Bishop of Portsmouth responds to the Autumn Statement

“I pray, and not just hope, that, as we approach further substantial cuts in public spending, the aspiration for the nation will be enjoyed by the many and not just those who now benefit from the welcome but modest steps that the Chancellor has taken.”

14.04.09 Portsmouth maiden speech 1On 4th December 2014 the Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Revd Christopher Foster, spoke in a take-note debate in the House of Lords on the Autumn Statement and measures to promote economic growth and to support businesses in the United Kingdom. In his speech, the Bishop welcomed the Chancellor’s wish to back the aspiration of many to save, work and own a home, but noted that there are still many barriers to this being possible for all.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, it is a pleasure to add to others’ my welcome to the noble Lord, Lord Rose, in eager anticipation of his maiden speech. The Statement of the right honourable Chancellor of the Exchequer has been welcomed and applauded in some quarters and criticised in others for its emphasis on what it means for individuals and families, as well as for the national economy. I am glad to see specific, though limited, encouragement for some individuals and welcome support for some often overlooked but important groups in society. The most noticeable and eye-catching announcements yesterday highlighted the changes to stamp duty, ISAs, fuel duty and air passenger tax. For some in our communities, these will be welcome news after an extended and extending period of fiscal tightening and often reduced disposable income. There will, however, be changes—as those on these Benches serving all parts of England know—that will make little or no difference to many who would echo the Chancellor’s wish to back the aspiration to save, work and own a home.

The dignity of work—with the capacity to provide for a family and save for the uncertainties of the future—and the ambition of home ownership remain beyond many. I shall look, and I am sure that I am not alone, for the benefits of the anticipated economic growth to reach those who may now be among the welcome record number in employment, but are still dependent—despite a full-time job—on benefits. The Chancellor’s new target of a personal tax allowance of £12,500 is undated and would just take those working full-time on minimum wage out of tax. Even then, at some future unspecified date, there would indeed be no income tax for those on the minimum wage but still national insurance contributions payable on income above just less than £8,000—an income tax of 12% by another name. Surely the time has come, for the sake of honesty and clarity, to name the reality and not perpetuate a fiction. I echo the conviction, used in a different reference last night, that we challenge this candour deficit.

The Chancellor’s confidence that we,

“stay on course to prosperity”—[Official Report, Commons, 3/12/14; col. 327.]

is not yet the personal experience of many known to me and to the parishes and clergy in my diocese, including the urban and rural areas of coastal south-east Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.

There is much to welcome in the less publicised parts of the Statement. I know that many in this House will delight in the refund of VAT on expenditure by hospices. The taxation of such hugely valued provision and care, predominantly funded by voluntary donations, has long been overlooked and been for many of us indefensible. I welcome, too, the extension of the £2,000 employment allowance to carers, who do so much for family members, friends and neighbours in sickness and disability.

With less individual significance but of great importance to community and business, I am grateful to the Chancellor of the Exchequer for granting £15 million towards the repair of roofs on listed places of worship. This is recognition of the importance of our church buildings, many of which are at risk, to our national heritage. They are a tangible link with our past and very often a focus of local identity. Today, they are increasingly used not only for worship but for wider community activity, and are visited and enjoyed by a large and diverse number of people.

The support scheme for first-time exporters, the expansion of the Funding for Lending scheme with its focus on smaller firms, and at least a partial limit on the amount of past losses banks can off-set for tax purposes against future profits are important steps in encouraging small and medium-sized enterprise in our nations and ensuring that the biggest and strongest pay their proper share of what we should together fund.

This Autumn Statement sets a high level of aspiration and raises the hopes of many. I know your Lordships will understand if I conclude by saying that I pray, and not just hope, that, as we approach further substantial cuts in public spending, the aspiration for the nation will be enjoyed by the many and not just those who now benefit from the welcome but modest steps that the Chancellor has taken.


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