May I begin by sending my best wishes and those of the Government to our colleague, Amy Callaghan?
As Communities Secretary, ensuring that places of worship can open has been one of my priorities. Their contribution to the common good of our country as places of solace, inspiration and provision for the most vulnerable in our society is clear. I am pleased that they can now open for individual prayer. I have worked with faith leaders and representatives to ensure that this can be done safely, including publishing guidance last week and working with the places of worship taskforce, which I established last month. I am told that the Archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Nichols went this morning to Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral respectively, and I look forward to working with them and others to ensure a broader reopening of places of worship.
I represent some of Berkshire’s best wedding venues, such as Wasing Park. We welcome the Government’s proposal to set up a taskforce looking at safe weddings, but there are couples in my constituency who are desperate to let their friends and family know whether their weddings can go ahead this summer. Can my right hon. Friend say when a date will be announced for summer weddings?
I fully appreciate the concerns that my hon. Friend raises. I know how important weddings are for venues and, of course, how many people’s plans have been disrupted. I can tell her that there is a significant effort across Government to allow people to hold weddings—in particular, small ones with appropriate social distancing—as soon as we can, but this must be done safely. My right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and I are working with faith leaders on this issue, and in the meantime, venues such as Wasing Park can avail themselves of the job retention scheme, the business rates holiday and the small business grants to help them get through the coming weeks.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that reopening churches and other places of worship is an incredibly important step in the right direction for our spiritual welfare across the country and symbolises the direction of travel, with the country returning to normality?
I fully agree with my hon. Friend. People of faith have shown enormous patience and forbearance in recent weeks, unable to mark Easter, Passover, Vaisakhi and Ramadan with their family, friends and community in the traditional way. As we control the virus, we are able to move forward, and as we reopen our economy, it is right that the importance of faith and places of worship is recognised.
I had an interesting Zoom call with my constituency clergy last week, and they are confused. One vicar said to me, “So is it right that I can invite five members of my congregation to the church grounds for a barbecue and some beers, but if we start saying prayers, we’ll get busted?” I suggested that he could advertise his services as a barbecue with a very long grace. We need much clearer guidance if we are to get our churches properly and fully back into use as soon as possible. Frankly, they should never have been put out of use in the first place.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s important question. We published guidance last week for places of worship before they reopened for individual prayer. I am grateful to all the volunteers across the country who have worked hard to clean and prepare those places of worship over the last few days. The guidance was worked through by faith leaders in our taskforce. Places of worship can open for funerals, and Public Health England has previously published guidance on how to manage funerals safely. As I said, I very much hope that we can set a date for weddings soon.
The Secretary of State has announced the reopening of places of worship for individual prayer despite some faiths only practising communal prayer in their place of worship. This separation has caused confusion, which turned to chaos when the Government only published the nine-page guidance on Friday. Why did the Government not provide clear and timely guidance to all places of worship, regardless of their method of prayer?
I will explain the process that we have been through. We have worked for several weeks with leaders across all the faiths on our taskforce to produce guidance that is applicable to all faiths and then to support individual faiths in translating that into the particular practices of their faith. I appreciate and am conscious of the fact that the first step in this process—individual prayer—is much less relevant to some faith than others. In particular, it has limited applicability to Muslims and Jews in our communities, but I hope that they will see this as the logical first step towards a much broader reopening soon.