The Bishop of Peterborough delivered his maiden speech to the House of Lords on 25th February 2014, during the debate tabled by Lord Low of Dalston: ‘To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to Tackling the Advice Deficit, the report of the Low Commission on the future of advice and legal support on social welfare law in England and Wales’.
The Lord Bishop of Peterborough: My Lords, as I make this maiden speech I am delighted to have the opportunity to thank the many Members and staff of your Lordships’ House who have made me so very welcome here. I am also most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Low, for initiating this debate, and for producing with his colleagues this excellent, wide-ranging and challenging report.
I suppose it to be inevitable that cuts in government spending, however necessary they may be, will always hit the poorest most. It is therefore all the more important to give attention to ways of helping the most vulnerable to claim and receive the support to which they are entitled and the professional advice they may need. This report does that: I welcome it most warmly and hope that Her Majesty’s Government can do so too.
Three particular themes of the report resonate with me. The vision of equal access to justice, with the recommendation of a national strategy for advice and legal support agreed by all parties, is most welcome and would make a real difference. The vision of holistic systems thinking, with its direct addressing of poor and disconnected services, such as those described in the Nottingham study, makes complete sense. The emphasis on local provision, including from the voluntary sector, but requiring better training and co-ordination, is absolutely right. Those three themes, if implemented, would lead to better governance, fairer access and a less divided society.
I regularly meet some of the most needy members of the community. The diocese which I serve includes the lovely and relatively prosperous counties of Northamptonshire and Rutland. It also includes most of the rapidly growing city of Peterborough and other urban centres which are home to many vulnerable people and groups whose lives can so easily break down without the help and advice of the sort described in the Low commission’s report. The migrant communities of Northampton and Peterborough include many—especially older women—whose English is poor and not up to technical explanations or form-filling. The rural poor, not all of whom have access to dependable broadband or the skills to use technology—even if they had easy access to libraries, which they do not—frequently miss out.
I am privileged to be a trustee of the Farming Community Network, formerly the Farm Crisis Network, and am well aware of how difficult it is for some struggling farmers to access advice through the statutory channels. Our towns in the diocese I serve, including Corby, Kettering, Northampton, Wellingborough and the City of Peterborough, have their fair share of poor, white, excluded communities, many of whose inhabitants would benefit from supportive advice and advocacy. I spend time visiting our prisons, and am excited by the activities of charities which help prisoners to find housing or work when they are released. However, I am only too conscious that for many their functional illiteracy and innumeracy, and their all too common psychiatric disorders and behavioural problems, place them at a huge disadvantage in trying to become contributing members of society. I also visit and take an interest in psychiatric hospitals where I meet both in-patients and out-patients who need help and advice to cope with the pressures of life. At Peterborough Cathedral we have regular meetings for Armed Forces veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; again good people do their best to support them, but the necessary legal and other professional advice seems to be in short supply. All these people and groups need to know that they are valued, that society cares for them and wants to help them and that our affluent country has time and resources for them.
I notice that one of the bodies listed as having made a submission to the Low commission is the Peterborough citizens advice bureau. My chaplain is a trustee of that charity, and I follow its important work with some interest. Thanks to the collaborative partnership-working instigated by Peterborough City Council its funding has not been as badly affected in recent years as some other CABs. However, I notice the very significant increase in the number of cases it has had to deal with. Unique client numbers have risen from 7,190 in the year ending March 2012 to 8,744 for the first nine months of the current year, with an estimate of 12,000 for the full year. If this is typical of other CABs across the country we can see something of the growing need, brought about, according to Peterborough CAB, by a combination of the recession and welfare reform.
I am still very new to the customs and conventions of your Lordships’ House. Please bear with me as I learn from my mistakes. I take it that it is acceptable here for us, not least Bishops, to do God. One of the tests of a civilized society is of course the way in which it supports its weakest and most vulnerable members. I would go further than simply stating an ethical principle, however important. The bottom line for me is the calling of all who think of ourselves as children of God to develop in ourselves, and demonstrate in our words and actions, his especial love for the poor and needy.