HC Deb 21 July 1993 vol 229 cc469-78 11.53 pm
Mr. Michael Alison (Selby)

I beg to move, That the Incumbents (Vacation of Benefices) (Amendment) 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. At this comparatively late hour, I need not detain the House too long in advocating the measure. It is both reasonable and desirable and, for the Church of England in its official councils, quite uncontroversial. The measure received final approval in the General Synod last year—it was unanimously approved in all three Houses.

That is to say that no bishop, no clergyman and no layman voted against it. The voting figures are on page 7 of the Ecclesiastical Committee's report now before the House, if anyone wants to look at them.

I have stressed the unusual unanimity because the measure touches on sensitive issues in the life of the Church of England. It deals with cases in which a major problem arises in a parish not because of any grave misconduct on the part of the rector or vicar—the Church of England has separate disciplinary procedures for dealing with that contingency—but because the rector or vicar has a serious health problem or there is a serious breakdown in the relationship between him and the parishioners.

In such cases, where the work of a parish church cannot go forward effectively, some sort of action has to be taken to resolve the problem. The synod attempted to set up a mechanism for doing that in the parent of the present measure as long ago as 1977. The 1977 measure laid down a carefully formulated procedure and provided for a judicial tribunal to investigate the breakdown and recommend what should be done to resolve it. The earlier measure envisaged the possibility, as a last resort, of recommending that the rector or vicar should be required to leave the parish. Hence my reference to the sensitivity of the matter that we are considering tonight.

However, the original 1977 measure, like other attempts to tackle difficult and sensitive problems which have not been dealt with in a formal way before, was found to have some shortcomings. Hence the amendment measure that we are considering tonight, which seeks to remedy the earlier defects. I shall give just a few examples.

The earlier measure proved unsatisfactory on compensation, about which I shall say a few words presently. Above all, the 1977 measure did not lay sufficient emphasis on seeking to secure a preliminary reconciliation between the rector or vicar and the parishioners in cases where the relationship between them had broken down and before invoking more formal judicial procedures. That shortcoming is the first matter which the amending measure before us tonight seeks to remedy.

The amending measure provides that before any formal legal process is set in motion, there should be a carefully structured reconciliation process following a code of practice laid down by the House of Bishops. The bishops have already published a draft of the code, which is set out in the Ecclesiastical Committee's report before the House tonight but which the bishops have expanded a little to take on board some of the suggestions made by our colleagues in the House who are members of the Ecclesiastical Committee.

Among other things, the code provides for a third party who is acceptable to both sides, so to speak, to act as a conciliator, and for the parties to have a trial period of working together, where that seems both feasible and desirable. Only after that conciliation has failed can the more formal tribunal procedure, with various penalties up to enforced resignation, be invoked. Then the procedure can be invoked only if the relevant bishop approves—that is, it is at his discretion. The penalties recommended by the tribunal can in turn be imposed only if the bishop, at his discretion, authorises it.

The measure improves the procedure under the 1977 legislation in several further important ways. One example is that, in ill-health or disability cases, the tribunal will now have power to direct that the rector or vicar involved should have a proper medical examination and to draw the appropriate inferences if he refuses. Another example is that, in cases of the breakdown of the relationship between the rector or vicar and parishioners, it will now be possible to abort or withdraw the formal proceedings, even after they have started, if there is any hope of more informal reconciliation procedures taking effect. Under the 1977 measure, once a procedure had reached a certain stage, the only way to stop it was the resignation of the rector or vicar. To that extent, we have made things very much more flexible and sensitive.

Three points caused some concern or dissent among a minority of our colleagues on the Ecclesiastical Committee. First, some colleagues—including, I think, my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. Evans)—thought that the Church of England should change to a system more like the law on unfair dismissal which applies to secular employment, and that the clergy should have clear performance criteria with dismissal as the penalty if they fail to meet those objective requirements.

I concede that it is important that everything possible be done to help the clergy to work effectively, and to work to objective standards if possible. Only a few days ago, the General Synod passed a motion asking the bishops to implement a system of regular review and work development for all clergy, and a group has been set up to examine the terms and conditions of service which might apply to them. However, most hon. Members will agree that the work that a clergyman does is of a special kind, and depends for its effectiveness on the quality of his relationship with his parishioners.

The parishioners are not employees of the Church; they are partners, with the clergy, in carrying forward the Church's mission. Thus, cases where the relationship breaks down are not on all fours with cases where an employee is dismissed. What is needed is a procedure for putting a disrupted relationship back on its feet, if possible. It is only as a very last resort that it should be deemed irreparable and the clergyman concerned required by the bishop to leave the parish.

One or two colleagues on the Committee were concerned about the compensation provisions in the measure. When a vicar or rector has resigned on grounds of ill health, or has been required to resign on those grounds, he receives the same pension and other benefits as any other member of the clergy who retires owing to ill health. The measure makes no change in that respect.

The 1977 measure also provided for very generous compensation in cases of a serious breakdown of relationships—so generous that many dioceses could not afford it, and clergy who received it had no incentive to find other work. That was unsatisfactory, because it was inconceivable that a clergyman would be removed from office under the measure on grounds of a breakdown in the relationship with his parishioners unless there had been some fault or failure on his part.

The amending measure sets out to strike a balance between treating vicars and rectors justly and the wider interests of the Church of England and of the lay people who contribute to its finances. It does so by providing that the rector or vicar and the diocese agree whatever compensation terms they wish. We would certainly encourage dioceses to be generous if the clergyman concerned had special needs—for instance, a need for retraining.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Stamford and Spalding)

My right hon. Friend says that it is inconceivable that the relationship would break down unless there had been some fault or failure on the part of the incumbent. Could it not break down because of a dispute over some theological point which could not easily be resolved but which could hardly fairly be described as resulting from fault or failure on the part of the incumbent?

Mr. Alison

I shall come to that later, when I describe how the measure defines such breakdowns in relationships.

The measure lays down that if the parties fail to agree the incumbent should be provided with reasonable compensation in the form of financial support and reasonable help with housing costs. The details are spelt out in schedule 2 to the measure. The word "reasonable" may seem to beg a question, but the clergy in the Synod, who are the category primarily affected, as well as all the other categories in the Synod, accepted that the schedule 2 formula for compensation struck a fair balance between the interests of all concerned. They did not vote against it. The unanimity of the vote, including that of the clergy, is a reflection of the fact that it was felt that the compensation provisions were reasonable.

In common with my hon. Friend the Member for Stamford and Spalding (Mr. Davies), a number of our colleagues on the Ecclesiastical Committee—my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth may have been among them—felt that the new definition of a serious breakdown in pastoral relationships, which appears in the new measure, was too wide and could leave almost any rector or vicar open to being proceeded against, perhaps by some local crank.

The original 1977 legislation contained no definition at all, which made it difficult to interpret. The Synod has now tightened matters considerably by providing that the provisions on the breakdown of a relationship will apply only where the situation is impeding the whole mission of the Church of England in the parish. The legislation therefore cannot be invoked because of a trivial dispute or a disagreement between the rector or vicar and a small minority of the parishioners.

The actual trigger mechanism is formulated under paragraph 10 of the measure and refers to the impeding of the whole mission of the Church of England, pastoral, evangelistic, social and ecumenical in the parish in question. Nothing trivial or secondary would be caught by it. Matters relating to theology or doctrine could not have the effect of impeding that whole mission in such a way as to be caught by the definitition. That definition relates to the kind of breakdown which occurs when the clergyman is seriously ill or mentally disturbed. It goes far too wide for a mere theological dispute to trigger the judicial procedures involved.

The new definition also highlights the real purpose of the measure, which is to further, positively and constructively, the mission of the Church of England in the parishes. The Synod wholeheartedly accepted it as something which would help to achieve that aim. I hope that the House will add its support to the Synod by supporting the measure.

12.7 am

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

I do not need to speak for long, because the right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) has spelt out to the House the flexible nature of the measure and its infinitely superior quality in comparison with that of 1977. The right hon. Gentleman has reminded the House that the 1977 measure did not command the same support and unanimity in the Synod as that shown for the new measure.

Hon. Members may believe that matters concerning the Church should not be considered in the Chamber. While the Church is established, however, Parliament has the obligation to consider such matters.

We should respect the measure because it provides for fair dealings for members of the clergy. Conservative Members may not share my opinion and that of my hon. Friends that the role of the good priest in many parishes is far more stressful than it has ever been. When society is dominated by greed, and when it is entirely materialistic in its political evaluation, the stress facing the good priest is enormous.

The majority of people may never give much thought to the priest or to the Church, but at times of crisis, both individual and community, the Church is seen as relevant and the priest must be there. Many of our priests are readily available. They share grief and anxiety. They share the very real economic and social burdens that affect the people in their pastoral charge.

The strain on many of the clergy can be enormous. It is perfectly appropriate for the House to ensure that clergy who suffer a breakdown of health as a result of being at the interface of stress within their parishes should be treated decently. I hope that the House will approve the measure for that reason.

As you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may recall, I was brought up in nonconformity. I recall that, on occasions, my parents were very angry when they returned home from chapel business meetings. It sometimes seemed that the qualities of Christian charity were not always readily exhibited. In the operation of the management of the established Church, I suppose that sometimes personal animosities and irritations are taken to such an excessive point that an outside influence seeking to pour oil on troubled waters would be desirable.

I think that the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Evans) is a member of the legal profession. He may be much more well disposed to bureaucracy than I am. He may well wish to see a tightly bureaucratic, structured arrangement that may well be very profitable or more interesting to members of the legal profession than to the rest of the laity serving the Church.

Mr. Roger Evans (Monmouth)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hardy

I will give way in a moment.

When we deal with human relationships in our surgeries, many of us would not dream of advising constituents to go off and consult their legal advisers. We would not do that for many reasons, not least because of the cost. I would prefer a more flexible arrangement. The quality of this measure is one of flexibility and reasonable generosity.

I hope that the hon. Member for Monmouth shares my view that there is a place for flexibility rather than for the more bureaucratic approach which, I suspect, he may favour rather more than I do.

Mr. Evans

Surely the hon. Gentleman has, at his surgery, advised people who have been unfairly dismissed that the way to get justice and fairness is to go to an industrial tribunal? Why should we treat the clergy of the Church of England to a much lower standard and give them much less protection than ordinary employees and trade unionists who have been unfairly dismissed? That is the injustice of this proposal.

Mr. Hardy

One would hope that no one employed by the Church, as clergy or in any other capacity, would be treated in the way that many of my constituents have been treated when they have claimed unfair dismissal.

One is entitled to expect the Church to conduct itself in a way that would avoid that degree of confrontation, which would not serve the Church or the person who appeals to the tribunal well. I do not believe that there is a need for such confrontation. If that arrangement were made, it would be a confession that the Church was incapable of applying Christian practice and approaches. For that reason, I would not like to see the Church in that position. That is why I could not possibly support the approach that the hon. Member for Monmouth appears to advocate.

We must make it clear in the House that we recognise the stress and demands placed on the conscientious clergyman. Such a clergyman would not wish to expose the Church to the attention that would follow a case for unfair dismissal. The hon. Member for Monmouth may have acted for clients in those tribunals. He will be aware that pretty sordid tales often appear in the media after such cases. I do not think that the human relationships involved are best dealt with in such a tribunal.

The structures that the right hon. Member for Selby has presented are admirable. They are far better than the 1976 measure, for the reasons that the right hon. Gentleman gave. We have a duty to ensure that the clergy serving the Church, while it is an established organisation, should be treated as decently as the measure proposes. I certainly trust that the measure will be approved.

12.14 am
Mr. Roger Evans (Monmouth)

The speech of the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) was powerful, persuasive; humane and trusting of the Church of England. I regret to say, from my professional experience as a member of the Bar advising clergymen in difficulties, that I have seen grossly unchristian behaviour. I have seen the behaviour of Mr Gradgrind—exactly the kind of conduct from which our system of industrial tribunals protects workmen and employees. If a Conservative Member proposed to abolish protection from unfair dismissal, Opposition Members would be outraged. This proposal weakens the position of an incumbent clergyman and puts him in a worse position than an employee. That is startling and wrong. It is unjust and unworkable.

Mr. Hardy

The hon. Gentleman should consider that the House of Clergy did not provide a single vote against the measure. When considering the same arrangements in the early 1970s, the House of Clergy managed to secure a majority of six. That suggests that, in the intervening years, the Church has produced a much more acceptable arrangement. If the clergy who might be the hon. Gentleman's clients are prepared to vote for the measure, it appears that the hon. Gentleman is taking his representations too zealously.

Mr. Evans

I am afraid that that is not a fair observation. The point at stake is that there might be a touch of unworldliness in debates in the Synod. The English Clergy Association is certainly concerned about these matters now that it has had a chance to examine them.

The first difficulty with the proposals is simply that the 1977 measure upon which they are based and are meant to reform has not worked. The Legislative Committee described it in quite brutal terms in its remarks to the Ecclesiastical Committee: the 1977 measure has major defects in practice… It was found to be complicated, difficult, and very expensive to operate and to result in serious adverse publicity for the Church. Upon questioning, we discovered that it has been used only twice since 1977. Synod debated it in 1981, because there was extreme disquiet about it. In fact, the arrangements of the measure which we are seeking to amend have not been used, because the system is fatally and completely flawed.

I shall go back to basic principals. Vicars and rectors, who are still the great majority of Anglican clergymen, hold a freehold office until retirement. They can ordinarily be removed only for a proven criminal ecclesiastical case proved in court. That very rarely happens. The late Mr. Michael Bland, hon. Members might recall, succeeded as a result of the effects of Lord Howe of Aberavon. Apart from that case and one or two unhappy incidents of adultery, proven cases of clerical misconduct have been noted for their absence.

There are situations—this is what the 1977 measure was directed at—in which a parson's church congregation dwindles, the quota is not paid, the parochial church council is at war with itself, and the parishioners are not talking. Something must be done as a practical matter to deal with that, as a matter of sense and justice. If we were running a voluntary organisation or a political party and things went backward to that extent, we would want to see what could be done.

The Church of England's solution in 1977 was to set up a fudge. We are talking about the reform of a fudge. There are two vital features of the 1977 measure. The first was irretrievable pastoral breakdown. What on earth does that garbage mean? It is taken from the no-fault divorce phraseology of the statute—irretrievable breakdown of marriage—and it means what anybody wants it to mean. This was a basic, fundamental problem of definition.

The second fault was that, if one was dispossessed and deprived under the 1977 measure, one was compensated for one's whole loss. That was a job for life until death. It was large and generous compensation, much better than a workman would get.

What happened? The Church of England discovered that, in the two cases where proceedings were brought under the 1977 measure, they were either wholly embarrassing and the pastoral inquiry a matter of scandal for the popular press, or, if the parson was actually deprived, the cost was appalling and prodigious. So be it, the thing failed.

What are we to do now? One might have thought that the Church of England would see fit to reconsider the basic premise of the 1977 measure and produce some new scheme. It might have come to Parliament saying that the whole system was wrong, which might have been rather controversial. It might have come to us and said that parsons should hold their office only for a limited number of years. It might have said that there should be performance criteria or standards that they should observe —.[Interruption.] We can assess, to some extent, whether a church is emptying, the quota not being paid and the funds not being raised. There must be fairness.

If there is a problem, there must be a system by which the people concerned can be removed and compensation should be adjusted according to the degree of fault. A blameless parson, or one who is only partly to blame, should get much more than one who is wholly at fault. That is what an industrial tribunal decides—it adjusts the compensation according to the contributory fault. That is the approach that the Church of England could have adopted.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

There should be a minimum wage.

Mr. Evans

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the national minimum stipend is not very attractive. I suspect that it is rather less than the national average wage.

Instead of dealing with the problems, we are being asked to build on the 1977 measure. There are two striking and fundamental faults. I do not mind the extra ACAS-type provisions such as reconciliation and dealing with the sick, but the fundamentals of the proposals are as follows.

First, there is a new definition of "irretrievable pastoral breakdown", which my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) read out and which refers to the whole mission of the Church of England, pastoral, evangelistic, social and ecumenical. What on earth does that mean? Let us put it in the party political context. Would we want constituency associations of hon. Members to get rid of those who failed the whole mission of the Conservative party or the Labour party? We can see immediately how that sort of wild language could be twisted to the detriment of the person there at the moment. It is pliable language: it is not precise, fair and good legislation.

Is anyone saying that if there is a pastoral mission it is not always possible to find a cause—doctrinal disputes have already been mentioned—for gossip against the vicar if someone disapproves of the sermon, for whatever reason? Are we really intending to create a position in which troublemakers can cause difficulty in the parish and have the parson removed simply by citing a breakdown of pastoral relationships? That cannot be just or fair.

If I were to be very rude to those who drafted the measure before us, I would say that the new section 19A is almost the equivalent of charging somebody with un-Anglican activities. It is as bad as the activities of the late Senator McCarthy, and it is unworthy of legislation.

The second fundamental failure is that if a parson is deprived under these proposals, regardless of his fault or contribution to his deprivation, he gets very much reduced compensation. He gets a buy-out that is not conspicuously generous. Instead of the whole loss for the rest of his life, it is a basic award of one year at the minimum stipend and the next year at three quarters, if he is aged 49 and started at 25. There are resettlement and housing allowances.

Those are modest sums to give an almost blameless parson, who is turfed out of his home and loses his living and his professional respect.

There is a fundamental moral difficulty about which the code of conduct is remarkably coy. If the parson suffers because no one gets on with him, is he to blame or is he not?

The draft code says that it is not necessarily blameworthy, even if one is deprived of one's living. It is wholly unjust to give the same modest compensation to the man who has fallen out with the gossips in the parochial church council and the women's institute as to the mad, bad vicar who justly deserves to be removed.

In a different context, an industrial tribunal can apportion blame, decide contributory fault and reduce the compensation accordingly, fairly and in balance. We have known that system for years. My right hon. Friend asked whether it was wrong to apply the model of unfair dismissal, but I thought that that model would be particularly attractive to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who might have regarded it as an achievement in the history of the working man.

In another place, the Lord Bishop of St. Albans took the same point as my right hon. Friend. He said: the work of a clergyman in a parish is a special kind of calling which takes special qualities and needs the active co-operation and support of parishioners. The parishioners themselves are not employees of the Church but partners with the clergy in carrying forward the Church's mission."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 July 1993; Vol. 584, c. 509.] He went on to say that cases where the relationship breaks down are not on all fours with unfair dismissal.

Imagine yourself, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as the full-time paid secretary of a charity and you have volunteer workers with whom it is difficult to deal. Charities fall out like parishes. Party political agents in our constinuencies are full-time workers, and they are known to fall out with the volunteer side. But I say to the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) that many full-time charity workers do the same sort of job as an ordained clergymen, pursuing God's mission—but such people in secular employment are protected by the law of unfair dismissal. Why should parsons be treated any less well?

One cannot, as a private body or as a disestablished church, tear up arrangements such as the parson's freehold without an Act of Parliament. The Church of England enjoys a special, convenient legislative privilege of delegated legislation and the procedure that we are observing now.

Mr. Skinner

And it is wrong.

Mr. Evans

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is wrong if provisions slip through in this fashion without the full examination that would occur at all stages if they were the subject of a proper Bill.

Mr. Skinner

I have often remained to hear measures affecting the Church of England debated, but the truth is that we should not debate the actions of the General Synod. There are many faiths in Britain, but for some reason or another Church of England measures come before the House late at night. Frankly, I do not think that we have any business discussing them. If the General Synod makes a decision, that is its business.

Mr. Evans

I am greateful for that wholly unsympathetic and unfair intervention. The hon. Gentleman does not care beyond a certain point about parsons' civil liberties and rights. He is interested only in his own constituents —some of whom may be parsons.

Wherever the Methodists, Baptists or Congregationalists want to unify, alter their trusts or terms of contracts, or change the law, it is not a case of ignoring Parliament. They must come to Parliament and face the full difficulty of getting a Bill passed. The Church of England has a convenient system that benefits and assists the Church. But if matters are to be dealt with in that way, the highest standards of legal drafting for legislation must be observed, using systems that are fair, just and workable. At the same time, the Church of England in particular has a moral obligation to observe the highest standards towards those who serve it. It is wholly wrong for parsons to be treated in an unfair and unworkable way.

I do not usually use the language of civil liberties, which is not my cast of mind or the temper of my political prejudice. However, on whichever side of the House one may sit, this measure is either a back-door attack, in Tory terms, on the parson's freehold or, viewed through left-wing glasses, an attack on the civil liberties of parsons. These proposals are fatally flawed, and I invite the House to reject them.

12.29 am
Mr. Alison

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. Evans) could not have presented more vividly, convincingly and perfectly the reason for which we want to try to exclude this kind of litigious, legalistic, confrontational, adversarial advocacy from the breakdown of relationships in a parish. Let us imagine, for instance, the parish of Bolsover, presided over by the rector, the Rev. Dennis Skinner. Believe it or riot, the rector has fallen out with his parishioners. What does he do? He gets hold of my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth to defend him before a tribunal.

Can hon. Members think of anything more calculated to bring the Church of England into disrepute than a public row when a rector has fallen out with his parishioners in very sensitive and difficult circumstances, perhaps because he has lost his mental balance—[Interruptioni]—or perhaps, as the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) suggested, because he has had a nervous breakdown? There may be any number of reasons.

The rector then persuades my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth to defend him, in the style and with the legalistic approach that we observed earlier. That is precisely why we have introduced a Measure to exclude —I am trying to be kind to my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth—the legalistic ranting that we have heard from him tonight, in the context of the provocation that the Rev. Dennis Skinner might have exercised on his unfortunate parishioners.

The Measure contains provision for flexibility, conciliation, compensation and moderate attempts at definition. We want to retain a fair, reasonable arrangement, unexposed to lawyers' jargon and a militant drive for the rights of the individual that is entirely inappropriate in this context. No wonder the House of Clergy did not raise a dissenting vote against the Measure. One might have thought that, with such advocacy, all its members would vote in favour of my hon. Friend's proposals, if there had been any merit in what he said; but there is not. He has demonstrated by his style tonight exactly what we are trying to avoid.

I urge my hon. Friend to accept that, following this good-humoured and important debate, he need not divide the House, which could cause a good many people a good deal of trouble. Will he accept that, although this has been a reasonable debate, the case for rejecting the Measure has not been made? I urge my hon. Friends to support it if we are forced into a Division.

Mr. Roger Evans

Section 7(5) of the report states: At an enquiry under this Measure the parties may be represented by a barrister or solicitor.

Mr. Alison

My hon. Friend ignores the fact that the inquiry is at the discretion of the bishop. It may not happen at all if the bishop decides that it is not suitable —precisely to keep advocates, solicitors or barristers like my hon. Friend out of the court in such circumstances. My hon. Friend's point is not well taken.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Incumbents (Vacation of Benefices) (Amendment) 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.