Bishop of Derby speaks on tackling poverty and powerlessness

On 14th July 2016 the House of Lords debated a motion from Lord Bird, “That this House takes note of the case for tackling the causes of poverty in the United Kingdom”. The Bishop of Derby, Rt Revd Alastair Redfern, spoke in the debate and his remarks are below. The Bishop of St Albans’ speech in the same debate can be seen here.

Derby 191115cThe Lord Bishop of Derby: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for introducing this important issue of tackling the causes of poverty. We learn from the briefing notes that the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, makes it clear in her textbook that it is almost impossible to define poverty. That is part of the complexity with which we have to wrestle because, as poverty is relative, it is very hard to design appropriate responses.

In my trade, we have two phrases: we talk about the poor and about the poor in spirit. The word for spirit means power, and I want to look at to what extent to be poor and in poverty means to be lacking in power—the kind of power that allows you to feel good about yourself and to have security of work, security of a living place and security of contributing to society. How do we bless people with a sense of power over their lives, for themselves and those around them, and to make a contribution to society?

Clearly, one way of giving people power is financial. Many noble Lords in this Chamber know far more than I do about universal credit and how to design and refine systems that financially contribute to giving people power. But the gist of what I want to suggest is that, alongside this, there needs to be another kind of empowerment, without which the shelling out of money will not be very effective. I invite noble Lords to think about how we give people the kind of confidence, resilience and capacity to use money well if it comes in the form of benefits—and we can argue what level those should be—but also how to enable people not to suffer from the terrible deprivation of being isolated, lonely and depressed through being in poverty. I have a couple of examples and a couple of questions for the Minister and a little picture to finish.

First, how do we give people the power of confidence? Let me give one little example. In Derby, where I work, we have a very good college—Derby College—which has schemes to help people who are between work, or looking for work, to learn skills and to equip them with the confidence to get into the labour market. That is absolutely essential when people are powerless and out of work. The problem with that laudable scheme is funding. There does not seem to be a joined-up strategy; part of the response, alongside benefits, is to enable people through opportunities to learn and to grow in skills and confidence while they are out of the workplace. I invite the Minister to comment on the extent to which this needs to be part of a deliberate strategy to enable people to be upskilled and encouraged through learning when they are between work and simply on benefits.

The second thing, besides the power that confidence gives, is the power of belonging. Isolation is one of the cruellest things that I come across in my pastoral ministry; when people are in real poverty, they do not have the means to engage with people, to go out, to connect. Members of the House will know that churches and faith groups provide all kinds of drop-in centres, lunch centres and places for people to meet and belong, but some of the skilled centres, such as citizens advice bureaux, are pulling back for financial reasons. People need help to think about where they are at, what they might be about and what options are open. More and more of the burden is falling on the voluntary and faith sector, as the professionals such as citizens advice bureaux are under-resourced. If we are going to deliver that, we need more joined-up partnerships with local authorities so that our efforts—and there is lots of energy there—are well directed. To what extent might the Government consider issuing guidelines to encourage local authorities, when there are issues about citizens advice and so on, to look at other models of partnership with willing potential partners who perhaps need the resources to play this key role in order to give people not just confidence but a sense of belonging and of being equipped to handle the pain and stress of poverty?

I want to finish with one little picture. In north-east Derbyshire, there is enormous, real poverty. I think of a former mining village where children—in 21st-century UK—are hungry. In the school holidays, there is a very practical problem relating to poverty, because children who had free school meals then have no food; in their homes, there are empty larders and empty fridges. The church in that village is running a breakfast club. It is a very simple activity that provides real help for real poverty in real time. Parents and carers and those who suffer poverty with the children can get involved as volunteers and have that sense of belonging, contributing, learning skills and growing in confidence. The voluntary energy of the church and other voluntary groups in the community means that they are pitching in to address that issue, to build confidence and a positive way for people to go alongside the benefits, or lack of them, in this situation. We should celebrate that.

Besides negotiating about the amount of money we give people, how can we more formally encourage, in the ecology of dealing with poverty, that kind of comradeship, community and collective action, as the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said, at grass-roots level? How can that be encouraged? How can the Government challenge local authorities to look for that, to support it and to develop it? Without that, the money invested will be much more uneven in what it delivers.


Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Lab) [extract]…in taking note of the case for tackling the causes of poverty, we need to look not to the actions of the poor and the powerless—and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby talked about the importance of power—but to the actions of the powerful.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Lab) [extract] ..The fact that there has been so much additional use of food banks is shameful. However, I pay tribute to the Trussell Trust, the Churches and all the other organisations that are doing such a magnificent job in keeping them going. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby referred to the role of the Churches and the voluntary sector. He is right to say that funding constraints have made their job much more difficult.

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord Freud) (Con) [extract]…I think the point that was echoed the most was about silos—that is what the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, called them—and all the different ways that services come on a siloed basis. The noble Lord, Lord Bird, spoke about breaking down budgets so that they can be used on a joint basis. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby talked about models of partnership and how we might provide guidelines on that. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, also spoke about it. This is the most important single area that we need to get right. As noble Lords will be aware, I have been trying to develop a system to do so, with the development of universal support. It will work as a partnership between ourselves, local authorities and third-sector groups—other bits of government and other bits of public provision—to try to get coherent support for people.

We have built that system and tried it on a couple of barriers: digital exclusion—the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, will be pleased that we are trying to help people to handle such issues, because the challenge with UC is to be able to handle them—and financial barriers. We have done a lot of experimentation, and we have just completed the report on 11 of the trials. One thing that found is that people need to tackle a number of barriers. Following those trials, we are reviewing the whole way in which we are looking at universal support and at how best to address these and a broader range of barriers. My view—it is a personal view—is that this is really quite a promising development to supplement universal credit, but there is a long way to go.