Bishop of Birmingham speaks in Lords debate on Chancellor’s Autumn Statement

On 29th November 2016, Lord Young of Cookham moved that the House take note of the economy in the light of the Autumn Statement. The Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt Revd David Urquhart, spoke in the debate:

There is much assurance in the Statement. It is a serious facing up to sustaining peace and prosperity and maintaining a standard of living in an increasingly uncertain world—although the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, pointed out that the world is always uncertain: that is also a very good theological point. There are some examples in the Autumn Statement of practical fiscal wisdom and much ambitious housekeeping as we reposition this country in the world of new and old markets. If we have long memories, we seek to keep a very close eye on the evils of inflation and admit to uncertain growth, on which we have depended for so long on general prosperity.

Following the third point of the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, I should be grateful if the Minister would say more about one thing that has not yet been discussed: how the details of this will be experienced in the English regions. Mention was made in the Statement of the Midlands engine. There is a welcome focus on skills, transport, housing and digital connectivity and an honest description of our lag in productivity, so ably exposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes. In passing, I hope that we will do more work in this Parliament on connecting big infrastructure investments with the actual gap of 30%, which has been mentioned, that exposes our performance compared to some of our international competitors.

I focus particularly in the regional experience of the Statement on something that has already been mentioned: a welcome for our share in the £1.4 billion for 40,000 new affordable homes. That is a positive move, but does the Minister agree that there must be greater focus on social rented homes to support the most vulnerable in society, for whom home ownership is not a realistic prospect in the immediate future—not least some of those young people who are not gaining access to the economy?

Furthermore, where will responsibility lie for all these essential targets mentioned in the Statement? Do the Government envisage a greater role for regional government, such as the evolving West Midlands combined authority? If so, can the Minister illustrate the economic power and oversight it will have in these key policy areas under a second devolution deal? Of course, the proposed borrowing facilities for mayoral combined authorities are welcome, but can the Government explain how local enterprise funding, for which £392 million is to be made available in the Midlands, and the investment fund payments by the British Business Bank for small and medium enterprises, will be united in an overall, measurable, regional delivery system? Some of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Fox, were leading towards that kind of arrangement.

It is also in the local communities of England that those who are just about managing will receive encouragement—small encouragement, some have suggested—from the Statement: the national minimum wage up to £7.50, tax thresholds increased and the welfare taper rate in universal credit reduced, but perhaps not significantly enough. Will the Minister also highlight the dire need of those who are not managing at all, and keep on with the promotion of focused initiatives such as coping with manageable debt and the early habits of saving, which are so necessary to the foundations of successful personal behaviour in a prosperous economy, in addition to the excellent credit union expansion project and Help to Save? Starting life properly will be a great achievement. In this connection, I commend to the Government the forthcoming report of the ad hoc Select Committee of your Lordships’ House on Financial Exclusion.

In conclusion, there is an underlying anxiety behind some of the remarks in the debate about those who have responsibility for those who are not economically active—children in poverty and the vulnerable elderly. The noble Lord, Lord Hain, mentioned them. It is well known that local authority budgets have been pared to a minimum and the NHS overloaded. In the absence of any major discussion in the Statement of those big sums, can the Government give more impetus to imaginative and cost-effective initiatives for ordinary human caring? Those were so well demonstrated in the Near Neighbours initiative where, for a tiny amount in the context of this debate, a great deal of social good was achieved; new and powerful relationships were built up, achieving greater social capital to go alongside the billions of pounds that we are discussing today.

There is much of this that we cannot see and, if we are to succeed in developing our ambitions, the Statement will rely more and more on the natural abilities and resilience of our diverse population but, as the Chancellor returns—attractively, I believe—to one opportunity a year to raise our expectations of salvation, let us, in an economy that works for everyone, ensure that the weakest and poorest are saved first.


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