In a wide-ranging debate, the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds focused his remarks on the need for a clear and coherent national strategy for responding to natural disasters such as the recent extreme flooding in parts of the country. He also urged the Government to link such a strategy with a long-term and international strategy for tackling climate change. He also commented on the role of the Church of England in education and its commitment to ensuring that there is adequate provision as the population grows.
The Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds: My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for securing this debate and for his wide-ranging introduction, which, as the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, said, suggests that we can talk about almost anything. Perhaps that is the point. Perhaps the fact that we can talk about a very wide range of issues this afternoon will challenge the way in which we all tend to think in silos and fail to link up our thinking on a range of issues. Perhaps we need to return to the age of the polymath. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, has the equipment to enable him to become one of those renewed polymaths in our society.
I return to the subject of floods. On Sunday I was standing above the damaged sea wall at Whitley Bay, watching the high tide submerging it again and reflecting on the costs that that would mean for the borough of North Tyneside. That reminded me of the sheer power of water. It is no accident that the Psalms, from which we choose our prayers here, emphasise that power when they want to describe nature’s devastation and the need to combat it, for example:
“The waves of the sea are mighty, and rage horribly”,
or, from Psalm 46, that I used today:
“Though the waters thereof rage and swell”.
Society has always recognised the need to combat the destruction caused by water, and to do so coherently.
This winter, we have expressed our concern for those who have suffered, particularly in the southern river basins—the Thames, the Brue in Somerset and the Severn, for example. In the autumn we reeled from the effects of the east coast floods. In west Yorkshire, we know the power of Pennine streams, bringing havoc to Hebden Bridge, Sowerby Bridge and other places well known to the Minister. The noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, yesterday spoke of the response to the latest flooding and gave details of the way in which the authorities are responding. That was welcome.
Yet I do not yet sense a national and coherent policy to respond to natural calamities. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, pointed to the way in which we have not got our agricultural policy working in with our policy on calamities over issues such as planting trees and preserving green areas. We tend to go for a piecemeal approach and to patch up, rather than establish national criteria to respond to future challenges, wherever they may occur. In doing so, we often set one part of our country against another—“Why are they being helped when we are not?”.
These issues need to be set in the context of climate change, despite the Trappist vow of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, over this subject. Our response to climate change needs to be linked with our practical dealing with calamity. I listened hard to and respect what the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, said about the distinction between weather and climate. He is right; when we naively start to blame climate change for particular problems in the weather, that is clearly much too simplistic. However, given the way in which we are thinking this afternoon by bringing together our thoughts on a wide range of issues, the link between weather and climate change needs to be explored a good deal more than it has been so far. Scientists are working on that. They do not seem yet to have reached a point where they can make specific links, but that work nevertheless needs to continue. The climate change initiatives seem to have flagged over the past two or three years. Unless we respond to the need to reduce our and the world’s carbon footprint, we shall continue to place sticking plasters where damage is caused.
Therefore, the Government need to make it clear that their climate change emphases are a response both to the practical problems that we face and to the problems that the world is going to face over the next century and beyond. We need in particular adequate successors to the millennium goals, and I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to those goals. However, I wish that the climate change proposals were more strongly emphasised by the Government and linked in to our dealing with flooding and tidal surges, now and in the future. They need to be part of a single strategy that also includes green energy, rural-proofing, transport issues—we have considered those a little in this debate—as well as issues involving the food chain, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, referred in the previous debate, and which are crucial to our future as a nation and to the whole world.
We need this vision for the sake of our children and their children. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, raised the question of whether there were going to be enough school places for our grandchildren over the coming years. I can offer him the support of the Church of England, its dioceses and their education department, which are providing an increase in the number of primary school places, working along with local authorities and academies to grow the size of primary schools and, where necessary, opening new schools that are fully equipped with the technological equipment that children need. It is our children and grandchildren who will suffer if we do not take action.
We have become almost immune to Bangladeshi floods, the spread of the Sahara and the Philippines tornado. They disappeared from our screens within a week or so. The generosity of the people of this country is immense when they are asked to respond to need. We need to channel that generosity much more effectively into a coherent, long-term strategy that includes climate issues and their effect on our future. My basic question to the Government is: what plans do they have to explain the importance of tackling climate change as a response both to current tragedies and the future welfare of our country and our world?
This is my final contribution to your Lordships’ deliberations because I retire next week. I just wanted to say thank you for the help and colleagueship that I have received, both from those who believe that there should be Bishops in this House and those who do not. It has been a privilege to work with noble Lords and to benefit from the immense experience and expertise of this House, in both the careful examination of legislation and the high quality and variety of debates such as this. I wish the House well in all its future work.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, some debates are more difficult to sum up than others, but this one is simply impossible. Let me start by thanking the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds for everything he has done as a Member of this House and for the many contributions he has made. I hope that he will not be losing touch with his diocese entirely, which I know well, having walked across substantial parts of it, and having canvassed in such different areas as the Gipton and Harehills estates in Leeds and the Duchy estate in Harrogate—to take two extreme ends of the social spectrum. Only those who have walked over the Yorkshire Dales know quite how extraordinary are the boundaries between the different dioceses of West and North Yorkshire: Bradford, Wakefield, Leeds and Ripon. I know that the retirement of the right reverend Prelate is partly an adjustment of the boundaries of those dioceses, which will relate more to the 21st century than to the early 20th century when they were drawn up.
The right reverend Prelate asked about UK policy on climate change. Again, UK policy on climate change has to contribute to European and global policy on climate change. We are engaged in an active negotiation within the European Union about how we and the other 27 member states adjust to climate change. The discovery of shale gas in the United States has not made that any easier because the higher price of energy in Europe compared to the United States is clearly a very major issue here.
Other tributes paid by members of the House to the Bishop upon his retirement.
Lord Touhig (Lab): My Lords, I am honoured and delighted to follow the right reverend Prelate and we all wish him every happiness in his retirement, because he has made a major contribution in his service to this House. We wish him well.
Baroness Worthington (Lab): My Lords, I also congratulate my noble friend Lord Rooker on enabling such a broad debate to take place on this most interesting of topics. I also extend my thanks to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds for his contribution. I am sad that it is his final contribution, but I am sure that everyone will congratulate him on making such an important contribution to this debate.