The Rt Revd Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham spoke today (Thursday 19th May at 11.53) in response to the Queen’s speech.
A full draft of his speech can be found below and the official transcript of the speech delivered to the House of Lords can be found in the Hansard report.
QUEEN’S SPEECH DEBATE 19-5-16
The gracious speech makes several commitments to improving life chances for the most disadvantaged.
There is also a renewed commitment ‘to support the development of a Northern Powerhouse.’ It is In welcoming these that I wish to make most of my remarks.
Children need the best start in life possible. They need to be loved and cared for above else. Where this is best found in an adoptive family then seeing this established as well and as quickly as possible is important. So I welcome the proposed bill here and look forward to the details.
For some care ends up as the best option. We need to ensure that life chances for those in residential or foster care are as good as those for all other children. Then when the time comes to leave care it is often traumatic; a move to provide care leavers with a personal adviser until they are 25 is therefore a welcome proposal.
With the passing of the Welfare Reform & Work Act, the focus for the rest of this parliament will be on the implementation of these reforms, including the wider roll out of Universal Credit. I have always been a strong supporter of the aims behind Universal Credit: to simplify an overly complex system and incentivise work. Work is usually the best route out of poverty. It also helps combat isolation and gives purpose and meaning to people’s lives. Unfortunately, there is a real danger that recent changes to Universal Credit are undermining its original intent. Substantial reductions to the work allowance mean that the returns to working will be much lower than anticipated when the scheme was first enacted in 2012. According the Resolution Foundation’s recent report, Universal Credit will now be less generous, on balance, for low income working families than the tax credit system it replaces. I hope the new Secretary of State for Work & Pensions will take the opportunity to revisit this policy and look for ways to strengthen work incentives and support progression in work. This could be the difference between building on the early success of Universal Credit in boosting employment rates among claimants, and sacrificing all of the hard work that has gone into developing this programme for the sake of short-term savings to the Exchequer.
Here I also look forward to seeing the Government’s White Paper on narrowing the disability employment gap.
The welfare system can and should be used to promote work and other virtuous behaviours that reduce the need for welfare in the long-term. The Government’s new Help to Save scheme is a very good example of this, incentivising low income working families to save and reducing the likelihood that they will get into problem debt. We strongly support this initiative, which compliments the work we are doing in primary schools with Young Enterprise. Thank you again for the extra government funding for our LifeSavers programme.
However, we mustn’t lose sight of the welfare system’s role in alleviating suffering in the short-term. There is growing evidence that large numbers of people are falling through holes in the welfare safety net. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, at least 185,000 households in the UK are destitute at any given point in time – unable to afford even the basic essentials of life: food, clothing, housing, heating. It is estimated that 668,000 households experienced destitution at some point over the course of last year, affecting around 1.3 million people in total, including more than 300,000 children. The routes into destitution are complex, but problems with the benefits system feature prominently in this and other studies. We need to take these findings seriously, by starting to measure levels of destitution and food insecurity more systematically. And there is an urgent need to fill the gaps in the welfare system caused by delays and errors in administering benefits and the uneven access to crisis payments.
In the North East there is currently little evidence of any slow down in the need for foodbanks. Further the Holiday Hunger programmes run last year through Communities Together Durham look like doubling this coming summer because of the need that exists in many of our communities.
I recently spent 8 days walking around Darlington and Stockton in the Tees Valley. These are areas in which levels of poverty are high. They are also potentially key players at the heart of any Northern Powerhouse. There are some encouraging signs in relation to manufacturing and employment although there is much more work to be done on really ensuring that apprenticeships do grow and turn into real long term jobs. But there remain concerns that any recovery is slow and fragile. Alongside the manufacturing and service industries there is immensely impressive work through a wide range of charities; Daisy Chains’ work with autism, AWayout’s work with Sex workers and preventative work amongst young people; Mind’s work with dementia support; Billingham Environmental Link Project’s work with local gardens and community centres; and Love Stockton which involves 84 churches working together supporting a wide range of care and support to the very neediest are amongst those that stand out. The One Darlington Partnership Awards evening was truly inspiring.
But all this work, whether business or voluntary, needs decent infrastructure and good local services. The local authorities have had their funding cut by 50% over the last few years. They are now stretched to the limit, arguably beyond it.
It is therefore not surprising that from all quarters I hear scepticism and concern about turning the rhetoric of a Northern Powerhouse into real significant development and growth. We face the ironic possibility that the cradle of the railway industry, the Stockton-Darlington line, and the home of Hitachi’s excellent new train making facility provides the trains for new infrastructure developments but is excluded from benefitting any further by inadequate investment in railways in the North East itself. Newcastle, Sunderland, Hartlepool and Stockton could all lose out because there is such an emphasis on the Leeds-Manchester/Liverpool axis that the far north, both east and west is not properly included. If we are to have HS2 start building from Newcastle at the same time as London.
I support having elected mayors for the NorthEast and Teeside, but they and the local authorities need adequate funding. The reforms to business rates do not work well for our local authorities. The Northern Powerhouse to be really significant in improving the life chances of children, young people, adults and the elderly in the north must work for the whole of the north and must take seriously our region’s brilliance in manufacturing for the twenty first century.
My Lords, in conclusion, we need a vision of life chances which is bigger than that measured by those to be used in the coming new measures. We need a vision which is about the fullness of life; where all are valued; a life marked out above all else by love, for which we cannot legislate.