On 26th June 2017, the Bishop of Portsmouth, Rt Rev Christopher Foster, contributed to the Queen’s Speech debate on business, economic affairs, energy, transport, environment and agriculture. He used his speech to implore the government to use this parliamentary session to do more for those in his diocese and around the country.
Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, the Prime Minister has spoken of the awful events of recent weeks as signs of a society not at ease with itself. Yet amidst the tragedy and the pain, we see hope and the victory of hope. We have seen a remarkable depth of love and shared resolve, especially between faiths. We have been deeply moved by how people have responded to evil with generosity, openness and humility. I was struck by the force and feeling with which the Prime Minister used that last word in the debate in the other place on the gracious Speech. Humility is not a term frequently associated with politicians by the public. True, circumstances have left the Government with little choice but to take the humbler part, but that is no reason for cynicism. A practical consequence is that we face the prospect of a two-year Session in which these discussions will take place. There are good reasons to deprecate departing from the annual cycle, but my hope is that it will also mean proper debate, detailed scrutiny and looking at issues from all sides and angles. If that is what humility looks like, in my view it is a price well worth paying.
Yet I have no sense that we will have a minute to spare. Brexit takes the lion’s share of the programme—an event one commentator described as the Heffalump of the programme. I fear they are mistaken. From my studies of The House at Pooh Corner, I am reminded that the Heffalump is an imaginary creature who inhabits the dreams of Pooh and Piglet. Brexit is all too real and, for some, a nightmare rather than a dream. The terrible irony is that most of the legislation we will consider is designed to enable us to do outside the EU what we do within it. We are transferring power and an existing body of law from one institution to another. We find ourselves a little like Alice, told by the Red Queen that,
“it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”.
Well, we might have to run even faster than twice as fast, especially if tonight we are to rise at the expected time.
The Prime Minister also commented on how the Brexit vote showed that,
“our country often does not work the way it should for millions of ordinary families. This Queen’s Speech begins to change that, by putting fairness at the heart of our agenda”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/6/17; col. 57.]
On that admirable sentiment I must own to doubts—doubts that the measures we will consider answer such a clarion call; doubts not necessarily in terms of intent, but in the modesty of ambition, which matched the modesty of the trappings for this State Opening.
The programme certainly contains measures—worthy, admirable measures—which will do good, but how much will they transform or even just improve the lot of the people of a city such as Portsmouth or the challenged rural and coastal areas of the Isle of Wight, whom I serve? The measures on domestic violence, debt advice and insurance fraud are cases in point. They are good measures that will make a difference but they are discrete, aimed at a single issue. Similarly, on capping energy bills, it is good to see action being taken, and I welcome the focus on the most vulnerable customers, but what we have before us does not accord with the robust line taken until very recently.
Doubts are alarming things for the clergy, perhaps all the more so for a Lord Spiritual. So it is my most earnest hope that the Minister tonight and the Government over the next two years will assuage my own doubts, and that we will indeed see this legislative programme, this Parliament and this country working with humility for millions of ordinary people up and down the land.