Chancel Repair Liability
Peter Luff (Mid Worcestershire, Conservative)
Should the vote due at 6 o’clock come towards the end of the Minister’s concluding remarks, I am content for her to write to me with her final remarks, rather than bring Members back at quarter past 6.
I am also sorry that the late start means my hon. Friends the Members for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) and for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) are not in their places, as they had hoped; sadly, they have other duties.
This debate is on the consequences of events that happened centuries ago, between 1536 and 1540 to be precise, so I will give a little context. Parliament and English democracy will be 750 years old in the year of the next election: it was in 1265 that Simon de Montfort first called the shires to assemble in what is generally recognised as the first true English Parliament. We honour him in the vale of Evesham with particular enthusiasm; he was killed later in the same year at the battle of Evesham. Our modern freedoms can be dated from exactly 50 years earlier: it was in 1215 that King John reluctantly signed the Magna Carta. He now lies buried in Worcester cathedral. The inheritances of democracy and freedom, therefore, perhaps ring a little louder in the ears of an MP from Worcestershire.
The freedoms that Parliament defends often affect many thousands, even millions, of people, but the freedom of small groups is just as precious. So it is with the archaic workings of the law on chancel repair liability. “Archaic” is the word to describe those workings: we do not have to go back as far as King John or Simon de Montfort to establish its origins, but we do have to go back to Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries, which concluded in January 1540.
I am no lawyer, let alone an ecclesiastical lawyer, but I hope that the essence of what I am about to say will be accurate. At the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, their land was sold off by the King. Often, there was a church used by the local community, associated with the land sold off, that had been sustained by the local monastery. The King wished the churches to continue to function, so he decided that those who purchased the land associated with them would be nominated lay rectors and have continuing responsibility for the upkeep of that part of the church used by the rector himself, the chancel. Thus the principle of chancel repair liability was established.
Often, the purchasers were major institutions, such as the schools of Eton and Winchester and the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. They own to this day the land that they purchased from the King, and the liability to repair the chancels of the relevant churches has continued, providing many fortunate parochial church councils of the 21st century with a useful source of income for the maintenance of their mediaeval churches.
Other purchasers were less long-lived, or the land was sold and sold again and the liability forgotten. It still existed in law but had lapsed in practice, perhaps for centuries. Although lapsed, it was still enforceable, and so we come to 1994 and Aston Cantlow. Just across the border from my constituency, in Warwickshire, events unfolded that put an unwelcome spotlight back on
chancel repair liability. A family purchased a property knowing the liability attached to it but expecting it to be unenforceable in modern law. The case went throughout the courts and eventually the family lost, which cost them a total of about £500,000. The courts asserted afresh, to much amazement, that the liability remained a valid claim on modern householders.
The then Government reflected on the advice that they had received from the General Synod of the Church of England, the Law Society and the Law Commission that the liability was an archaic law that should be scrapped, and ignored that advice. Actually, I think that they were right to do so. The major institutions that own land to which the liability attaches can afford the burden and budget for it. To remove that useful source of income from the cash-strapped Church would provide a windfall for some very rich and privileged institutions—including, by the way, and with some irony, the Church Commissioners themselves, who own considerable amounts of land to which the liability attaches.
Although the then Government may have been right not to abolish the law, they should still have chosen a different route. They decreed in 2003, in the light of the Aston Cantlow verdict, that the liability would lapse on any property to which it attached if it was not registered by October 2013, but only when the property first changed hands after that date. Registration meant that the existence of the liability would appear on the title deeds and be registered as such by the Land Registry. The liability would continue indefinitely on registered properties and, importantly, on unregistered ones until the first sale after the deadline. It was the ultimate long-grass manoeuvre, simply delaying the problem until the end of the 10-year period—now—but doing little to solve it. In the meantime, an unknown number of householders and landowners in an unknown number of parishes faced the threat that chancel repair liability might be registered on their property, even though its existence had been entirely forgotten.
As the deadline looms, the reality is becoming clearer for many small and unfortunate landowners. Evidence that I have seen from the Land Registry suggests that there has been a rush of registrations. It is believed that about 5,200 churches are entitled to claim the cost of chancel repairs from the lay rector. The majority of those lay rectors will be major institutions, but a significant minority will not. Let us say that just 10% of the parishes have private householders as lay rectors and that the average number of householders and small landowners affected in a parish is about 30—the number in the parish of Broadway in my constituency, where the situation arose recently. That would give us about 500 parishes and 15,000 private individuals. This debate is about the rights and freedoms of that small group. They may not be numerous, but they face jeopardy. If the Government believe in justice, they must take their plight seriously.
It is a real plight. The chancel of a mediaeval church can constitute about one third of the total church building. A repair bill of £200,000 would not be uncommon. In the case of Broadway, a regular bill every decade or so for about £7,000 can perhaps be expected. Fewer householders in a parish with the liability would mean a correspondingly higher sum. I know of at least one parish where only two properties are liable for repairing the chancel of the church.