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EDITIONS
Thursday, 7 November, 2002, 16:57 GMT
Vicar gets MPs' backing for battle
Bishop
Members of the clergy are "employed by God"
Eighty MPs are demanding a change in the law to give the clergy the same employment rights as other UK workers.

The move has been triggered by the case of the Rev Ray Owen, who is unable to challenge his dismissal from his job because he is "employed by God" under a law made in 1912.

Because of some arcane court rulings, our clergy are by-passed by all the natural employment rights granted over the last eighty years

Rev Ray Owen

The government is conducting a consultation on employment rights for "atypical workers" - including ministers of religion.

A Commons motion signed by the MPs says clergy are "denied basic employment rights and have no redress against sex, disability or racial discrimination at work".

It goes on to say "it is important to rectify this anomaly as a matter of urgency so that all workers can have full recourse to employment law and protection from unfair dismissal".

Rev Owen's case also won support in the European Parliament on Thursday with an overwhelmingly vote backing his case.

MEPs urged the Church of England to review the way it handled his dismissal and pressed the government to make existing legal employment rights applicable to the clergy.

Rev Owen says he was unfairly sacked when he lost his job as Team Rector in the Parish of Hanley, Stoke on Trent, in 1999.

Push

But as a clergyman, he could not take his case to an industrial tribunal.

Ray Owen
Rev Owen: Encouraged by support
Rev Owen said he was "greatly encouraged" by the vote on the European Parliament.

He said: "I hope this will give a strong push to the UK government to recognise the position of the clergy."

But a Church of England spokesman said there was a "fundamental error" in the report they were debating.

He said there had been attempts to bring this to the parliament's attention.

He said: "The error made was for the report to suggest that Mr Owen should have been granted a freehold office rather than one for a term of seven years under the church legislation covering his appointment as a Team Rector."

He said the EU Commission had also found that no EU laws had been breached in the handling of Ray Owen's case.

The resolution debated by MEPs stated: "The clergy should enjoy the same human rights as other citizens of the European Union.

"Their relationship with their employers in the UK is governed by common law and ecclesiastical law, which fail to provide essential rights to the clergy, notably the right to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal in cases of dispute."

Role

The law setting out the status of the clergy has been unsuccessfully challenged before.

But Mr Owen said: "There are many people who take the view that things should not be changed because this is how it has always been."

He said the role of the clergy had changed from the days when they worked for life in one parish.

"We are now subject to many of the normal employment requirements, with contracts, and review procedures and so on and we need the protection of the rest of the employment laws."

The European Parliament resolution said there had been "clear breaches of natural justice and basic human rights" in the way Rev Owen - who began working in Hanley in 1991 - was removed from office.

Appeal

The clergyman's licence was not renewed by the Bishop of Stafford when it came to an end in 1999.

We are looking at issues such as unfair dismissal and rights to paid holidays

Alan Johnson
Employment minister

The recommendation not to renew was made by a panel which met without giving him the opportunity to answer criticisms, a move later questioned in the Court of Appeal.

He is refusing to leave his rectory and has received no stipend since his dismissal.

His appeal in the High Court was ultimately unsuccessful, while a petition to the House of Lords was refused in March 2001.

Unable to then go to an industrial tribunal, Mr Owen turned to the European Parliament.

'Arcane'

Meanwhile, Lichfield diocese has begun legal proceedings to repossess the rectory and the matter has been referred to the High Court in London.

Talks with the government over whether to bring the clergy within the provisions of the 1999 Employment Relations Act are continuing.

Rev Owen said: "The British legal system is caught in a time warp. Because of some arcane court rulings, our clergy are by-passed by all the natural employment rights granted over the last eighty years."

Labour Euro-MP Glyn Ford, who has been supporting Rev Owen's case, said: "We don't expect miracles - but we hope today's vote will prompt changes in the employment treatment of the clergy."

Rev Owen is also backed by the Amicus union, which lobbied a meeting of clergy from all faiths at the trade and industry department this week.

Premature

A Church of England spokesman said that parochial clergy were currently classified as self-employed.

"The Church is involved in these discussions with the DTI and it would be premature to say anything else at this stage," he said.

Employment Relations Minister Alan Johnson said: "We have specifically included the clergy in our review of employment status because of the strong case which has been put to us by a number of clergymen and Amicus.

"We are looking at issues such as unfair dismissal and rights to paid holidays."

"This event is an opportunity to explore the case for employment protection more thoroughly and to hear all sides of the argument."

See also:

06 Nov 02 | England
24 Jan 02 | England
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