Page last updated at 15:39 GMT, Wednesday, 22 October 2008 16:39 UK

Woolas in Church of England row

Phil Woolas
Phil Woolas has made a controversial start to his new job

Immigration minister Phil Woolas has sparked fresh controversy by predicting the eventual disestablishment of the Church of England, it has emerged.

He said the Church would be stripped of its privileges within 50 years as Britain was now a multi faith society.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said the government remained committed to the Church and valued its contribution.

Mr Woolas made the comments in the same interview in which he appeared to call for a 70 million population limit.

He later rowed back on these comments, which appeared in Saturday's Times, but then found himself in further hot water on Monday when he appeared to attack the government's managed migration policy.

In a debate in central London, he said the failure to fund asylum removals properly had caused "untold human misery and division" and said Britain could learn from the more hardline Dutch approach to immigration.

'Nature of the beast'

He later issued a "clarification", stressing that he had been referring to the policies of all previous governments not just the current Labour administration.

The Conservatives claimed the minister had been "pulled" from opening a debate on border controls in the Commons on Tuesday over fears he would make more gaffes.

The government has repeatedly stressed the value it places on the Establishment of the Church of England as something valued by people of all faiths and none
Church of England

But the Home Office said Home Secretary Jacqui Smith had decided last Friday to represent the government in the debate - before Mr Woolas' Times interview was published and Downing Street said it had full confidence in the minister, who took over the immigration brief earlier this month.

Mr Woolas summed up for the government at the end of the four hour debate, which saw some Conservative MPs attempt to make capital out of his Times interview.

Mr Woolas brushed off the controversy as being the "nature of the beast" and urged MPs not to question each other's motives in the Commons.

'Multi faith society'

But now The Times has pitched Mr Woolas into fresh controversy by releasing unpublished quotes from his weekend interview, in which he gives his views on the future of the Church of England.

He argues that the government's Lords reform programme will eventually lead to the historic links between Church and state being cut.

"Disestablishment - I think it will happen because it's the way things are going. Once you open debate about reform of the House of Lords you open up debate about the make-up of the House," he told the newspaper.

"It will probably take 50 years, but a modern society is multi faith."

The government distanced itself from the minister's comments.

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: "The Church of England is by law established as the Church in England and the Monarch is its Supreme Governor.

"The government remains committed to this position and values the establishment of the Church of England."

The Church of England also emphasised its continued commitment to its role at the heart of the British constitution, with the Queen as its head.

"The government has repeatedly stressed the value it places on the Establishment of the Church of England as something valued by people of all faiths and none.

"The Church is honoured to perform this service to the nation which embraces a wide range of aspects - from the parish system and bishops in the House of Lords, to church schools and helping the nation mark important events."


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