“I worry enormously that in our society we fall too easily into a tendency to demonise and victimise and fall between us and them… I suggest that there is clear evidence that our society is struggling to understand itself as a society today, and not enough evidence on the value of justice for all members of our society” – Bishop of Truro, 16/10/14
On 16th October 2014, the House of Lords debated a motion in the name of Baroness Tyler of Enfield, “that this House takes note of Her Majesty’s Government’s Social Justice strategy.” The Bishop of Truro gave the following speech:
The Lord Bishop of Truro: My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, for initiating this debate and congratulate her on her very clear and comprehensive introduction to this very important topic. I am also very grateful to be speaking in a debate when my friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely is going to make his maiden speech. If it were not presumably against the protocols of this House, I would like to congratulate him on doing so before he has done it. However, knowing him as I do, I think that that is probably very dangerous.
I am very glad that the Government have a social justice strategy. In my few words, I want to make one major point and illustrate it from three pieces of evidence with which I have some personal experience, and ask some questions of the Government, very much along the lines of what the noble Baroness has already said.
I declare an interest in that I am chairman of the Children’s Society, a national organisation that at present has two major priorities. One is to fight childhood poverty and to bring it to an end, and the second is to fight adolescent neglect. As some noble Lords may know, I also chair, along with Frank Field, an inquiry into the reason for the sharp rise in the use of food banks in this country. Noble Lords will know that from 1999 there were no food banks; now, according to our figures—we are hoping to produce our report in early December—there are more than 800 food banks throughout the country.
I am very encouraged to read in the Government’s social justice strategy that:
“Social justice is about making society function better”.
I am therefore disappointed to see that, in reality, the social justice strategy is really about a mechanistic way, or ways, of dealing with those in poverty. It is not surprising to read in the document, Social Justice: Transforming Lives—One Year On, that the Government say that to achieve their strategy will require a “sweeping cultural change”. I entirely agree with that statement—and that is my main point.
From the work that I have done on the food banks inquiry and in my work in the Children’s Society and as a Bishop, I worry enormously that in our society we fall too easily into a tendency to demonise and victimise and fall between us and them. Social justice surely assumes that there is such a thing called society in which a key value is justice. Implicit in that is that it is justice for all people in our country. I suggest that there is clear evidence that our society is struggling to understand itself as a society today, and not enough evidence on the value of justice for all members of our society. My first piece of evidence is that there are still, apparently, approximately 116,000 young carers in this country. Is it a sign of a properly functioning society that we have so many young carers still giving most of their young lives to caring for parents or siblings?
Secondly, although I welcome the steps that the Government have taken—for example, free school meals for all infant school children and the introduction of a pupil premium—I worry that despite these measures they will not succeed in meeting their commitment to eradicate childhood poverty by 2020. In fact, according to recent statistics from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, after taking into account housing costs, childhood poverty will rise by 1.1 million between 2011 and 2020. It is therefore important to find ways in which we can continue to work together to enable our whole society to be a just place.
Noble Lords may have seen the work done by the Children’s Society in collaboration with the organisation StepChange. They have recently produced a report entitled The Debt Trap. It is clear that almost 2.5 million children across the country live in families who owe a total of £4.8 billion in bills and loans. Will the Government work in partnership with other organisations to develop a breathing-space solution for many of these families who incorporate debt as a key part of living in our world today? It is also important that the early intervention strategies continue to promote social justice. Will the Government ensure that there are no further cuts in funding for these key early intervention schemes?
Children tell us that they are still unhappy and that their lives are blighted in a variety of ways. This is clear from the latest Good ChildhoodReport published this year by the Children’s Society. Fascinatingly, the major issue that children and young people identify is their priority for such things as love, a stable family and friendships. Sadly, I do not see these issues, which I believe are sometimes wrongly called “soft” issues, in the Government’s social justice strategy.
My final piece of evidence comes from the work that I have been privileged to do on the food banks inquiry. We have been inundated with pieces of evidence and we have gone round the country listening to hundreds of people telling us their own stories. In doing all this, it has become very clear to me that the food banks of themselves are not part of the solution only and can sometimes actually be part of the problem. The concern I have is that more and more people are going to food banks reluctantly and with real embarrassment because the relationships in extended families, neighbourhoods and communities are, sadly, not there. I stand second to none in congratulating those many thousands of people who volunteer to work in food banks but I worry that those food banks reinforce the commodification idea or process—that is, a problem comes through the door in a person who is in need of food and they are given a box of food. Clearly, that of itself is not the answer to a much deeper problem. The problem lies in our society and it is one of justice for all.
Given all that I have seen, will the Government try to do what they advise in SocialJustice: Transforming Lives—One Year On? There is, indeed, a need for a major cultural change, which is to begin to put back into our society the glue, as I call it—that is, to note that every single one of us, whatever our status or economic position, is interdependent. We are all part of this thing called society. We should all therefore believe that a key value for us is that of justice for all people.