On 9th January 2020, the Bishop of Portsmouth, Rt Revd Christopher Foster, spoke in the Queen’s Speech debate, about unifying the nation by building on the expansion of the Living Wage and addressing welfare, child poverty, homelessness and help for the disabled:
The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, it is stating the obvious to say that these are turbulent, uncertain times, perhaps the most turbulent in living memory, even when that memory belongs to Members of your Lordships’ House—a particular, special demographic. It is striking in the face of so much that is uncertain and unknown that the Government’s rhetoric is of clarity, confidence, and even dash. However, while the terrain might be new, much of the rhetoric is from an older school. What is novel is from whom it comes.
The gracious Speech spoke of the Government delivering on “the people’s priorities”, words accompanied by the unmistakable sound of metaphorical tanks being driven with some purpose on to a lawn previously occupied by others. This represents a striking act of linguistic appropriation, but those occupying their new territory would be wise to exercise caution when speaking of the people as a single, homogeneous entity. Indeed, if Brexit has shown us anything, it is that the people are not one and that the bonds that tie us together—or that we thought tied us together—have become frayed and even broken.
We must thus applaud the Prime Minister’s repeated commitment to serve and heal one nation, a welcome recognition that we are all connected, bound together and obliged to one another. It is a welcome recognition too that the Government must seek to reconcile difference and dispute. We can welcome the spirit even if we differ on the nature of those obligations and perhaps the paternalism that underlies many ideas of one-nation politics. When Disraeli coined this phrase, it was precisely because this was not one nation. It was not a nation at one with itself, not least because of the obligations of those who had were not being discharged towards those who had not.
I was therefore delighted by the commitment to give the full living wage to those over the age of 21 rather than 25, but I urge the Government to put this into effect more quickly than the long grass of five years’ time. If fairness is promised in the system of taxation, so must it be in the world of work. A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay does not seem too much to ask if you are 21, 41, 51, or whatever.
My inspection of the Speech and its ancillary briefing suggested that some crucial support in building and sustaining one nation is absent, notably welfare and benefits—on which the Government are silent beyond the welcome review of PIP and disabled people. This is especially so in the wake of the Conservative Party’s manifesto commitments. One nation includes us all: hard-working families, businesses, those who cannot for whatever reason work, and especially those who raise children in poverty.
Civil society is doing a tremendous amount and, if you will forgive a plug for my diocese, I pay tribute to the efforts of so many there, particularly the work of Churches Homeless Action, headed up by Canon Bob White in Portsmouth. Over Christmas, it again spearheaded a scheme encouraging donations of shop vouchers and distributing them to those who have not. These were distributed so that these individuals have dignity, because they can choose how to use them. It met with an overwhelming response from the people of the city to support those in need at Christmas.
In another place, the Prime Minister described the get Brexit done programme in terms of a microwave meal, ready to cook. Rather than the Prime Minister’s convenience food, I prefer the rather healthier, if eccentric, maxim used earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, that “fine words butter no parsnips”. I look forward to seeing how this avowedly one-nation Government propose to butter their parsnips and serve the people.
Lord Wakeham (Con): [extract] My Lords, the last few times I have spoken in this House, I have been preceded by a bishop. I wonder if those who draw up these lists have been trying to send me a message. I enjoyed, as I always do, the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth. …
Baroness Kramer (LD): [extract]…The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, my good and noble friend Lady Janke, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth and others pointed out that the working poor are now a very large percentage of our population. …
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (Viscount Younger of Leckie): [extract]…The Prime Minister has made it clear that he will work for the whole of the country, and fairness in society is a central theme. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth said, we are all bound together—one nation. …