Queen’s Speech 2016: Bishop of Durham responds on welfare, children and life chances

On 19th May 2016 the Bishop of Durham, Rt Revd Paul Butler, spoke in the first day of debate on the Queen’s Speech. He focused his response on the Government’s life chances agenda, including poverty, children and welfare reform.

Bp Durham June 2015 bThe Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, the gracious Speech makes several commitments to improving life chances for the most disadvantaged. There is also a renewed commitment,

“to support the development of a Northern Powerhouse”.

It is in welcoming these that I shall make most of my remarks.

Children need the best possible start in life. They need to be loved and cared for above all else. Where this is best found in an adoptive family, seeing this established as well and as quickly as possible is important, so I welcome the proposed measures here and look forward to the details. For some, care ends up as the best loving option. We need to ensure that life chances for those in residential or foster care are as good as for all other children. When the time comes to leave care, it is often traumatic. A move to provide care leavers with a personal adviser until they are 25 is therefore a very welcome proposal.

With the passing of the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, the focus for the rest of this Parliament will be on the implementation of these reforms, including the wider rollout of universal credit. I have always been a strong supporter of the aims behind universal credit: to simplify an overly complex system and to incentivise work. Work is usually the best route out of poverty. It also helps combat isolation and gives purpose and meaning to people’s lives.

Unfortunately, there is a real danger that recent changes to universal credit are undermining its original intent. Substantial reductions in the work allowance mean that the returns from working will be much lower than was anticipated when the scheme was first enacted in 2012. According to the Resolution Foundation’s recent report, universal credit will now, on balance, be less generous to low-income working families than the tax credit system it replaces. I hope that the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will take the opportunity to revisit this policy and look for ways to strengthen work incentives and support progression in work. This could be the difference between building on the early success of universal credit in boosting employment rates among claimants and sacrificing all the hard work that has gone into developing this programme for the sake of short-term savings to the Exchequer. I also look forward to seeing the Government’s White Paper on narrowing the disability employment gap.

The welfare system can and should be used to promote work and other virtuous behaviours that reduce the need for welfare in the long term. The Government’s new Help to Save scheme is a very good example of this, incentivising low-income working families to save and reducing the likelihood that they will get into problem debt. We strongly support this initiative, which complements the work we are doing in primary schools with Young Enterprise. We are grateful for the extra government funding for the LifeSavers programme.

However, we must not lose sight of the welfare system’s role in alleviating suffering in the short term. There is growing evidence that large numbers of people are falling through holes in the welfare safety net. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, at least 185,000 households in the UK are destitute at any given point in time, unable to afford even the basic essentials of life—food, clothing, housing and heating. It is estimated that 668,000 households experienced destitution at some point over the course of the last year—affecting around 1.3 million people, including more than 300,000 children. The routes into destitution are complex, but problems with the benefits system feature prominently in this and other studies. We need to take these findings seriously, by starting to measure levels of destitution and food insecurity more systematically. There is an urgent need to fill the gaps in the welfare system caused by delays and errors in administering benefits and the uneven access to crisis payments.

In the north-east, there is currently little evidence of any slow-down in the need for food banks. The holiday hunger programmes run last year through Communities Together Durham look like doubling this coming summer because of the need that exists in many of our communities. I recently spent eight days walking around Darlington and Stockton in the Tees Valley. These are areas in which levels of poverty are high. They are also potentially key players at the heart of any northern powerhouse. There are some encouraging signs in relation to manufacturing and employment, although there is much more work to be done to ensure that apprenticeships grow and turn into real long-term jobs. Concerns remain that any recovery is slow and fragile.

Alongside the manufacturing and service industries, there is immensely impressive work through a wide range of charities. Among those which stand out are the Daisy Chain Project’s work with autism; A Way Out’s work with sex workers and preventive work among young people; Mind with dementia support; Billingham Environmental Link Project with local gardens and community centres and Love Stockton, which involves 84 churches together offering a wide range of care and support to the very neediest. The One Darlington partnership awards evening was truly inspiring. All this work—whether business or voluntary—needs decent infrastructure and good local services. Local authorities have had their funding cut by 50% over the last few years. They are now stretched to the limit, arguably beyond it. Those are not their words but those of the businesses and charities that I met.

It is therefore not surprising that from all quarters I hear scepticism and concern about turning the rhetoric of a northern powerhouse into real significant development and growth. We face the ironic possibility that the cradle of the railway industry—the Stockton to Darlington line and the home of Hitachi’s excellent new train-making facility—provides the trains for new infrastructure developments but is excluded from benefiting any further by inadequate investment in railways in the north-east itself. Newcastle, Sunderland, Hartlepool and Stockton could all lose out because there is such an emphasis on the Leeds-Manchester-Liverpool axis that the far north, both east and west, is not properly included. If we are to have HS2, I suggest that we start building from Newcastle at the same time as we do from London.

I support having elected mayors for the north-east and Teesside, but they and the local authorities need adequate funding. The reforms to business rates do not work well for our local authorities. To be really significant in improving the life chances of children, young people, adults and the elderly in the north, the northern powerhouse must work for the whole of the north and must take seriously our region’s brilliance in manufacturing for the 21st century. We in the north-east are the leaders in the nation.

In conclusion, we need a vision of life chances which is bigger than that in the coming new measures. We need a vision which is about the fullness of life, where all are valued—a life marked out above all else by love, for which, of course, we cannot legislate.

Lord Fowler (Con) [extract]: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. We should all listen very carefully to what he said, particularly on universal credit and welfare generally—which I still prefer to call “social security”.

Viscount Trenchard (Con) [extract]…I find myself in full agreement with the views of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham on HS2 and the northern powerhouse. It is welcome that the Government have committed to continue to support its development and, as a director of a company that manufactures plastics on Teesside, I am well aware of the crucial need for further investment and job creation in that region, building on the very welcome establishment by Hitachi of its new rolling stock factory at Newton Aycliffe.

(via Parliament.uk)

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