Bishop of Chester responds to Spring Budget Statement

On 20th March 2019, the House of Lords debated the Government’s Spring Budget Statement. The Bishop of Chester, Rt Revd Peter Forster, spoke in the debate:

Amid the gloom of the general political situation at present, I welcome the Spring Statement and the optimism it contains. I say that in strictly non-political terms. Since I was ordained 40 years ago, I have been careful not to align myself with any political party or indeed to reveal how I have voted in any election in which I have been entitled to vote. My daughters in particular resent that deeply. En passant, that even applies to the EU referendum.

 

Of course, the Chancellor put the best gloss possible on what he said, but there must be a welcome for the escape from the shadow cast by the banking crisis that took everyone so unawares a dozen years ago. First the Labour Government, then the coalition Government and, more recently, Conservative Governments have wrestled with the aftermath. This has been extraordinarily difficult, but I find it encouraging to see the progress that has been made—although I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, that it has been made at a price. This is also despite Brexit and the gloomy predictions made in advance of the referendum were there to be a vote to leave.

 

It seems to me just plain common sense that, in terms of current spending, a country must try to live within its means. This applies to individuals and, in my own sphere, to dioceses and parishes. It is good to see that this country is now on a track to do this at the level of our national life, which is no small achievement.

That said, and meant, there are important questions with which I hope the Government will continue to wrestle. There is little doubt that the improvements in government finances have been made at tremendous cost, and in some cases a very difficult cost: police, social care, welfare, defence, schools up to a point—we will all have our own lists. I am pleased that overseas aid is an honourable and important exception.

 

I would add to the list university student fees. I have always supported a certain level of fees, but £9,250 a year is way out of line with any other European country; indeed, within the United Kingdom, it is out of line with Scotland and Wales. I hope that the forthcoming review will start to balance student fees and costs towards a more sensible level. Of course, much of the debt will never be repaid, but it must be a huge disincentive to those who have acquired a large debt burden as they seek to make their way in life. I speak as one of the older generation who did not face that challenge. When I went to university, all the fees were paid and I was given a maintenance grant. Those were the days.

 

Bringing in radical reform to the structure of welfare support through the introduction of universal credit in the midst of the austerity programme was always a recipe for great difficulty, and so it has proved. It has always seemed to me that, from the start, the whole exercise needed much greater bridging financing to be introduced effectively, without shining a light on the very unfortunate losers in the process.

No doubt many other areas could be spoken of, with the NHS looming largest. It is good to know that a sustained programme of real increases is planned. The key test will be whether the money is spent efficiently and effectively, given the size of the operation. The absentee from the Statement was social care. Essentially nothing was said about it. As the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, said, it is hanging over us. The noble Lord asked: what are we going to do?

 

I should also like to add a word about the section of the Statement on housing. I welcome it as far as it goes, particularly as my own diocese will be included in the additional funding from the Housing Infrastructure Fund. I hope that the annual target of 300,000 new homes by 2025 can be met, but my question is whether market-based solutions alone will achieve this. They must have a major part to play, but is there not a case for more direct government action in partnership with local authorities to help address the chronic lack of low-cost and social housing in particular?

 

After the Second World War, council house construction was typically between 150,000 and 200,000 units a year until the mid-1950s. Indeed, I was brought up and lived for the first 20 years of my life in one of the houses built in the peak year. Given that real assets are created by house construction, is there not a case for more direct government action to complement the market-based solutions? Looking back over the last 20 or 30 years, it seems to me that the market has failed to deliver. How can we be so confident for the future?

 

House prices are a major issue in many areas of the country. Market forces have driven them to their current level, and presumably it will not suit the major players in the market to see house prices come down. It would hardly be popular in political terms either to have a large number of people losing nominal wealth or slipping into negative equity. In the past, inflation used to enable Governments to manage this because a static cash value could then be complemented by some drop in real value through inflation. That is just not happening in this extraordinary period of stable inflation. As I look at the housing issues, there seems to be something missing in the analysis to join it all up, putting the market-based solutions together with appropriate government initiatives. We will have to see where we go; if the market delivers 300,000 units by the mid-2020s, I shall eat my cassock.

 

My final example is spending on children’s and young people’s services. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, mentioned the figure of 52% in relation to cuts. The real-terms figure I had was more like 25%. One way or another, huge cuts have been made to support services for young people through the decade of austerity. I welcome the extra £100 million for the police specifically to tackle knife crime, but that is for only one year and addresses the problem in only one dimension. We surely need a much more joined-up, multiagency approach. That will require the restoration of some of the funding cut from budgets for children’s and, especially, youth services. It is not just the symptoms of knife crime but its sources that need to be addressed. The fact that so many boys growing up in our society have no male role models to learn from is a feature of our society in terms of family dynamics and breakdown. The state cannot substitute entirely—it is a job for all of us—but it has a role. The cuts to spending on youth services over the past 10 years have been quite myopic in that regard.

 

An “end to austerity” is linked in the Statement to higher wages, lower taxes and increases in public spending. The balance here in the future is crucial. After a decade of well-nigh unprecedented cuts in public spending, I hope the forthcoming spending review will focus upon what needs to be done to undergird and build a safe and civilised society. Public money must be spent wisely and effectively, but in our complex and pluralist society I suspect we will need even more government action in the future to address the problems that will inevitably emerge to complement the vitality of a market economy based on individual freedom.

 

I know at first hand, through my family, the example which the Scandinavian countries have set. Scotland, to where I will shortly retire, is currently putting its own toe in the water of somewhat higher taxes to fund even better public services. We will have to see what the outcomes look like in due course, but the principle of tax-funded excellence in public services seems to me a noble aim. While it is there to a degree in the Statement, I wish it were just a bit more prominent.

 

Lord Wakeham (Con): My Lords, the right reverend Prelate should not underestimate his contribution over the years to our economic debates. I have heard him many times, and he always brings a great whift of common sense to our debates. We are very grateful for his contributions…


Lord Hain (Lab): ..The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester said, absolutely correctly, that there was no mention of social care in the Chancellor’s Statement. That should be a crying priority for any Government…


Lord Bates (Con, Minister): …The reality is that this Statement was able to unfold some positive news about levels of debt, employment and the general fiscal situation. The noble Lords, Lord Macpherson, Lord Wakeham and Lord Northbrook, referred to the positivity. Even the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester—

The Lord Bishop of Chester: Even?

Lord Bates: I am sorry—delete “even” from the record. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester, whose point about housing I will come back to in a minute, referred to it…

..On housing, further progress has been made in implementing the Budget to achieve our ambition of 300,000 homes. I hope that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester will not called upon from his retirement home in Scotland to eat his cassock—that prospect will add extra zest to our ambition to meet the target—but £717 million from the £5.5 billion Housing Infrastructure Fund to unlock 37,000 homes is a good step in that direction; there will be £250 million for 13,000 homes at Old Oak Common in London, and there are other schemes in Cambridge.