On 26th October 2017 the House of Lords debated a motion from Baroness Smith of Newnham asking “That the House takes note of the case for intergenerational fairness to form a core part of government policy across all departments.” The Bishop of Salisbury, Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, spoke in the debate, highlighting the amount of debt being carried by young people and the environmental legacy this generation was bequeathing to future generations.
The Lord Bishop of Salisbury: My Lords, I too think this is one of the key issues facing our society, so I am grateful for this debate.
Like just about everybody else in this Chamber, I declare an interest as somebody who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, when not only had we never had it so good but things could only get better. Many youngsters are struggling with the burden of debt which can be managed only with either a higher-than-average income or parental help, but many have neither. I have been struck by the quality of contributions to this debate so far, particularly that of the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, but I too disagree: this burden of student debt is not just a technical debt but a real one—and it is not just a financial burden. The noble Lord said that it was dispiriting. That is my point. This generation is having its hope sapped because of the burden of debt and the ways in which we are not addressing its changing needs. This is a matter of hope and values, not just finance.
On Tuesday, I hosted a group of 20 young people who came to the UK from the Calais Jungle. It was the first anniversary of the clearance of the Jungle, but many youngsters are still hiding there. It was one of the most moving encounters of my life. Fahred Barakzai left Helmand Province aged 15 because he was faced with a choice between fighting or being killed. He had lived in the Calais Jungle for six months and it was clearly hell. As an 18 year-old, he is now faced with the prospect of being sent home, after living for two years in the United Kingdom. That cannot be right.
Ishmael, now 18, who came from Syria, thanked the British Parliament and people for giving them a new home. He said, “It is our duty now in our new country to be part of the British community and help build it together. I believe my country is Britain now. Nothing in the world can change that. The country who kills their own sons is not a country”.
These youngsters presented Parliament with a plaque. It was given to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who came to this country in not dissimilar circumstances with the Kindertransport, and is similar to the one commemorating those who came then. The actress, Juliet Stevenson, read the plaque:
“We thank the British people and Parliament for giving us peace. We found a beautiful life in the UK, so different to the life we fled. We were suffering, but now we are safe”.
The MP for Brent North said at the meeting that these youngsters were among the most courageous people in the world. It was striking to see them face to face. The welcome and hospitality we show them reveal something about ourselves and the values of our society. My sense is that this country wishes to take in these unaccompanied children, and that it is therefore a scandal that 280 places offered for refugee children by local authorities remain unfilled. We could do so much better.
I tell that story partly to ensure that the thanks of the young refugees is a matter of record in this House, but also to raise the continuing plight of those who now fear being sent back as young adults, and of those who still wait in danger while we fail to determine their future. I tell it also because they show very clearly the best of British values, which they represent to us, and the failure of our values to address the changing needs of young people.
Much of this debate will focus, rightly, on our own national needs, but I am grateful to the noble Baroness for the way in which she focused on international matters in her introduction. We do not live in isolation, as the young refugees make very clear to us. Similarly, environmental issues do not know national boundaries. Much is happening to address these issues. We are in the early stages of what I am sure is an industrial revolution. The clean growth strategy is encouraging, if not sufficient.
The impact of human-fuelled global warming, the depletion of biodiversity, the degradation of the environment and the despoliation of our common home is one hell of a legacy to bequeath successor generations. As we prepare for the continuation of the Conference of the Parties in Bonn, it is worth reminding ourselves of the very powerful speech made by the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, at the opening of the UN Paris summit on climate change. He talked about what we can say to our grandchildren if we fail to make commitments and live up to what we promise.
This debate addresses issues which have been vividly exposed to us through the democratic processes of the referendum and the last election, when young people clearly voted differently from those who are older. Young people see their futures differently from their elders. We need to hear them and address their needs. It is our values that are being exposed and hope needs to be restored. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for bringing forward this debate.
Peers referred to the points made by the Bishop of Salisbury in the following ways:
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Lab) [respond to the debate for the opposition]: …. I particularly warmed to the comments of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury that, however you define student loans, to many young people they are a debt—a psychological barrier.
Lord Young of Cookham (Con) [responding for the Government]: …Much of our debate has focused on the issues facing the younger generation, and before I look at this subject by subject, I want to pick up a general point made by several noble Lords. Yes, there are real problems for today’s generation. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury said that hope was being sapped, but my noble friend Lady Jenkin put a slightly different perspective on it, because in some ways, the prospects for young people today are actually quite bright. Theirs is a generation that is healthier, with far greater access to higher education than their parents and grandparents, with record numbers—particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds—going to university, life expectancy up, youth unemployment falling, rates of smoking, alcohol consumption, drug abuse and teenage pregnancies down and with access to affordable travel overseas, which was denied to earlier generations. As my noble friend Lord True said, thanks to technology, there is access to information, music, entertainment and social exchange to an extent unimaginable 25 years ago, so there is something to put on the other side of the balance sheet….
…We had various ways of presenting student finance in the debate—on one hand, from my noble friend Lord Willetts, on the other hand from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury. The point was made that what really matters is how it might be perceived by the students. There has been some unfairness in the time; I have only two minutes left, which means that I shall not be able to make all my points. But on student finance, the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher said in 2016 that the UK,
“has been able to meet rising demand for tertiary education with more resources … by finding effective ways to share the costs and benefits” …
…On migration and refugees, an important issue raised by the right reverend Prelate, we transferred more than 900 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in the UK from other EU countries, including more than 750 from France.