Bishop of Birmingham responds to the Queen’s Speech addressing reforms of business, employment and economics

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Birmingham 171115On the 13th May 2013 the Bishop of Birmingham responded to the Queens Speech focusing on the areas of unemployment, business and the economy. The Bishop welcomed proposals for economic development and investment in transport which he hope would bring benefits to Birmingham and the wider region. He hoped the Government would tackle three areas, youth unemployment, personal debt and banking reform, quoting former Archbishop William Temple  he urged the Government to “Give us the tools in the regions and we will finish the job”. 

The Lord Bishop of Birmingham: My Lords, I am grateful for what we have heard today of Her Majesty’s Government’s aspirations for a stronger economy and a fairer society, because those two are held together at the head of the gracious Speech. We aspire to them ourselves, even as far north as Birmingham.

It is on the holding-together of these two laudable elements and the outworking of their detail that we must focus in the local economy day by day, person by person, job by job. There are, as we have heard, murmurs of good news. Foreign direct investment in greater Birmingham in 2012 rose by 52%, bringing in 2,200 new jobs and more than £174 million of new investment, four-fifths of which was within the sectors targeted by Business Birmingham—they are in some of the exciting areas about which we may hear later: IT, food and drink, life sciences, digital media, professional and financial services and advanced engineering. It was also good to hear about infrastructure developments. I recommend that any of your Lordships who visit Birmingham should do so via New Street station, which is already much improved. The airport runway is also being extended so that we can travel further. In real economics, we need to persuade air carriers to use our regional airports. Connecting up the macro and the micro is significant. High Speed 2 is welcome, particularly when the right compensation deals are agreed. Of course—to bring culture into the argument—Birmingham has one of the finest new libraries in the whole of Europe, to be opened in September this year. Universities are investing and so are hospitals.

Building on this apparent success in the regions is based on a recognition that well resourced employment is at the heart of a stronger economy and a fairer society. I was glad to hear the Minister mention local enterprise partnerships, inspired by the No Stone Unturned report, but I urge clarity on how much money is going to be attached to the now-published strategic growth plans that our region and, I am sure, other regions have, and when it will be forthcoming. It is in the further connecting-up of the macroeconomic and the day-by-day experience of ordinary people that we need to persuade ourselves here in Westminster that it is possible to delegate power and responsibility to talented and enthusiastic workers, businesses and institutions in our regions.

We will see a steady rise in the economy when we see a steady rise in the active participation in the economy of ordinary workers, people who want to use their skills and talents and to engage them in any way that is on offer to them. These macroeconomic policies will be tested on whether people have hope and changed lives in their local areas.

Perhaps I may drill down a little into practical matters. Those of us on this Bench are supposed to stick to principles, but I find that principles are best illustrated by hard decisions, particularly where money is concerned. In the wide-ranging Birmingham social inclusion White Paper, published in March this year and accepted by local businesses and politicians alike, economic policies are seen as being at the heart of changing society, particularly for those who are excluded at the moment. Let me mention just four areas which are of economic interest, and I would be very grateful for a response from the Government.

The first is removing the corrosion of youth unemployment. Birmingham has published, as I am sure have many other regions, commissions and strategies to deal with the appalling waste of young talent coming out from school through their not being able to engage in the economy. I encourage the Government to have even more flexibility in apprenticeship schemes and enabling businesses to take on more than just one person at a time. I recommend proper devolution of the implementation of those schemes through youth contracts to regions such as ours.

The second is the abolition of the spectre of unmanageable debt. That connects with what we have heard already this afternoon to do with banking. I focus on asking the Government to support credit unions even more strongly. That quieter, softer area of the financial world may not produce huge profits but can be profitable and can enable the 9 million people in this country who do not have access to bank accounts to manage their affairs in a way which will enable them to be contributors rather than dependants. But the Government must deal face-to-face with the appalling business of the poverty premium, which means that the poorest people in the country pay the most for the ordinary goods that we take for granted in our houses because they do not have access to finance and have not been able to save.

Thirdly, we have heard and will hear more in this Parliament about the banking system. I am delighted that my noble and most reverend friend the Archbishop is here, but I speak in your Lordships’ House today because he cannot be here tonight, he has church duties to perform. We have heard about the support for small and medium-sized enterprises and the £300 million that has been offered. I urge that to happen quickly in a trustworthy manner so that those employers, who form the majority of the business employers in the country, can have confidence in their ability to take on new workers and to develop their businesses.

Finally, I address local government more directly and the more widespread and long-distance issue, which is fundamentally economic but also social. That is continuing to promote cross-cultural friendship. I hope that your Lordships will forgive me for mentioning this in an economic debate, but it is economic because the Government have been supporting it through a Near Neighbours programme. Although modest in money terms, it has already reached out in our area to 120 projects, spending just under £400,000. The basic requirement is that people of different cultures and faiths meet together to engage in community activity.

That underlies a successful and healthy economy—a strong economy, but also a fairer society. I trust that all those commitments will be given forensic attention in the next period.

The phrase that holds together a stronger economy and a fairer society that has been used lately in our debates is social cohesion. Your Lordships will know from your deep knowledge that it was first used by a former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, in his Scott Holland lecture of 1928. In it, he said that all can flourish when, by the exercise of principles of freedom, fellowship and service, faith, family, church, trade and professional associations, businesses and voluntary movements working together can achieve what any nation wants: peace and prosperity. I urge the Government to attend to those details of ordinary lives so that people can immediately participate in a country that may again be one of the greatest in the world. In the words of someone whom William Temple heard just before he died, “Give us the tools in the regions and we will finish the job”.

(Via Parliament.UK)