Bishop of Rochester responds to Chancellor’s Budget Statement

On 18th March 2020 the House of Lords debated the Budget Statement made the previous week by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Bishop of Rochester, Rt Revd James Langstaff, spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Rochester:  My Lords, as many have already observed, this Budget comes in extraordinarily unusual circumstances, and in relation to the issues around Covid-19, subsequent to the Budget announcement, the Chancellor has brought forward a number of measures which have been largely well received, and no doubt others will need to follow. While voluntary action in our communities will form much of the day-to-day response to those who are the most vulnerable and potentially isolated across our nation, the sustaining of public services and of businesses is vital for both our social and economic well-being; other speakers have already begun to address some of those issues.​

Following the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury is always a risky business, and other noble Lords have already spoken with considerable knowledge of these matters, so I shall focus my remarks on one or two specific issues and areas which were already matters of concern, and where that concern is perhaps greater because of the circumstances in which we now find ourselves.

On children and young people, I hugely welcome the long-overdue extension of higher-rate housing benefit for care leavers until the age of 25, thus giving stability in their accommodation beyond their 22nd birthday. This is something that the Church of England organisation the Children’s Society and other charities have campaigned for over some time, and it is most welcome. Also welcome is the £2.5 million for research on family hubs. However, what is not in the provisions of the Budget or subsequent provisions is sufficient funding to address the urgent need for every child to achieve a good start in life, and that is becoming more urgent in the light of the current circumstances.

The Resolution Foundation has calculated that child poverty will continue to rise, with the equivalent of an extra 1 million children living in poverty by 2023-24, while the child poverty rate in working households, which averaged 20% over the seven years between 2006-07 and 2013-14, is projected to rise to 29% by 2023-24. A simple start could have been made by removing the two-child limit, about which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and others have spoken in your Lordships’ House. That is not only a social good, it is an economic one because it is about the financial capacity of those families who are among the most vulnerable in our society. Points have also been made about the issues around consumer demand and so forth, which plays into that agenda.

I turn now to social care more widely. As has been mentioned, we await the details about the full and ambitious plan for addressing the social care crisis which the Prime Minister promised from the steps of Downing Street. The £1 billion promised in last year’s spending review is welcome but, not least in the new circumstances, it does not come close to what is needed. For example, families are still realising assets in order to pay the care costs of an elderly relative. While I am personally happy that my own mother can be supported in care from the proceeds of the sale of her house, others are less able to do that and there is an overall negative effect on the economy from that approach when, for example, working families are eating into their own resources to support an elderly relative. The knock-on effects of that on future generations are very considerable. A sensible long-term plan, including financial provision, is essential and overdue. I know that that is a huge ask, but as a society we need it.

On a couple of specific matters, the £5 million which has been provided to support the creation of a centre of excellence for tackling youth violence is welcome, as is further funding for substance misuse services and the £10 million for innovative approaches to preventing domestic abuse. However, these are tiny amounts when set alongside such things as the effects of the cuts in local authority funding which have, for example, decimated youth services over recent decades. ​Further, there is a continuing postcode lottery for the victims of domestic violence who are seeking a place of refuge, not least somewhere where they can live with their children in security.

Some of us may privately welcome the freeze on alcohol duty, not least in my case when Lent comes to an end, but is there not something slightly perverse about committing extra funding to substance misuse programmes, including those related to alcohol abuse, while at the same time putting a freeze on the duty? My own hope is that perhaps there will be some instructive learning at a later point from the Scottish minimum unit pricing strategy and that it can be addressed at a later stage.

Noble Lords have already drawn attention to green issues. No doubt, given those who are due to speak later in the debate, other speakers will do so as well. There are some good things in the Budget around research and development into green energy, and the measures related to flooding and coastal defences, but I suspect that we need to be rather bolder in these matters when it comes to the longer term. The Government have set an ambition to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. I am both pleased and slightly surprised that the Church of England’s General Synod, which is not normally regarded as an ambitious and radical body, has voted to go for 2030 rather than 2050. But whether it is 2030 or 2050, what is needed is bold action. That requires investment, and there is a price tag attached to it.

I have a hope that the spending review later this year will give the Chancellor an opportunity to consider some of these issues further, not least in the light of the fuller picture of what Covid-19 means for our economy, which will be clearer by then. But the issues in our society which I have highlighted are not going to go away, and I hope that the current challenges, important as they are, will not totally divert our attention from them. Meanwhile, we must all have a particular care for those in our midst who are the most vulnerable and support all efforts to make sure that they and those who are working for their well-being, whether as public servants or volunteers, have all they need to address the current situation.


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