargement or improvement, and the conversion or adaptation of any buildings for use as Church buildings.

The 1954 Measure was directed to the provision of buildings wholly or mainly used for purposes connected with the Church of England. By section 2(1) of the Sharing of Church Buildings Measure 1970, the powers under the 1954 Measure were extended to Church buildings affected by a sharing agreement and owned by the Church of England only, or jointly with another Church. Clause 2(3) extends, as it were, the ecumenical powers in subsection (1) in a similar way.

Clause 3 authorises the Commissioners to make payments to the Church urban fund. Subsection (2) describes in more detail the ways in which money may now be made available, and corresponds to the power that the Commissioners have under section 1(4) of the 1954 Measure.

The establishment of the Church urban fund was recommended in the report of the Archbishop's commission on urban priority areas—which was the commission that authorised, and indeed set up and produced, the familiar book "Faith in the City"—as a means for creating a financial mechanism to target financial assistance from the Church on urban priority areas. It was recognised that most of the fund's resources would have to be obtained through a national appeal. Indeed, the Church is shortly to embark upon an appeal to raise no less than £18 million for the Church urban fund. However, the report also recommended that the fund's resources should include an annual contribution from the Church Commissioners.

The House will know that the Church Commissioners' power to spend money is regulated by the Church Commissioners Measure 1947 which established the Church Commissioners and which specified what they could spend money on, principally the care of souls. If they step outside the prescribed limits or areas of expenditure they have to come to the House for authority to do so, which is the purpose of the Measure before us.

The Church urban fund has already been incorporated as a company, registered under the Companies Act 1985 and limited by guarantee. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the chairman of the directors, who are referred to as trustees. The vice-chairman is Sir Richard O'Brien, who is chairman of the Archbishop's commission. There are nine other trustees, of whom three are nominated by the Church Commissioners.

The prime task of the fund is to contribute to urban renewal by helping local people to plan and implement ways of meeting their own spiritual, social and economic needs. The Church is well placed, because it already has a considerable presence in urban priority areas. The fund will work ecumenically and promote partnership with other voluntary organisations, local authorities and statutory bodies. It aims to generate spending of £4 million a year until at least the year 2010. The Commissioners hope to contribute £1 million a year to the fund. They are confident that this will not prejudice their existing commitments or their basic object, which is the financial support of the clergy.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

Can my right hon. Friend explain whether "Faith in the City" means that the Church will be selling its agricultural holdings in order to invest in the new urban fund?

Mr. Alison

The resources for the £1 million which the Commissioners hope to contribute to the Church urban fund will come out of the Church Commissioners' general fund, which is a pool of income derived from their investments. They will not be selling any investment to effect the £1 million contribution which they are hoping to make.

There are one or two technical provisions which I should mention. Clause 4 is largely technical. Subsection (1) deals with citation; subsection (2) contains definitions; subsection (3) provides for the Measure to come into force on a day or days to be appointed by the archbishops jointly. Now that the Church urban fund has been incorporated, there is no reason why the Measure should not be brought into force at the earliest possible date—subject, of course, to the House approving it.

Both strands of the Measure are a natural development of the Commissioners' historic role to help the clergy, especially in poor parishes. The Measure gives an opportunity to take further practical action for the Church in areas of economic stress, whether in town or country. The Commissioners are happy to be able to help in this way and are confident, although not complacent, about their ability to find money for it from the general fund.

I hope, therefore, that the House will approve the Measure.

11.33 pm
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

The Measure is most welcome. As the right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) knows, the Church has been waiting for us in this place to have the opportunity to debate it, having itself resolved, with no opposition from bishops, clergy or laity, that the Measure was a way of responding to one of the calls in "Faith in the City". Sometimes the Church is criticised for interfering in matters of the state. This is archetypally not a Measure which seeks to do that. It is archetypally a Measure whereby the Church is seeking to put its own house in order, to redirect its own resources and to re-order its own affairs. The approval of the House is needed so that the Commissioners can make their contribution on behalf, as it were, of the whole established Church and, out of its accumulated funds, to the Church urban fund, which will be launched on 20 April, as the right hon. Member for Selby said.

The launch date is near and the two archbishops have asked that in all churches on the following weekend there will be an appeal for all dioceses to contribute to the fund. The large contributions to the fund will come from within the Church—led, supported and directed by the bishops, or their nominees in the diocese of the Church of England—and the grant funding of projects to assist the Church's mission in urban areas will then be made as a result of applications being submitted and carefully processed with the approval of the bishops.

This will not be an independent body working within the Church. It will be an essential method by which the Church will fund its mission in the urban areas in ways which those concerned consider to be appropriate. The procedures for doing this have been carefully prepared to ensure that applications for grant most appropriately help the work of the Church.

This is an important Measure to the Church, and in saying that I should perhaps declare my interest as the only hon. Member on the committee appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury to continue to advise him on the implementation of the document "Faith in the City", as it applies to both the Church and the nation.

The key conclusion, in fundamental terms, in that report as it addressed itself to the Church was that the Church had been failing in particular to address the concerns and needs, both social and spiritual, of many urban areas. Many such areas have seen a change of pattern. People have moved out of the old city centres and have created new communities for themselves in peripheral estates. But the Church leadership has remained; the parish priests are still there, often some of the few professionals living in the places where they work.

They have often been left with the feeling of having old plant—old churches, old equipment and old resources—and without the wherewithal, because they have small, often poor, congregations, who may be unable to rise to the challenge of meeting the demands and costs of the Church in the 1980s and beyond. If the Church, in an ecumenical way, as the Measure would provide, is to become renewed, it must in many instances have renewed plant, resources, strategy and enthusiasm.

Another method which "Faith in the City" identified as appropriate to help the Church was for the historic resources of the Church to be diverted away from areas where they had accumulated but had little applied use, apart from creating income on capital. The report did not see that historic wealth being at present applied in ways which allowed the Church to go about its work, remembering that the work of mission and support is expensive and must be funded.

Many eminent members of the Church, lay and ordained, have been involved in the preparation of this Measure, and it is noteworthy that Sir Richard O'Brien is the vice-chairman of the fund. Having previously been chairman of the Commission, he has been committed, as a financier and leader of commerce and investment policy, to making sure that the Church does its job in a professional and competent way. His advice and that of many others has been sought, as a result of which this Measure has come into being.

There was no opposition in the Synod. There was agreement in the Committee of both Houses that met to consider whether it was expedient for this matter to come before the House. By an overwhelming majority, it decided that now was the time and there could be no delay.

I hope that the Measure will go through, and that there will be no opposition to it. I hope that we shall not be distracted by peripheral issues. The Church wants to be effective in the urban areas of Britain, and to set its own house in order. Like many other hon. Members, I represent a constituency in inner urban Britain, with its dereliction and decay—both secular, and, apparently, religious. The sooner those who are working for the renewal of urban Britain are aided by having the resources to go about their work, the more likely will be physical and structural renewal, and the renewal of communities, their morality and the social fabric of inner Britain.

The sooner also will be the renewal of the sort of hope that has long since gone for many who live in our urban areas and which, were it not for the Church, would have been extinguished altogether. The flames of that hope had become embers in many places. Now is the chance for the House, given that the Church has decided it can move ahead, to fan those embers back into flame and renew the practical application of what the Christian message is meant to be in the urban areas of Britain in the 1980s, and beyond.

11.42 pm
Mr. Alistair Burt (Bury, North)

I wish to say a few words in strong support of the Measure. It provides a welcome opportunity to look again at "Faith in the City", a document which was open to easy misinterpretation, partly because it touched on political matters, and so fell easy prey to the tabloid press, which sought only the sensational parts of it.

The document was important because it was a sensitive understanding by the Church of its own problems in the inner cities. It confronted them honestly and straightforwardly, and looked hard at its own flaws. It is a shame that that aspect of the report was never really brought out in subsequent discussions of it. I disagree strongly with some of its political conclusions and solutions, but it is to be strongly commended for its self-criticism of the work the Church was doing in the inner cities.

There are some shining examples of Church growth in our poor areas, mostly depending on inspired leadership and strong biblical teaching. There are also examples of failure by the Church in the inner cities. If the Measure can help to build up successes and prevent failures, it is to be warmly welcomed. The removal of Jesus Christ from the heart of our cities is as dire as his removal from our own lives. If the Measure can help to deal with that, too, it is to be welcomed.

The Church must ensure that its work, whether in cities, towns or inner cities always puts God first. It must remember that its real renewal, as the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said, is based around its biblical teaching, not its social policies and skills. It is true that the one is a tool for the other, but the Church must always remember that God's work comes first, because that is the engine of growth and renewal in the Church.

The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey will remember that when he and I were in South Africa two years ago with the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike), we went to a church service in Alexandra, one of the townships outside Johannesburg. In terms of material deprivation and poverty, that place outstripped anything that our inner cities can produce. Yet the church was filled to capacity on the morning we went to it. No political sermon was preached; there was simply an immense feeling of the love of Jesus Christ and of God. It filled the people in that church, and the amount of good work engendered by that spirit was immense. There was no question there of using resources for one particular purpose and putting politics before God. God was at the heart of it, and everything flowed from that.

I quote that example to remind the Church in this country of exactly the same thing. If God is in the right place, and if the spiritual leadership and the biblical teaching of the Church are right, the resources can help to build up the atmosphere and the work of the Church, and that will have extra influence on the inner cities around the Church. If we get that the wrong way round and concentrate too much on the social and political side and move people too far away from God, they will not make the right connections and the right decisions.

The Measure will he sensibly used by the Church in the inner cities to do exactly what is needed. It has long been necessary and I am glad to see it. I am certain that the Measure will be used in the right way by the Church and the House should warmly welcome it.

11.45 pm
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

Clement Attlee gave Members of the House the advice that in debate, whenever possible, they should say yes or no, or admit that they had nothing new to contribute. Having listened to the contribution by the Second Church Estates Commissioner, I am happy to say that I have nothing new to contribute to the debate, except to say that I hope we approve the Measure. After all, it may be the last non-contentious issue for some time that we receive from the Church.

11.46 pm
Dr. John G. Blackburn (Dudley, West)

I have been honoured by the House by being given the opportunity to serve for the past nine years on the Ecclesiastical Committee of the House and I have always taken a great interest in the spiritual welfare of the Church and in the message that it presents to the country at large.

Like hon. Members in all parts of the House, at times I was challenged and confused by the document that is at the centre of our debate—"Faith in the City". Having examined it at great length, I think that the House must applaud the fact that for the first time in many years the Church has stopped, has publicly examined itself and has produced the method by which we should go forward well into the next century. My right hon. Friend outlined that when he opened the debate.

It is true beyond words that today Britain needs a spiritual awakening, and that must not be marred or tarnished in any way by the social and other aspects of the Measure. The Measure is expedient and in the quietness of the House tonight we are taking a most historic step that will have a tremendous impact on the spiritual values of the country. It is my prayer that it will bring new life and a new vision of Jesus Christ. I wish the Measure godspeed.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Church Commissioners (Assistance for Priority Areas) 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.