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PCC powers

13 July 2012

THE Synod has voted to bring forward legislation to extend the property-owning powers of PCCs.

On Saturday afternoon, the Revd Christopher Hobbs (London) introduced a private member's motion calling on the Archbishops' Council to bring forward legislation to amend the Parochial Church Coun-cils (Powers) Measure 1956 to allow certain PCCs to own their own land.

Under the Measure as it stands, PCCs cannot own land or property in their own right. This is usually vested in diocesan trusts.

Mr Hobbs told the Synod: "I was surprised to learn that when there was a vacancy for a curate, the PCC could not do a tenancy agreement of the property it owned in its own name, but had to draw it up in the name of the diocese. PCCs can do what they want with money, but not land or buildings."

He said that a number of PCCs had formed their own trusts rather than vest property in the diocese. "One has a trust with five trustees, none of whom are elected, which controls most of the expenditure of the parish. People are encouraged to give to the trust, and the trust loans money to the PCC."

He said that the existing system caused delay and required staff time and co-ordination to get diocesan boards of finance (DBFs) and their trusts to do things. "Yes, PCCs may make mistakes, but DBFs can make mistakes, too."

He said that many PCCs were now registered with the Charity Commission, and cited a Commission requirement that trustees should "operate independently and wholly in pursuit of their charitable aims".

"Why should the PCC of a church have less independent judgement and accountability than a parent-teacher association, bridge club, or care home? It is a long time since the PCC Powers Measure was passed, and it's time for it to be looked at again."

The Archdeacon of Lincoln, the Ven. Tim Barker (Lincoln), opposed the motion. "I have huge sympathy with the ideas behind this proposal, but it is worrying that we may inadvertently put powers to PCCs which, frankly, not all will be competent to exercise. . . Being registered as a charity isn't in itself a guarantee of competence."

If the existence of separate trusts in the names of some parishes was the concern behind the motion, "it may be the way such trusts are regulated and whether it is right for PCCs to hand over responsibility for parish property to several trusts" should be looked at.

The Archdeacon of Tonbridge, the Ven. Clive Mansell (Rochester), agreed. "When we are talking about property, we are talking about something quite expensive. Land or property lasts a long time. You want to have decisions taken about that long-lasting property which are properly thought out. This will not always be possible at PCCs."

Adrian Greenwood (Southwark), speaking as lay chairman of a PCC, supported the motion because "a law which is 56 years old needs to be looked at." In his understanding, in order for a PCC to become a registered charity, it would need to have a turnover of at least £100,000. He recommended that the Archbishops' Council bring forward a suitable piece of legislation, and then "put it through the mill, improve it, and bring this piece of legislation into the 21st century, and empower our PCCs".

Prudence Dailey (Oxford) supported the motion because "I want to live in a decentralised Church where things can be done in diverse ways," with local independence rather than "everything having to be centrally planned". She suggested that there had been a tendency in the Church to "try and centralise everything".

"Let's recognise the historical diversity and independence of parishes and give them back this power which is rightfully theirs."

The debate was adjourned, and resumed on Monday, when the Archdeacon of Dorking, the Ven. Julian Henderson (Guildford), said that the present arrangements were an "inefficient way of doing local parish business". The proposal was that legal work was undertaken, not that a final decision was made. There were concerns about costs, Archdeacon Henderson said, but the saving of time would represent "considerable savings in the long term".

Julie Dziegiel (Oxford), a church treasurer, said that she thought the motion "dangerous". She had found her diocesan authority "very able and helpful." She expressed worry that if property was held by the PCC alone, "there would be a real danger of the current congregations taking a building with them if they decided to leave the Church of England."

Clive Scowen (London) said that the Synod should support the motion, but suggested building some "safeguards" into the legislation to ensure probity.

Brian Wilson (Southwark) told a story from personal experience as a parish treasurer. The PCC wanted to sell a small house in which the youth worker lived, in order to accommodate a new youth worker with a family. The diocesan office had agreed to give them a mortgage, but there was a delay in selling the house, because the diocesan office had the title deeds and took some time to find them.

Once the sale had gone through, the diocesan office had announced that it had changed its policy, and would fund a mortgage only for a house occupied by a cleric. The PCC had thus decided to set up its own charitable trust. He suggested that the "obvious route" for larger churches was to "bypass the diocese".

The Archdeacon of Cleveland, the Ven. Paul Ferguson (York), was not in favour of the motion, and recommended that the Church "work better" with the legislation rather than change it. This was not a question of centralisation, but about "the availability of expertise and support and transparency".

There could be "unintended" consequences of changing the legislation. The support available from diocesan offices should not be underestimated. He warned that some high-street solicitors "have not got the first clue about trust law". Also, some PCCs did not have members with the time to deal with this kind of matter.

The present system offered "some safeguards and discipline for PCCs" in "ensuring best value is got for assets, avoiding transaction with connected persons, and avoiding conflicts of interest". There were "insufficient reasons" to change the legislation, and he hoped that, as the process continued, reform would "preserve the good character of what we have at the moment".

Sue Slater (Lincoln) was concerned that the Synod might be labouring under a misapprehension. It had been suggested that a PCC could be a registered charity only if its turnover was in excess of £100,000. Her understanding, however, was that churches had not, previously, had to be registered charities, but had operated in a separate category. The Charity Commissioners were gradually changing the status of churches "so that they will all be registered charities", but they had "started with the big ones".

So, although, at the moment, if a PCC had a turnover of more than £100,000, it had to register, any PCC, "however small", could register as a charity, "if they were prepared to do paperwork". She suggested that a Measure devised in 1956 "could well need looking at again". She supported the motion.

The Revd Andrew Dotchin (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) spoke of the "challenge" of "what we do with money". This reflected, he suggested, "our response to the gospel". He suggested that "the kind of proposal on the table militates against the whole body of Christ," and "many PCCs could give inspectors of HMRC a good run for their money in their ability to hide funds and reallocate and make sure things are kept at home." This was not, he said, "the call of the gospel". In his parish, they had adopted a slogan: "When you give, let go." He concluded: "We are a body, and if we hold on to things, we cut the lifeblood."

Canon Martin Wood (Chelmsford) expressed concern that the Charity Commissioners would "not provide good-enough safeguards". It would be unwise, he said, for parishes with an income of less than £100,000 to seek registration. "This motion could give them the need to."

Canon Wood asked where PCCs would turn if things went wrong. "It will be their local diocesan board of finance, who hitherto have quite an involvement in this; but, if this passes, this will be the first time they'll be involved."

Robert Holgate (Birmingham), a chartered accountant and former PCC treasurer and churchwarden, said that PCCs were "independent charities. . . not branches or subsidiaries" of the diocese. "They are subject to restrictions that a secular charity would not be subject to." Mr Holgate asked why PCCs could be trusted "in the great things of mission, ministry, care of buildings, and, dare I say it, raising large amounts of parish share, but are not trusted to hold interests in land in their own right." He urged the Synod to support the motion.

The motion was carried by 137 to 122, with 6 recorded abstentions. It reads:

That this Synod call on the Archbishops' Council to bring forward legislation to amend the Parochial Church Councils (Powers) Measure 1956 so as to permit a PCC which is a registered charity to acquire and hold any interest in land and any interest in personal property to be held on permanent trusts, without any requirement to be vested in the diocesan authority.

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