I appreciate having this opportunity to address the House on an issue that is of major concern to my constituents, to the many staff who work at the very valued institution of St Raphael’s hospice, which is in north Cheam in my constituency, and to the staff who work at the adjacent charitably run St Anthony’s hospital.
I suspect that when the Minister saw the title for the debate, he turned to his officials and said, “What on earth am I doing a health debate for?” I can well understand that reticence and puzzlement as to why a Health Minister was not invited to respond. I want to use the debate to explain why I am grateful that a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister is responding. The issues are not so much about health care as they are about accountability, transparency and the responsibility of trustees in discharging a public good and a common purpose. The debate requires an intervention or some involvement from the Foreign Office.
I ask the Minister to intervene on behalf of my constituents to safeguard the future of a much valued hospice and a widely respected hospital. I ask that our ambassador to the Holy See make officials at the Vatican aware of the concerns I am expressing. I will explain why. The Congregation of the Daughters of the Cross of Liege is a Catholic charity that owns and runs St Anthony’s hospital and St Raphael’s hospice, both of which are based in north Cheam. Together they employ 900 local people and are much loved, much admired institutions with a strong tradition of volunteering, which is very much at the heart of the hospice movement.
The trustees of the Daughters of the Cross are six Catholic nuns, who have decided to sell St Anthony’s hospital to a commercial concern, bringing to an end more than 100 years of care and Christian mission for the sick, the vulnerable and the dying. Their decision confounded and distressed those who work at the hospital and the hospice, as well as many of my constituents and many in the wider community who benefit from the work of the institutions. The decision is all the more perplexing because the Daughters of the Cross charity, according to its latest accounts, has more than £80 million in cash and investments, even before selling off the hospital. Lack of money is not the problem and should not be a justification for what is being done.
Worse still, the Daughters of the Cross have so far failed to explain why a proposal for a new Catholic charity with new trustees could not form the basis of a gracious and negotiated passing of the baton to a new generation of trustees. Instead, Daughters of the Cross are insisting on the withdrawal of all the existing funds currently held by St Anthony’s hospital—some £35 million in all—as well as a capital receipt for the disposal. In my meetings with the charity, the trustees talk about the money being their money. There is no recognition that the money is held in trust, or that it is the result of co-production between the Daughters of the Cross and those who work in the hospital and hospice.
The issue I am raising is not a religious one. It is about the behaviour of a charity and the reputational damage that is doing. The Daughters of the Cross is a congregation of pontifical right. It does not come under the temporal or spiritual authority of the Catholic Church in England. It is answerable directly to the Vatican in Rome, and critically it has not yet obtained permission from the authorities in the Vatican that oversee decisions to dispose of assets held by the Catholic Church. The body with the decision-making authority is called the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, whose secretary is Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo. As part of the charity’s governance, it has well-established advisory committees that bring together community and expert opinion to guide the trustees’ decisions, to ensure that the right investments are made and that the right development of services takes place. Sadly, that expertise has been sidelined in this matter and not given the weight it deserves.
The chairman of St Raphael’s hospice, Dr Ron McKeran, has written to Archbishop Carballo, imploring his committee to exercise its oversight role and use its discretion to stop the sale and instead fully explore and take forward the creation of a new Catholic charity. Dr McKeran and many others believe that the sale of St Anthony’s will destroy the very special Christian character of the hospital. In his view, the actions of the charity’s trustees seem to be devoted to turning charitable assets into greater financial reserves, rather than to turning public donations into charitable activity. I believe that Dr McKeran’s analysis is spot-on.
The sale will expose St Raphael’s hospice to financial uncertainty. That is critical. At present, the hospital, as part of the same charity, provides a hidden subsidy of around £1 million a year. There is a symbiotic relationship between the two institutions. The hospital provides vital services, including IT, payroll, catering, and site services. Cutting the hospice free of its ties to the hospital, eventually to become a stand-alone charity, would leave it facing the prospect of a million pound funding gap.
There is an alternative: a proposal to spin out a new charity to take St Anthony’s and St Raphael’s forward together, maintaining the Christian mission that has flourished on the site in north Cheam for more than a century. The trustee nuns of the Daughters of the Cross have so far not explained why they are unwilling to appoint lay trustees, as other similar charities have done. There could be a managed transition with new trustees taking up the reins when the nuns are no longer able to exercise their responsibilities as trustees. That is more in keeping with the ethos of the charity, but the trustees are confusing their worries about their own mortality with the bigger picture and the purpose of the charity they founded. The trustees have offered no explanation as to why the reserves of £80 million and the moneys from the disposal of a very valuable site in Chelsea cannot be used to achieve their ends.
As a result of all that, the hospice finds itself in limbo, uncertain of its future and reliant on words of good intent, but no guarantees. I hope the Minister understands the concern that I and many of my constituents have about the future of St Raphael’s hospice. My concerns have already led me to write to the Charity Commission, asking it to investigate how the charity has conducted itself, the lack of due diligence and the risk of financial and reputational damage. It cannot be right for a charitable purpose to be subverted by the personal concerns of the trustees about their own long-term involvement in the charity. Nor is it right for the trustees to set aside the expert opinion of their own advisory boards, as well as the views of the staff, volunteers and the public. Their goal should be to secure the long-term future of the charity. That is why I am asking the Minister to act: not to interfere in matters spiritual, but rather to set out those concerns to the authorities in the Vatican who have the final say.
Will the Minister ask our ambassador to raise the matter, urging that it be carefully considered, and that the representations from Dr McKeran, myself and others are properly taken into account? At the very least, will he ask our ambassador to draw the attention of the appropriate authorities in the Vatican to this debate? There is no authority in the UK that can prevail upon the Daughters of the Cross to change its decision; only an intervention from the Vatican can hope to protect the future of the much loved and cherished St Raphael’s hospice.
I finish by quoting from a letter from June Whitfield, who is a doughty fundraiser for St Raphael’s hospice. She recently wrote to Sister Veronica Hagen, who is the chairman of the trustees of the Congregation of the Daughters of the Cross. The letter ends with these two paragraphs:
“And I urge you to reconsider the proposal of the Management, staff and supporters of the hospital and hospice to instead create a new charity encompassing both St Anthony’s and St Raphael’s.
The Daughters of the Cross established St Anthony’s Charitable Hospital in 1904 and then built St Raphael’s Hospice in 1987. Their ethos and faith have served the people of both Sutton and Merton well for over a century, it would be not just sad, but unforgivable if you and your current colleagues are the ones to extinguish these beacons of hope and faith in an increasingly difficult world.”
That is absolutely right, and I hope the Minister can help.
May I begin by expressing my pleasure at serving under your guidance this afternoon, Mr Benton?
I congratulate my right hon. Friend Paul Burstow on securing this important debate today and on setting out his case and concerns, and those of his constituents, so eloquently. I pay tribute to the role that he has played in supporting his local community on this challenging and difficult issue, and I am struck by the strength of local feeling that clearly exists about the future of St Raphael’s. This is clearly a great concern for many people, given the excellent and dedicated work that has been undertaken—both recently and over a significant period—both by St Anthony’s hospital and St Raphael’s hospice.
In particular, the work of the hospice exemplifies the huge support that exists for the hospice movement across the whole United Kingdom. St Raphael’s clearly plays a very important role in the lives of many people within the community of Sutton and Cheam. Indeed, hospices such as St Raphael’s have a crucial role to play in providing a dignified environment for people with serious or terminal illnesses throughout the United Kingdom.
Of course, my right hon. Friend will be aware of the additional £60 million in Government funding that was awarded to hospices across England earlier this year. A total of 176 hospices will benefit from that fund. It will not only help to improve conditions within hospices themselves, but support the care that hospices provide to people in their own homes, which is a crucial factor that he personally focused on when he was a Minister in the Department of Health and for which he deserves enormous credit.
Given today’s debate, I am particularly pleased about the award of more than £500,000 to St Raphael’s hospice, which I understand will help towards building its new extension. Investment in hospices is vital, not least because more and more people are using their services. Hospices need support to provide the care that is so desperately required. Such additional funding will enable hospices to modernise their premises, to improve further the facilities and care that they provide to patients and—significantly—to give increased support to patients’ families. The importance of that support and the continued provision of compassionate and dignified care at what is a very difficult time for both patients and their families should never be underestimated.
St Raphael’s can be held up as an excellent example of the strong role that faith groups can play in contributing to wider society. St Raphael’s ethos of accepting people of all faiths and, indeed, people of no faith is admirable; that is exactly the sort of model for interfaith relations that the Government are keen to promote. It is also important to say that this role of religion and faith within communities makes a vital contribution to national life, by not only guiding the moral outlook of many people but providing help for those in need. Compassion and the desire to provide assistance to those who suffer are excellent principles for faith groups to focus on.
Across the country, people from different faiths are working hard, not only in countless churches but in countless mosques, temples and synagogues, as well as in charities and community groups, to address problems in their local communities. The Christian Churches have an extensive national framework of buildings, expertise, volunteers and reach that can put them at the very heart of providing services, not only to the homeless but to others in need. St Raphael’s is a very good example of that in my right hon. Friend’s own community.
I will now turn to the future of St Raphael’s, which was the main focus of my right hon. Friend’s remarks this afternoon. I understand that, as he quite rightly pointed out, the trustees of the Catholic Congregation of the Daughters of the Cross of Liege are members of an international order of religious sisters based in Belgium. They help to provide health care and similar services, both in England and around the world. As he also quite rightly pointed out, the Daughters of the Cross are not subject to the jurisdiction of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. Ultimately, they are subject to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and for Societies of Apostolic Life, based in Rome within the Roman Curia of the Holy See.
Given the strong local concerns for the future of the important health care and hospice provision provided by St Anthony’s hospital and St Raphael’s hospice, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is making representations to the relevant Holy See authorities, through the British ambassador to the Holy See. I will come on to the details of those representations shortly.
Our ambassador has also spoken to the apostolic nuncio in the United Kingdom, Archbishop Mennini. We understand that the archbishop would be delighted to meet my right hon. Friend, if he was willing to attend such a meeting, to hear his concerns and discuss these important issues. The papal nuncio, as His Holiness the Pope’s representative in the UK, is an appropriate vehicle for these concerns to be expressed and passed to the Holy See, as is, of course, our ambassador to the Holy See.
I can inform my right hon. Friend that only this morning our ambassador had a meeting in the Vatican with the secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo, and was able to brief him on the concerns of the local community about the future of St Anthony’s and St Raphael’s. I am delighted to tell my right hon. Friend that the archbishop was fully aware of the case and acknowledged receipt of the recent letter from the chairman of St Raphael’s hospice about the issues that my right hon. Friend has articulated today.
In the meeting this morning, the archbishop made it clear that the decision on the future of St Anthony’s and St Raphael’s was ultimately for the trustees. However, he assured the ambassador that the Vatican would look carefully at the case, as it does all such cases, and will do so over the summer. I can inform my right hon. Friend that there are similar cases, particularly across western Europe, as those who are providing the health care are ageing, as he described earlier. The archbishop also confirmed that, in general terms, guidance would be given to the trustees on the basis of the known preference of the Church that such good works should continue to be run on Catholic lines and that a reply would be forthcoming to the chairman of St Raphael’s hospice once proper consideration had been given. I hope that goes some way to placating the concerns that my right hon. Friend outlined, but I suggest that he follow up the offer of a meeting with the papal nuncio in the UK.
I thank the Minister and his officials for so rapidly and diligently pursuing this case on behalf of my constituents. I am sure that Dr McKeran will look forward with great interest to the response from the Church. May I ask the Minister to do one further thing, which is to ensure that the report of today’s debate is also passed to the papal authorities, so that they can be aware of our exchange?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I understand that the archbishop in the Vatican was made aware this morning that this debate was taking place. However, I will of course be happy to respond to my right hon. Friend’s request, to ensure that he sees the Hansard report of the debate passed through our ambassador to ensure that there is follow-up to this debate in the way that he describes.
With your indulgence, Mr Benton, I would just like to set out, for a couple of minutes, the importance of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the Holy See. This debate exemplifies why it is increasingly important for the UK to maintain a positive, dynamic and energetic relationship with the Holy See. Not only for bilateral purposes but globally, there is significant mutuality of interest between the UK and the Holy See.
To that end, Baroness Warsi led an historic visit of seven British Ministers to the Holy See, where they were received at the highest level, including an audience with the Pope. This visit broke new ground, both in the scale of the delegation and the substantive nature of the talks, which covered issues as diverse as sustainable development, conflict prevention, Somalia and the ongoing process of reconciliation in Northern Ireland.
During 2013, we have worked closely with the Holy See in furthering our global agenda. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister wrote to His Holiness Pope Francis in June this year, before the G8 summit, to brief him on our agenda and to seek his views. That is a reflection of the importance that we place on the influence and role of the global Catholic Church and the Holy See.
Of course, this has been a historic year for the Vatican, with His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to stand down and the subsequent inauguration of His Holiness Pope Francis. The Government warmly welcomed the appointment of Pope Francis, and we strongly support his unceasing desire to tackle social and economic injustice, poverty and disease—issues that of course have been at the heart of our own G8 agenda.
I will conclude by reiterating the importance of the Catholic Church—along with so many other religions and faith groups—as a provider of much-valued and often unsung social services, including health care and hospice provision, support for the homeless and the marginalised, education provision and much else. The Government value the work of the Daughters of the Cross in running St Anthony’s hospital since 1904 and St Raphael’s hospice since 1987, and we understand their difficulties in maintaining these responsibilities. However, like my right hon. Friend, I very much hope that a solution can be found that satisfies all parties and that ensures the continuation of these vital services to the local community.