Bishop of Portsmouth call for measurement of children’s well-being on national level

On 12th March 2020 the House of Lords debated a motion from Baroness Tyler of Enfield, “that this House takes note of the case for Her Majesty’s Government to use wellbeing as a key indicator of national performance when setting budgets, deciding policy priorities and reviewing the effectiveness of policy goals.” The Bishop of Portsmouth, Rt Revd Christopher Foster, spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, I begin by humbly making two recommendations of ways in which your Lordships might profitably spend their time.

The first is to visit Portsmouth’s historic dockyard, where the nations historic naval hardware is on display. It is the stuff of national myth: from the “Mary Rose” to HMS “Victory” to HMS “Warrior”. Beyond them, visitors can see one or sometimes both of the Royal Navy’s latest, hugely powerful expressions of British sea power: the great aircraft carriers HMS “Queen Elizabeth” and “Prince of Wales”. These great ships, old and new, represent projections of hard power, but what often speaks more powerfully to those visiting the dockyard is the soft side to life on board: the story, how people lived their lives, their feelings, aspirations, hopes and fears—their well-being.

It seems to me that this exemplifies the challenge faced by policymakers and any assessment of how well, and if, a policy has worked: whether it has produced the desired outcome. Crunching the numbers is one way, but what policy looks and feels like in Whitehall and Westminster can be very different from the feelings and experience of those it directly affects. ​

I am not arguing for the warm and fluffy against objective measures; as an economist in an earlier life, I cannot. I am arguing for voices and experience to be used in how we measure well-being—for soft and hard data.

I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, on securing this debate and on her involvement in the excellent work of the APPG that informs our debate. I read the chapters of the group’s reports on young people with particular interest. This leads me to my second recommendation, which is to direct your Lordships to the letters page of the current Church Times. In it, there is a letter from my right reverend friend the Bishop of Derby to which I am a co-signatory. This makes a compelling case for the Government to measure children’s well-being on a national level, a case informed by the Children’s Society’s excellent Good Childhood Report for 2019, the latest in these annual publications. They should be required reading for policymakers.

The report makes salutary and sobering reading. Girls and now boys are increasingly unhappy with their appearance. Many struggle with their friendships and are unhappy at school. These long-term trends are often the result of societal pressures, which cause worry, tension and stress. It is also clear that, for these young people, well-being is not just about being “happy”. It is about how they can be satisfied with their lives, feel listened to, be optimistic about the future and develop resilience to cope with life’s ups and downs. It is about stronger relationships between parents or carers, and children; it is about better local neighbourhoods; it is about good physical and mental health.

We have made strides in understanding and responding to the well-being of adults. A national well-being measure is now collected and studied, and it informs policy-making. However, we do not collect an equivalent measure for children and young people. At present, their well-being is measured in an ad hoc manner, using unstandardised approaches, resulting in data that is of little use locally or nationally. That is despite our children bearing the brunt of increasing imbalances in society, of the ever-growing pressure of the obsession with school attainment results, and of rising mental ill-health and poverty.

The most powerful, compelling parts of the Children’s Society’s report are the voices of young people themselves; they are resourceful, resilient and reflective. They are often sanguine about the challenges they face. Such voices deserve to be heard and must be heard: more than heard, they must be front and centre of policy-making, locally and nationally. Introducing a national measurement of children’s well-being would mean policy informed by listening and responding to young people and showing that they and their voices really count. It could—it should—lead to action to arrest a deeply worrying trend. I therefore urge the Government to listen to such voices, introduce a measure of well-being and act accordingly.


Baroness Brinton (LD) …Over the years, many people have tried to grapple with the difficulties that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth described: hard and soft data, the outcomes and how we manage that…The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth highlighted the importance of good physical and mental health. For people living with long-term conditions, as I do, depression can be all too common and until fairly recently it was ignored by clinicians, but changes are happening. CBT and other things are now not quite routinely but often offered to people facing difficulties over a very long period….

I mention briefly the four golden rules for surviving coronavirus suggested by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. As he says, they are not the official advice, but I think they absolutely summarise a key approach to well-being: protect and support our neighbours; think of those who are worse off than us and try to help them; do not panic—he says do not hoard food either—and live today and each day to the full because none of us knows about the future, and never give in to fear. These are also good well-being messages for life. They are not just something that his parishioners in St Albans should be thinking about.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Labour/Co-Op): ..As we have heard in this debate, it is recognised by many that this fails to capture other things that are of value to society, and captures some things which may not be of such value. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth is correct that while policy is decided in Westminster and Whitehall, it can feel very different on the ground where the policy is in place. The pressures on young people, which he talked about, are huge and very worrying. The fact that in recent years we have spoken about mental health much more freely is a good thing. More needs to be done…

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