Bishop of Leeds makes first speech in the House of Lords – constitution, devolution, economy

“Give a voice to the experience of those who otherwise are silenced. This is why the Lords spiritual are here, rooted in communities across the whole of our country, networked internationally, informed, often inconveniently and compelled to tell the truth as they see it. I hope to fulfil this vocation with the humility and confidence that it surely demands”. – Bishop of Leeds, 1/6/15

On 1st June 2015 the Bishop of Leeds spoke for the first time in the House of Lords. In his address, which came during the debate on the Queen’s Speech, he spoke of his background in the Church of England, his diocese, constitutional change, Europe and how economic and devolution proposals might impact on places such as Bradford. The full text is below and can also be watched online here.

Bp Leeds June 2015The Lord Bishop of Leeds (Maiden Speech): My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, especially given the kindness I have already met in this House since being introduced in February. I wish to express my gratitude to all sides of the House for the welcome I have received and particularly to the staff, who have assisted and advised me, sometimes on the same issue more than once. This coming Saturday I will be speaking in Stuttgart before thousands of people along with Kofi Annan and the German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. At least today I can address this House in English.

I find myself in something of a quandary, as one who has lived in many parts of England but ended up in Yorkshire. In fact, coming to Bradford as the bishop in 2011 was something of a return journey. I studied German and French at the University of Bradford in the late 1970s before retraining as a professional Russian linguist at GCHQ in Cheltenham, an experience that shaped me, not least in relation to an understanding of security-related matters such as military intelligence and the ethics of surveillance. Not only did the journey take me from intelligence—though not take intelligence from me, I hope—to theology, but also from a West Yorkshire industrial city that was beginning to decline, not only in wealth and productivity but also in morale and confidence. Radical demographic change also led in those days to substantial social challenge, as facts on the ground outstripped the creative ability to shape the post-industrial future.

When I returned to Bradford in 2011, having served in the Lake District, Leicestershire and south London, latterly as the Bishop of Croydon, I found a very different place. Yet it was evident that the seeds of a determined vision for future development were there in the creative energy of some of the key players in business, the council, faith communities and the social sectors. As well as the real and continuing challenges it faces, Bradford today is a place of growing confidence and well-founded optimism. Why am I talking about Bradford when I am now the Bishop of Leeds? It is for two reasons: first, because the Church of England has done something remarkable in Yorkshire, and secondly, because Bradford will be one of the touchstones of success or failure as regards the Government’s much-vaunted aspirations for a northern powerhouse. I always thought the real northern powerhouse was Liverpool Football Club, but because of what we have seen at the end of this season, I will not mention it.

Four years ago the Church of England, not widely known for its cheerful and adventurous willingness to change itself, began a unique process of reorganisation. The dioceses of Bradford, Ripon and Leeds, and Wakefield, which were all created in the late 19th or early 20th century to enable the church to adapt to changed demographic and industrial realities, faced dissolution and the creation from them of a single new diocese for the region. A three-year process of debate led to a visionary agreement to do just that, and the Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales came to birth at Easter 2014. I became the diocesan bishop just a year ago this week. The diocese covers a vast rural area of West Yorkshire and parts of North Yorkshire, and the urban conurbations of Bradford, Leeds, Wakefield, Huddersfield, Halifax, Barnsley and everything in between. Now organised into five episcopal areas, we can maximise the potential for serving the region—which has an economy greater than that of Wales—while optimising our attention to the distinctive local realities of local communities. Challenging? Yes. Exciting? Definitely. I am privileged to be leading a diocese that encompasses so many of the lived realities that need to be represented in this House as the details and implications of government policies are debated and scrutinised.

The relevant point here is that the future needs to be shaped by those who have both vision and commitment. The complaint that the world has changed is usually the recourse of those who mourn a version of the past that probably never existed anyway. One of the lessons we have learnt in West Yorkshire through the often painful processes of reorganisation and institutional change is the need to focus on the big picture as well as the detail, never losing sight of the vision that drives us.

This has wider application. In response to the gracious Speech last week, I heard in this House several speakers refer to the need for reform of this House. Yet this occurred in the context of the potential or threat, depending on how you see it, of wider constitutional change. The role of the United Kingdom in Europe cannot be divorced from questions about the possible fragmentation of the United Kingdom itself. My fear is that bits of reactive slicing here and picking there will lead to a frustrating and unworkable sequence of partial reordering that loses sight of any common purpose or overarching vision. In this context, I shall simply observe that calls for a constitutional convention have the obvious virtue of bringing together a wide range of otherwise potentially atomistic concerns that should be considered together, taking cognisance of the fact that they interrelate anyway and will have inevitable consequences that would best be anticipated and debated rather than faced ad hoc and merely reacted to.

On questions of our place in Europe, I shall hope to return in future debates in this House. I lived briefly in both Germany and France, and I co-chair a commission that brings together the protestant church in Germany and the Church of England—the Meissen Commission. I am concerned not only with institutional national engagement with Europe but also with how we develop a new narrative for Europe that captures the imagination of my own children’s generation in a way that the narrative derived from the mid-20th century response to war no longer does. I could say more, illustrated particularly by a debate that I had with Herman Van Rompuy in Brussels a couple of years ago, but I shall leave that to another day.

I said that there was a second reason why I mentioned Bradford—the northern powerhouse. Just under a year ago, I moved from Bradford to Leeds, about 10 miles, and I now live in a different world. Leeds is well connected and thriving in many areas, and key to this development over the past 40 years has been transport. Not only does the motorway system make Leeds quickly accessible from so many parts of the country but its rail links open it up to wide opportunities. Any concept of a northern powerhouse has to concentrate less on north-south links and focus more on building expandable infrastructure from west to east. Talk of the northern powerhouse usually includes reference to Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool, and understandably so, but unless cities such as Bradford are connected—and you cannot currently go by one train across Bradford, because there are two stations and they are not joined up—they will get left behind. The burgeoning of Britain’s youngest city, in terms of the age profile of its population, with its cultural, gastronomic—and I mean curry—tourist and commercial riches must not be wasted by planning that compromises longer-term development by shorter-term limitations.

I spent eight years on the board of an international insurance group, from 2002 to 2010, and learnt a good deal about business, finance, organisational change and the shaping of business to serve not just profit but those whom profit is there to benefit. At the end of all deliberations, be they political, economic, cultural or financial, are the people who make or break our societies. By serving in this House, I hope to have the adventure and humility to learn. I also have a responsibility to represent here the lived experience of people in the communities served by the church in West Yorkshire and the Dales. This includes those of wealth creation, business and enterprise, the rural economy and industry, but it also includes those who, whatever my own thoughts about the rightness or wrongness of particular policies, suffer the consequences of poverty, need and hopelessness. There is a verse in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs that stood as an indictment of much of the Christian church in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. It says:

“Open your mouth for the dumb”—

in other words, give a voice to the experience of those who otherwise are silenced. This is why the Lords spiritual are here, rooted in communities across the whole of our country, networked internationally, informed, often inconveniently and compelled to tell the truth as they see it. I hope to fulfil this vocation with the humility and confidence that it surely demands.

All the work of this House and the established church is done in the glare of media scrutiny, and rightly so. Intelligent and healthy media are vital to a living democracy. As someone very engaged with the media, I remember the caution expressed by a former Bishop of Durham. Once when feeling depressed and misrepresented by the media he had lunch with a rabbi, who told him the story of the bishop and the rabbi sailing on a lake in a park. The rabbi’s skull cap blew off and floated away on the water, and the bishop instantly stood up, got out of the boat and walked on the water to retrieve it. He got back into the boat and handed it back to the rabbi. Next morning’s headline read, “Bishop can’t swim”. We need to keep things in perspective.

Lord Liddle (Lab): [Extract] My Lords, it is a great pleasure on my part to congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds on his excellent maiden speech in this House. It was charming and well constructed. Since I joined your Lordships’ House five years ago, I have come to appreciate the wisdom that emanates from the Bishops’ Bench, and I think that “Bishop Nick”, as he is known, will make a good contribution. Like me, he is a lover of the miracle of modern Germany, yet we need to make a stronger and more modern case for Europe. Like me, he has written books; the difference is that it took me five years to write a book, while he seems to write one every year. He is also a voice of the north, and I was glad to see that his first curacy was in my home patch of Carlisle—so welcome, and congratulations….

Lord Howarth of Newport (Lab): [Extract]…Of course, the Government have promised us legislation on surveillance. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds, whose maiden speech was also a joy to hear, will be particularly well qualified, as a former staff member of GCHQ, to enable us to understand better the ethical and practical issues associated with surveillance and how to strike the right balance between security and civil liberties…

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Faulks) (Con): [Extract] ..I should also like to congratulate our maiden speakers, coming appropriately, given the theme of the debate, from different parts of the United Kingdom. There was the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds, a veritable northern powerhouse himself. My noble friend Lord Dunlop unusually made his maiden speech from the Dispatch Box; he will be a valuable ministerial colleague. As many noble Lords know, he has great experience in an area in which he will be scrutinised, or the proposals will be scrutinised, in considerable depth. The noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, has kept us waiting a little longer before making his maiden speech, but it was well worth the wait. We are grateful for all their speeches, and I know that they will greatly inform our debates in future…


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