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House of Lords

Thursday, 27th July 2000.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by Lord Bishop of Manchester): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Church of England: Disestablishment

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will take steps to disestablish the Church of England.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, the Government would not contemplate disestablishment of the Church of England unless the Church itself wished it.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, that is a very disappointing Answer from my noble friend. How can that position be sustained when only 30 per cent of the population are members of the Church of England and only 20 per cent of them attend church regularly? In addition, does he agree that there has been a fundamental change in religious beliefs in this country, in that Catholics, non-conformists, Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists and those who have no religious belief at all now constitute a majority? Should they not be given a status equal to that of the Church of England?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, there is a long Christian tradition in this country and it is our belief that that should not be thrown away lightly. There is no suggestion in what I have said that there is discrimination against different religions, faiths, creeds and so on. We do not see any good reason for disestablishment. It is entirely a matter for the Church to consider.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, if the Government do not wish to disestablish the Church of England, will they do something to rectify the injustice caused by the large number of Bishops--26 of them--who sit in this House? The figures I have obtained from the Library show that they represent only 2 per cent of the Christian population, leaving aside the Sikhs, the Muslims and the Jewish population. Would the Government therefore be prepared to create around 80 new Bishops to correct that imbalance?

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, I mean, of course, 80 new Lords, not Bishops.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I do not think that that will be government policy.

The Lord Bishop of Southwark: My Lords, is the Minister aware that, far from wishing to see an end to

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the establishment of the Church of England, many other denominations and faiths support its continuance as the surest religious reference in our national life against an otherwise purely secular state?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am sure that that is absolutely the case.

Lord Hughes of Woodside: My Lords, in the discussions taking place about a new House of Lords, there seems to be a predominance of view that the Church of England should always be represented in the House. Should there not be a wider casting of the net to bring other faiths into this Chamber? Will the Minister pass on to those who are perhaps more directly concerned in this matter that a large body of opinion in this country is non-believing and that that body of opinion is of equal worth in society? Therefore, in the discussions about the future of the House of Lords, would it not be a good idea to include as well as the Churches the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am sure that what the noble Lord said has great relevance. No doubt, in any discussions on the future composition of your Lordships' House, those views will be taken into consideration.

Lord Judd: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the true importance of the Question asked by my noble friend Lord Dormand of Easington is that it demonstrates that we have become a multi-cultural society? If we are to be an inclusive, as distinct from an exclusive society, the constitutional challenge that faces us all is how to give the pluralism in our society a greater presence in our political and national institutions.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord has put his finger on a very good point. We must encourage a much more inclusive society and find ways in which all sections of our different multi-faith and multi-ethnic communities can be represented in all our national institutions.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, is the Minister aware that many of us look on Prayers before the start of business as the right way to start our day? Those who cannot or do not want to take part are entitled to remain outside, as they do.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Baroness.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the discussion he has with the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society will be easy as they occupy the same office?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am indeed grateful for that piece of information.

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The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, is the Minister aware that, for the Church of England, establishment is not about privilege but about service and responsibility in offering pastoral care and guidance to everyone, regardless of their religious adherence or none? By "everyone" we mean people living not only in suburbia but in some of the most difficult urban areas of the land and some of the most isolated rural areas as well.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am sure that the right reverend Prelate is right. During the course of my lifetime, I have greatly benefited from exactly that kind of pastoral care and support. I pay great tribute to the Church for the important work that it does.

Earl Russell: My Lords, on reflection, does the Minister agree that it was a little unfair to accuse the noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, of throwing out the Christian tradition as the noble Lord's record of respect for the rights of minorities is beyond reproach? Does he further agree that the right reverend Prelates do a great deal of good in this House?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I agree with both of those statements.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I hope it does not do the Minister's reputation any harm if I say how much I agree with his response to this Question. I agree also with what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark said. Does the Minister agree that the whole debate about disestablishment was not helped when during the proceedings on the Learning and Skills Bill the Government chose to have partisan discussions with the Church of England without including the Official Opposition?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness for that helpful observation. There is no great debate about disestablishment. It appears to be something which is very much off the political agenda.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, have the Government given thought to the fact that 33 per cent of Grade I listed buildings are under the control of the Church of England, which pays for their maintenance? How would the Government deal with that situation if the Church was disestablished?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the answer to the noble Lord's second question is that disestablishment would make no difference at all. But as disestablishment is not part of the Government's agenda, it is not an issue on which I can possibly comment.

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NHS: Allergy Specialists

3.10 p.m.

Viscount Simon asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How they propose to alleviate the shortage of allergists in the National Health Service.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, the new allergy specialty was established in June last year. We are currently assessing how many consultants the National Health Service will need in this specialty, in discussion with the relevant Royal Colleges and NHS management.

Viscount Simon: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Is he aware that of the 100 so-called allergy clinics, only six are currently run by those who have been specially trained to cover the breadth of allergic disease, which is quite considerable? Is my noble friend also aware that one in 200 four year-olds suffers from a peanut allergy which is the cause of the commonest food-induced fatal or near fatal reaction? Of those people who die unnecessarily, none has been seen by a specialist allergist. Because allergy is so common, having increased twofold or threefold over the past 20 years, why are so few allergists available?

Lord King of Kings Heath: My Lords, I certainly recognise the rising trend in the number of people affected by allergies. So far as concerns the new clinical specialty of allergy, it was established only last year. The Royal Colleges have advised us that we shall need one allergy specialist per regional centre--there are six regional centres in England. Three allergy specialists are already in post. We are training more and the centres will be fully staffed by 2005. It is also worth making the point that many other specialists are involved in the treatment of allergies, including dermatologists, gastroenterologists and immunologists. We need to look at the picture in the round and not consider only the number of specialist allergists.

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