HL Deb 12 June 2002 vol 636 cc257-60

2.50 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In so doing, I state my interest. I am a member and former official of the union, MSF—now Amicus—to which a number of clergy belong.

The Question was as follows:

When their consultation paper affecting employment status for clergy will be published.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, DTI officials have met Church authorities from different faiths and representatives of the clergy from the Amicus union to discuss the employment status review. We are aiming to publish a discussion document on employment status, which will include the issue of the status of the clergy, before the end of July.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that response. However, does he agree that in the 21st century it is unacceptable for any group of employees to be outside the provisions of employment law, perhaps with no remedy against unfair dismissal and, in the case of women, no remedy against sexual discrimination? Should this issue not be resolved as quickly as possible?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that the faiths take the view that being in the clergy is a vocation. It is a spiritual vocation rather than employment and. therefore, office-holder status is more appropriate. Of course, these issues will be debated in the discussion document. However, conformity with the Sex Discrimination Act will not be covered by the discussion document because exemptions relating to the clergy appear in that Act.

The Lord Bishop of Bristol

My Lords, I declare an interest in that I have received a stipend and have some responsibility for the clergy and their posts. Nevertheless, does the Minister accept, as I believe he already has done, that it may not be appropriate to extend statutory employment rights to clergy if, for example, it can be demonstrated that to do so would be incompatible with their vocational character of ordained ministry? Is he also aware that the Church of England has already taken significant steps to improve the working conditions of the clergy and that it continues to do so?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, as one office-holder to another, I acknowledge what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol says. Indeed, it is the view not only of the Church of England but of other Churches and other faiths that office-holder status is more appropriate. But, of course, under those circumstances, there is a certain responsibility on the Churches to provide their own protection for their clergy. I understand that there is some movement towards that in the clergy discipline measure, which will go to the Ecclesiastical Committee shortly.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, if clergy receive stipends from religious bodies, can the Minister clarify whether they are regarded as employees. although some may consider that they are working directly for a superior entity—their Creator?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, those who receive stipends are not considered to be employees but office-holders. Of course, some clergy, such as chaplains in the Prison Service or the Armed Forces, are employees in the conventional sense and are serving Mammon rather than God.

Baroness Lockwood

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, while the Church may be legally exempt from the terms and conditions of the Equal Pay Act, not providing equal pay is not in keeping with the spirit of the legislation? Would it not be better if the Church were open about its conditions so that we could all see that it was working towards equal pay and equality between the sexes?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, clearly there are many ways in which clergy in the Church of England and other faiths do not receive the benefits of employment legislation. Reference has been made to unfair dismissal. Questions also arise in relation to terms and conditions of service—maternity and paternity leave, the working time directive and the minimum wage—as well as in relation to the issue of equal pay. The discussion document will be about all forms of atypical workers, including the clergy. It will include, for example, home workers. If employment status is not to be conferred, one issue that will have to be resolved as a result of the discussion document is how protection is to be given to such people.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, could it be that part of the confusion arises from the distinction between the words "employee" and "worker"? Can the Minister say what stage the review of that distinction, promised by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry during the Second Reading of the Employment Bill on 27th November, has reached? It was promised that the review would take place in the early part of this year but we are now in June. It is a very important issue.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I do not believe that that is quite the same issue. The distinction between a "worker" and an "employee" is important but it does not involve the clergy. If the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, is referring to the review of Section 23 of the Employment Relations Act 1999—I believe that she is because she has shown a great interest in this matter—then I can say that we shall be undertaking the review as we agreed.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, the clergy's interpretation is that these jobs have a spiritual aspect. But does the Minister agree that they are still jobs and therefore should be subject to the coverage explained by my noble friend? The fact that the Sex Discrimination Act exempts such people means that that Act is lacking in its provisions. Therefore, coverage should be given, regardless of what the clergy say and of what the present Act says. It is inadequate and wrong.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I was asked when the discussion document would appear. I answered that it would appear before the end of July. It will cover exactly the points raised by my noble friend Lord Ashley and others. They are legitimate points and they should he responded to properly. It would be wrong for me to pre-judge now from this Dispatch Box what the results of the consultation will be.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, have Her Majesty's Government considered the fact that the clergy are taking certain cases to the European Court? It would be rather sad if decisions relating to the clergy were decided by the European Court rather than by Her Majesty's Government and the Ecclesiastical Committee. Have the Government taken note of that fact?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, we have taken note of the fact that, in particular, the Reverend Ray Owen is petitioning the European Parliament. Clearly, there are relevant European directives about employment rights and we adhere to those directives. We shall take a great interest in the outcome of the Reverend Ray Owen's case.

Earl Russell

My Lords, while I can understand why it might be held that the Sex Discrimination Act is not the most appropriate weapon for the clergy, will the Minister venture a lay opinion as to whether the text of St Paul, that in Christ there is neither male nor female", might be thought to have any relevance to the issue of equal pay?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

No, my Lords. Given my known views about religion, I am the last person who should venture such an opinion.