On 3rd December 2015 the House of Lords debated the Chancellor’s Spending Review and Autumn Statement. The Bishop of Portsmouth, Rt Revd Christopher Foster, spoke in the debate.
The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, the Chancellor in his Statement in the other place described this as a Government who do big things. I begin by acknowledging with gratitude the big decision to retract the proposals to alter the tax credit thresholds and taper rate. I spoke from these Benches not many weeks ago when we were assured that the Chancellor was listening. It would be possible to say more about that journey of listening leading to this big decision, but that might be churlish. I simply welcome the announcement.As decisions are taken to move the economy towards higher wages, lower benefits and lower taxes, we shall though continue to ask where the burdens and costs of transition—and there always costs of transition—are being borne. The Government’s aspirations are good ones; as people are helped and supported into good jobs at higher wage levels, it is crucial that work should be encouraged, when possible, alongside commitments to the young, the elderly, vulnerable and disabled people. I remain surprised—that is a restrained word—when marginal taper and withdrawal rates are considered an encouragement for benefit recipients, when they would be considered discouraging as marginal income tax rates.
There is much to welcome in the Autumn Statement. I welcome the rise in the state pension, as well as commitments to rail infrastructure improvements, particularly beyond the south-east, the retention of free entry to museums and galleries, and support for renovation of military museums, including the D-Day and Royal Marines museums in my own diocese of Portsmouth. However, time is short and I turn to some reservations.
In the pursuit of efficiency and cost-effectiveness, I appreciate that local services and provision are often easy targets. For instance, many of us committed to local communities are disappointed that the delivery of justice through our Crown, county and magistrates’ courts will be further removed and distanced from people. There are issues here of the visibility of justice as well as the costs involved in travelling to a smaller number of bigger, more distant courts. On a similar theme, few of us would criticise the increased spending on elite sport but, of course, provision for sport locally, particularly in schools, has taken a battering over some years in local communities.
I conclude with some comments about the proposals outlined by the Chancellor for increased stamp duty on additional properties. This is a matter which demands attention. Empty properties when people are inadequately housed or without housing are clearly wrong. However, these proposals are not without complexity. I apologise if I have missed further detail, but I ask the Government in the promised consultation on policy detail to bear two groups in mind. First, we need to encourage older people to move at the right time from a family home to something smaller, but that transition can be difficult enough for people who are ill, vulnerable or recently widowed, for instance, without the threat of a stamp duty penalty, if their sale and purchase do not precisely coincide. Secondly, and not without interest for the clergy of my diocese, I refer to those who occupy tied accommodation during employment or service as a condition of employment. Often on low or modest incomes, they seek what may technically be a second home to provide for their housing needs in retirement. There are complexities here.