John Howell (Henley) (Con)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. It was also a pleasure to hear the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) introduce the debate. I wish to discuss some points that this debate generates.
The hon. Gentleman set out the background issues very clearly. As he pointed out and as the letter from the Catholic Church clearly points out, the debate is held in the context of the supply of priests, particularly in the summer, and allowing the laity to continue to attend mass. So there are two issues at stake: the laity attending mass and the priests being allowed a holiday. I am all for priests being allowed a holiday, just as I am all for MPs being allowed a holiday. As an aside, when I first came into this House, a very senior Member said to me, "The person you should acquaint yourself with to get the right sort of status is the suffragan bishop." Members can interpret that as they wish. Whether the popularity of MPs and suffragan bishops has taken the same turn is something I will leave for others to decide.
We have heard about a change whereby visiting priests are required to apply under tier 2 rather than under tier 5, and that is producing problems, as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Ged Killen) illustrated, as well as costs for various communities. There are also English language burdens they have to suffer and a little more red tape than under the current scheme. However, I do not think the problem is widely shared among all religious communities. The hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) nods. I will illustrate how it is not the case in some communities.
I accept that it is a case for the Catholic Church and for many others, but we live in a world where it is very difficult for anyone to recruit priests. Although this is perhaps the subject of an additional debate on another occasion, I point out that Anglicans are in a much better position because they have admitted women as priests. They therefore have an enormous supply of priests who are available and ministering. Whether the Catholic Church wants to take up my suggestion is a matter for it to decide and I will not interfere.
Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North West) (SNP)
I am sitting here as a Catholic utterly stunned by what the hon. Gentleman suggests. He is here in Westminster Hall suggesting that the Catholic Church should change its policies because of what he perceives to be an issue and because of the actions of the Government. Honestly?
Mike Gapes (in the Chair)
Order. I know it is tempting to have a wider debate, but will Members, including Mr Howell, focus on the motion before us?
Thank you, Mr Gapes. To respond briefly, I was not suggesting that; I was leaving it to the Catholic Church to decide. As I said, we can debate that issue on a separate occasion, but I think my point is a valid one.
I made inquiries in the Anglican Church about whether it has this problem. The answer was no, it does not have this problem, for a number of reasons. First, there is a supply of Anglican women priests, so the supply issue is taken care of. Secondly, Anglican ministries are organised increasingly in teams, so someone is always around; because all the members of the team do not take their holiday at the same time, someone in the team is always available to cover for others in the ministry. It is important to bear that in mind.
The Catholic Church organises in teams as well, but the smaller groups within the archdiocese have priests who are already stretched to the absolute limit. When one takes a well-earned break, the others are simply asked to do even more. For them just to pick up the slack, as suggested, is unsustainable.
The hon. Lady makes an interesting point, but I return to mine: we live in a time when it is very difficult to get enough people to come forward for the priesthood of whichever denomination.
The hon. Gentleman will realise that in my speech I quoted the Very Reverend Dr Susan Brown, who is both a woman and a member of the Church of Scotland, which permits female clergy. If the Church of Scotland, which is not the Catholic Church, acknowledges that this is a problem and one not specifically related to gender, does that not drive a coach and horses through his argument?
I am tempted to say that if it is not just a Catholic problem, perhaps it is a Scottish problem.
Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab)
I am listening careful to the hon. Gentleman's argument. Does he accept that the issue that we should be debating is whether the changes are right in principle? They might not affect every single religious grouping to the same degree, but the question that we parliamentarians should talk about is whether the changes are right in principle.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her intervention, but I do not see the two as different; I see them as all part of the same problem. I will go back to my comments on the Anglican Church.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time in allowing us to intervene. I am a Roman Catholic, but I speak on behalf not just of that Church but of the religion directly affected by the changes, which is the Sikh religion. He is right when he talks about the Church of England, but that is exactly it: it is the Church of England; many of the others are international religions and therefore need religious workers to come here. More to the point, does he not agree with having an interchange of people of different faiths coming to this country, whether of the Catholic Church or of any other religion? Does it not mean that we are able to look beyond our shores, therefore helping international relations, and not only understanding each of our own religions here but understanding them internationally?
I am happy to refer to the Church of England as part of the Anglican Communion, which is a worldwide organisation that exists in so many countries that one might have thought that if there were a problem, it too would experience exactly the same problem, because there are exchanges of people between different countries, dioceses and parishes.
I will take my glasses off to read what Christian Concern said, because it is in quite small print. It states that
"it is possible to enter the UK as a 'business visitor' to undertake some preaching...provided the person's base is abroad".
That is the basis on which the exchange of Anglican personnel takes place; it is not that the Anglicans do not invite colleagues from the Anglican Communion to come over to preach in their churches. I have been to many services at which the preacher has come from a country overseas. We need to ensure that we do not get two things confused: the restrictions on the priesthood, which I know exist, for whatever reason; and the changes to the immigration system.
Last, I mention my close contacts with the Jewish community. I appreciate, from conversations beforehand with the hon. Member for Glasgow East, that his view is that the Jewish community in Scotland has similar problems. However, I asked my Jewish colleagues exactly where the problem was likely to occur in the Jewish community, and most if not all of those I questioned did not see this as a problem for them. Again, we have to go back to this being a much more complex question than simply one of visas.
I offer those reasons up as a view on the issue and to widen the debate.