HC Deb 13 September 2004 vol 424 cc976-7
16. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South)(Lab)

What discussions the Church Commissioners have held recently with the Department of Trade and Industry with regard to the terms of employment of members of the clergy. [187911]

Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell)

Church of England representatives have played a full part in meetings with the DTI to discuss aspects of the employment status of clergy.

Mr. Chapman

While the establishment of the clergy working group with the DTI is very much to be welcomed, I have personally campaigned on this issue for seven years now, and that is far too long. I urge my hon. Friend to encourage the working group to reach speedy, equitable, early and fair conclusions.

Sir Stuart Bell

I am sure that when my hon. Friend is dead—but not forgotten—the words "Employment Relations Act 1999, section 23" will be found engraved on his heart. We welcome the way in which he has pushed this issue, as has the Church, for more than seven years. As he knows, the mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small, and we are looking for legislation on the matter during 2005.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op)

I, too, albeit more intermittently, have raised this issue from time to time since 1997. Does my hon. Friend agree that the present status of parish priests is equivalent to self-employed, and as such they have significantly weaker employment rights than do people who are legally employed? Should not we move much more quickly to protect parish priests and others from the vulnerability to which they are currently exposed?

Sir Stuart Bell

As my hon. Friend will know, the clergy terms of service review group, chaired by Professor David McClean, recommended that clergy should have the employment rights conferred by section 23 of the Employment Relations Act 1999, including protection against unfair dismissal and a new form of tenure for those without freehold. On the issue of employment rights per se, the clergy will retain their offices as officeholders within the terms of the clergy terms of service regulations.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)(Con)

Is not the real problem the erosion of the freehold? Can the hon. Gentleman give the House an assurance that it is no part of the policy of the Church Commissioners to erode the freehold further?

Sir Stuart Bell

The hon. Gentleman puts a pertinent question. The second report that is being prepared on the basis of the first report by Professor David McClean will develop some of the issues that are in the first report, including the possible application of common tenure to clergy with the freehold. It will also address some of the questions that have been raised during the consultation on the first report.