Bishop of Durham responds to spending round with need for focus on society’s most vulnerable

19.01.07 durham bOn 25th September 2019 the House of Lords took note of the Government’s Spending Round 2019. The Bishop of Durham, Rt Revd Paul Butler, contributed to the debate:

Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, like others, I welcome the fact that we are able to hold a debate on the spending round 2019. When the political point-scoring is redacted from the Chancellor’s original Statement, as I note it is on the GOV.UK website, there are aspects to welcome in the overall spending increase and some of the specific commitments. I am pleased that the Chancellor recognised in his speech that in the nation there are anxieties and divisions,

“between regions and communities, rich and poor, rural and urban, young and old”,—[Official Report, Commons, 4/9/2019; col. 180.]

and between black and white. The test for me is always around the impact of spending on the most vulnerable in our society. It is this that leads me to ask some questions.

Our infrastructure certainly needs major investment. This needs to be joined up and target those most in need of the improvements. So the northern powerhouse, yes, but simply the Manchester-Leeds connection, no—that is not enough. It must impact the whole of the north and help more marginal towns, such as Hartlepool, Barrow-in-Furness and Middlesbrough, not just the bigger cities. Although I speak from the north-east, the south-west and other regions need investment too.

On prisons, is spending on 10,000 extra prison spaces really the best way to improve safety from crime? The existing estate needs serious investment, especially the women’s estate. Rehabilitation of criminals is key. Short prison sentences do not work well. Would this money not be better spent on better alternatives to prison sentences of up to 12 months? This would ensure that really good rehabilitative services are available for these criminals. They are far more likely to then be good, helpful citizens than if they spent time in a smart, new prison cell. Improving the existing estate and reducing the numbers in prison by better rehabilitative services for short sentences would be a better way to create a safer and healthier Britain, alongside returning police numbers closer to the level they were before the cuts of a few years ago. The chief constable of Durham assures me that numbers will not be back to the levels they were at before the cuts.

Increased spending on the NHS is welcome, as is the £1.5 billion to local authorities for social care, but we all know that this goes only part of the way to meeting the increased need for social care across our nation. Better economic planning surely demands that the NHS and social care are properly linked and joined up. We need thought-through funding for all who need social care, in particular for those known to need long-term social care that will, at points, need particular health spending. The proper linking of health and social care is long overdue. We must have the courage to act. It is in the best interests of the most vulnerable and it makes economic sense.

The increased spending on education is welcome, especially on the per-pupil funding and the increase for the vital FE sector. Early years also needs significant investment beyond the £66 million announced. The increased per-pupil spending, however, should be focused on improving the educational experience of every child, and not on buildings. There is also a concern that the flat-rate scheme might still fail to meet the particular challenges faced by small rural schools.

Noble Lords would expect me to comment on places of worship. We welcome the doubling of the places of worship protective security fund, but emphasise that the core need is to tackle the underlying reasons why such hostility occurs. We are also grateful for the continuation of the Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme until 2021-22. This is an important support for many of these important community assets.

There is nothing at all in the Statement about unaccompanied children. Can the Minister confirm that the necessary regulations to bring unaccompanied children back within the scope of legal aid will be brought forward swiftly, as has been indicated to my noble friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby? These vulnerable children need such support.

I turn now to international development. It is very welcome to have the commitment to 0.7% of GDP being spent on overseas aid. The Statement itself is encouraging on how this will be spent. However, CP 170 raises some warning signs for me. Paragraph 2.22 states:

“The UK’s spending on … ODA … needs to be in the country’s national interest and every pound spent should deliver value for taxpayers”.

What has happened to supporting the most vulnerable for its own sake? Where is generosity? Surely it is the poorest in our world to whom we want to deliver value; we do not do this for our own benefit. Our self-interest should not be central in this budget.

My concern is further exacerbated by the creeping use of ODA money for what should be FCO or even MoD spending. This is highlighted in paragraph 2.25. By stealth, if we are not careful, the wonderful work done through ODA is being undermined by the loss of the sense of generosity, care for the poorest and giving for its own sake. Would the Minister like to comment on this concern?

Finally, my biggest concern of all lies with the proposals for DWP spending. Yes, there are some small helpful increases, but where is the commitment to stop the freeze on benefits? Where is the tackling of the need to improve the work taper to increase help for people returning to work? Where is the analysis of the unfairness of the two-child limit? Where, in short, is the commitment to the neediest children in our land, those with long-term disabilities and those unable to work? We need to tackle the reality of child and family poverty. The benefits freeze needs to go now and there needs to be a significant uplift in benefits and tax credit levels. Sadly, this spending round has failed to address this at all, which leads me to conclude that while aspects of it are welcome and to be applauded, it ultimately fails the test of remembering the most vulnerable and giving them the priority that justice, compassion and love demand.

Lord Young of Cookham (Con): [extract] …One final point I want to make on housing, which I hope the Government will address, and which was touched on by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, is the local housing allowance. …

Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate (Con): [extract] … For my second point, which follows almost on from that of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, I want to talk about devolution for a second. …

Baroness Kramer (LD): [extract] … There have been many outstanding speeches today. … Critical statements were made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, and others demonstrating the failure to pick up universal credit and deal with the impossible situation faced by so many of the poorest, including the working poor. …

Lord Davies of Oldham (Lab): [extract] … There is some advance and I give credit to the Government for it, as did the noble Lord, Lord Young, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. … There are an awful lot of people in work on the very low rates in this gig economy in which the question of taxation plays a relatively minor part—they do not earn enough to actually qualify for it. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham emphasised this point in a strong moral plea for some degree of fairness for those who are in poverty. …

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Northern Ireland Office, Lord Duncan of Springbank (Con): [extract] …I have also thought how we might frame this debate, and I was struck by the comments made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. It put me in mind of some remarks by a former Vice-President of the United States, Hubert Humphrey, who simply said that,

“the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped”.

That is a test that we need to embrace now. …


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