Queen’s Speech – Bishop of Portsmouth gives farewell speech, on economy and poverty

On 12th May 2021 the Bishop of Portsmouth, Rt Revd Christopher Foster, gave his valedictory speech in the House of Lords during the first day of debate on the Queen’s Speech. He focused on the economy and poverty.

“My Lords, it is more than seven years since I first spoke in this House. It is a long time since I was a maiden like the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, and the noble Lord, Lord Lebedev, whom I congratulate on their arrival and their speeches.

“Today, my name has ‘Valedictory’ next to it. Three weeks ago, I said an emotional godspeed to the people of the Portsmouth diocese at a cathedral service: scaled-down but intensely moving, for me and my wife Sally, at least, as we thanked so many.

“That service also gave me the opportunity for a bishop’s equivalent of ‘Desert Island Discs’, choosing the music sung wonderfully well by the cathedral choir. This included my favourite hymn among very many, ‘There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy’. It praises God’s gentleness, mercy and justice and how those qualities are rooted in His radical inclusion. It is something I touched on in my valedictory sermon: that the Church is its congregations, but it is far more its communities.

“We must always keep our doors open, especially to those who have no figurative or literal shelter—so I am interested, and not a little intrigued, by the Government’s talk of levelling up. The phrase suggests that those who already have will not have to give up anything and that those who need a hand up will be propelled upwards—but by what? Well, that is the question: how does the rhetoric become the reality? It is a dilemma that the Christian Church understands. We proclaim the kingdom, but find building it challenging.

“Much of what a Government do does not depend on the contents of their legislative programme but that is the flesh on the bones of the grand narrative that they tell, and levelling up provides a very grand narrative indeed. That is against the backdrop of an economic situation that remains uncertain.

“Last week, bullish briefing suggested that the economy will grow back quicker than ever before. That may be true, to a point, but if we grow back 7.5% after a drop of towards 10% then we are, at least in the book of this former economist—and the much more to be trusted economist, the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, earlier—very much still behind.

“Who benefits from the growth will be critical. After the 2008 crash, it was those at the sharp end who suffered most, while those responsible for the crisis walked away with barely a scratch. The diocese I serve has many at the sharpest point of the sharp end, including the third of children on the Isle of Wight who live in poverty.

“That is 7,000 children whose lives and life chances are being blighted. I find myself asking what in the programme will benefit them or the people of Charles Dickens ward in Portsmouth, which is among the 1% of most deprived wards in the country. Their lives are already far from easy and they have been hard hit by the pandemic.

“I then find myself regretting the continuing absence of anything meaningful on social care. We are a decade on from Dilnot and still there is no timescale for action. Surely, the urgency is even clearer than ever. To tease vulnerable and elderly people, saying that there is a plan—ready or perhaps not—or putting off action, is cruel.

“I am astonished that, with a focus on levelling up, there is nothing intended to address the injustices of those employed in the gig economy or on zero-hours contracts. I cannot imagine how we can achieve levelling up without addressing the circumstances of the workplace.

“To claim that the pandemic demands delay is evasive if there is truly a commitment to levelling up. What the Speech proclaims is hopeful, but the signs that these measures will deliver are scanty.

“I conclude my speech with something central to faith: thanksgiving. I give thanks to the staff of the House for their unfailing courtesy and service to us, this Parliament and our nation. I give thanks to my colleagues on these Benches.

“Our presence here may sometimes be contested, but we bring a distinct voice to this place, not least because of where we are rooted and whom we serve.

“I give thanks to Members of this House past and present for all their kindness and encouragement, especially to the late and much-missed Lord Judd, who, when I spoke, often sent me from that Bench a scribbled supportive note—often on the most extraordinary scraps of paper.

“By virtue of my office I have been called Portsmouth; he was Portsmouth to the very marrow of his bones as he stood up for and spoke for those left behind.

“I give thanks to the people of the diocese of Portsmouth—a diocese of great diversity but none the less a people of very distinct identity and culture.

“I may not be ‘Portsmouth till I die’, as they will soon sing again at Fratton Park, but I hope I have spoken for them, for their God and for the wideness of His mercy.”