“at the same time as we are counselling people not to take on unsustainable debt, the Treasury is proposing to let the national debt free of past restraints. It seems that there is one rule for citizens and another for public authorities. That is the moral corruption of a time such as this.” – Rt Rev John Gladwin, 3/11/08
In the wake of the credit crunch and unfolding financial crisis, the House of Lords met to debate the economic situation. The Financial Services Secretary to the Treasury (Lord Myners) opened the debate as follows:
“My Lords, we are living in extremely challenging times for the global economy and financial architecture. The twin global shocks of the credit crunch and the surge in energy and food prices have hit every country in the world, including here in the UK. As we are all aware, families have been hit by a big hike in world oil and food prices, while companies have seen associated rises in their costs. At the same time, as we have seen so vividly, the global credit crunch, which affected America, has now spread across the world affecting businesses and households, especially home owners. Many of the recent events in the banking system were unimaginable less than a year ago. Few predicted that by now the five largest Wall Street investment banks would have merged, sought government help or collapsed.”
The Bishop of Chelmsford, Rt Rev John Gladwin, spoke from the Bishops’ Benches. His speech was reported in the Daily Telegraph (see here) and is reproduced below in full.
The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: My Lords, it is always difficult for us to come to terms with a fundamental truth that we are not in charge of events. Our world is so often changed and shaped by the unexpected. That shifts the political task from seeking to control events to one of responding to what is happening. We all know that a storm has hit us and our survival will depend on the quality of leadership and the depth of our shared vision and values. I share the noble Lord’s concern that, in the midst of the turbulence, the last thing we need is to collapse into mutual recrimination and blame. Lessons will have to be learnt, but a coming together by us all will be required to reconstruct that which is damaged by the storm.
As I know from my experience in Christian Aid during the tsunami, houses built on sand get washed away. Although this financial storm has not washed away the house of our economy, it has revealed cracks and faults both in our financial institutions and in our social culture. We now see a profound mismatch between personal and public morality, the behaviour of citizens and that of corporate institutions. In recent years, it has been obvious that we have been living far too dangerously. It has become okay in our country to live in debt as a short-cut to prosperity. We have sent our young people off to university and told them that it is now publicly acceptable to leave with £30,000 worth of debt. People have gone into banks and asked for mortgages of, say, £45,000 and been told, “Why don’t you have three times as much?” whether they need it or can afford to pay it back. “Things can only go on getting better”, people were told; “The risk is worth taking”.
I expect I am not alone in this House this afternoon in having friends who work for highly professional businesses that have been bought out, in recent years, by hedge funds—in one case I can think of, twice in five years—which do not have a clue about the professional character of the business they have taken on. The deal has been simply about profit in the short term, making money by the shortest route. That could not go on and certainly cannot go on.
As we know, storms have no respect for the integrity of people; the destruction is indiscriminate. Suddenly someone who has sought, with wisdom and prudence, to save for their retirement faces the collapse of the value of their investments at the same time—this is the ethical mismatch—as the high financier and banker walk away from the collapse with bonuses and income intact. The moral affront of the crisis is the way it hits the weak and innocent and leaves the culprit to go free and relatively untouched.
The moral confusion is evidenced in the reality that at the same time as we are counselling people not to take on unsustainable debt, the Treasury is proposing to let the national debt free of past restraints. It seems that there is one rule for citizens and another for public authorities. That is the moral corruption of a time such as this. We all know that things are going to get worse for ordinary people. A storm leaves wreckage everywhere. Things have not only to be cleared up, but built on a better basis. I am particularly concerned for the poorest who are at risk of loan sharks. I echo the noble Lord’s question to the Minister. I thank the Government for what they have done for credit unions in recent years, but what plans do they have further to strengthen that facility across the country?
We need to assert some basic values such as: returning to spending what we have rather than constantly borrowing against an unknown future; encouraging people to save and to trust the security of their savings; moving away from a culture of debt and returning to banks and financial agencies helping people to manage their affairs with care and foresight; the public purse setting an example of the husbanding of our common national resources; and ensuring in the midst of this hardship that we target resources to offer as much protection and help as we can to those most at risk.
In thinking of those most at risk, will the Minister reassure us that the international aid budget and the targets that the Government have set for it are secure? This is an international crisis, and we fear its impact on the most vulnerable nations in our world, not just in the developed world. It is surely time for all of us to challenge this nightmare culture where people are encouraged to think that they can have what they want, be it the binge-drinking culture of some of our towns and cities or the binge-banking culture that has been going on on the markets. Only a sense of shared values and responsibility and a move away from this straight individualism into a community neighbourly life will enable us to live through to a better place. A time of crisis is a defining moment for us all. It is surely time to strengthen our common foundations and build a more sustainable financial and social culture for the future.
3rd November 2008 (via Parliament.uk)
The Rt Revd John Gladwin retired as Bishop of Chelmsford in August 2009.
During his ten years as a Lord Spiritual (he entered the House originally as Bishop of Guildford) he took a particular interest in housing, urban areas, international affairs, development and constitutional issues. He served on two committees of the House: Administration and Works (2003-05) & Speakership of the House (2005-06) and was a member of the Lord Chancellor’s cross-party working group on Lords Reform (2008).