Bishop of Portsmouth – national crisis of poverty must be urgently tackled

On 21st January 2019 the House of Lords debated a motion from Baroness Stroud “To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of metrics to measure United Kingdom poverty, in the light of the report from the Social Metrics Commission.” The Bishop of Portsmouth, Rt Revd Christopher Foster, spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, Stalin, not often quoted on this Bench, is said to be the author of the maxim:

“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”.

On that, and indeed on everything else, I disagree with the Marshal. A single person living in poverty is a tragedy; that millions do so is an affront to our values, our common decency and how we think of ourselves as a nation.

If we are to tackle poverty, we must agree on how to measure it. We therefore owe the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, and her team a huge debt of gratitude—not just for taking into account the inescapable costs many families face, such as childcare and disability, nor just for the welcome focus on the lived experience of poverty, such things as mental health, literacy and family stability, nor even for the suggestion of measuring poverty against a threshold smoothed over three years, but for bringing together a diverse, authoritative group of experts, for their careful dialogue and analysis, and for arriving at a measure of poverty on which we can all agree, wherever we sit in this House. That is no mean feat and it is one on which we can all, I trust, coalesce. It provides the foundations on which we can—indeed, must—build given the shocking rising figures, particularly on persistent and child poverty, on which there is no time to elaborate tonight.

We on this Bench were heartened by the Secretary of State’s speech not many days ago. We applaud the desire to build a fair and compassionate welfare system and the commitment to taking a more considered approach to rolling out universal credit, and we were encouraged by the decision not to extend the two- child limit. But we know that this marks only the start on welfare reform and tackling poverty. I therefore look forward to the Minister’s response, to the Government’s commitment to use the measures set out by the Commission, to them publishing a coherent, comprehensive strategy to tackle poverty and child poverty in particular, backing it with resources and sufficient political will to make a substantive, sustained difference.

It is no exaggeration to say that events of the past week show us to be in a state of some national crisis, caused by very different understandings of who we are and how we relate to the wider world. On that, no consensus is yet forthcoming. But, thanks to the work of the Commission, we now have consensus on how we measure poverty. Now we must seize that opportunity and act with urgency, tackling the national crisis of poverty.