Bishop of Chichester speaks in a debate on vulnerable children

On 11th July 2022, the House of Lords debated the Child Vulnerability (Public Services Committee Report). The Bishop of Chichester spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Chichester: My Lords, I am glad to follow the noble Lord, Lord Davies, in this debate. I am immensely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, and all those who have produced this outstanding report. One of the most impressive things about it is that one hears the voices of those who are so often not heard.

I think that the move from Sure Start to family hubs is a model for how we respond. The challenge of looking at the poorest and most vulnerable in our society today is such an important focus for us. The model of the family hub is absolutely invaluable, because in lengthening the time over which a person might need encouragement and help beyond the formative years of nought to five, we remind ourselves that being human is not a problem that can be solved with a quick fix of investment. It is actually a long-term story of investment and hope, of failure and recovery. That perspective, looking at nought to 19, is a really important one. I was also very encouraged by seeing the recognition of the needs of 18 to 25 year-olds, as people move into young adulthood, which is still a very important area.

When I was first ordained as a bishop and working in the north-east, on Teesside, the Sure Start centre in Grangetown—one of the most deprived parts of Middlesbrough—was an incredible place to go to because it offered hope, in contrast to so much that was derelict in life and the environment around there. What I saw there was that this was about families; this was about giving hope not only to children who were vulnerable but to the parents of those children, who did not really know quite how to deal with this gift that they had. Seeing parents with very tiny children being given the skills to parent their child was incredibly moving, and fruitful, of course, in terms of hope for the future.

Another thing I came across in that instance was somebody who, as a child, had been a victim of all the vices that he might have encountered in that area of Middlesbrough. He had fallen foul of the law and had ended up literally in the gutter, where he was picked up by a Christian woman and put back on his feet over the course of time. He established a small charity called Father to the Fatherless—a quotation from Psalm 68. He talked to young male adults—late teenagers—about what he had been, how he had failed and how he had found life, hope and potential for the future.

One thing in the interstices of this report, which I would want to point to, is something that the noble Lord, Lord Davies, has already mentioned: the role model. Where are the role models for those who are so often lost and most vulnerable as they grow through childhood into their teenage years and early adulthood?

I remember being very struck when I went to one of our schools—it was not a church school, but one that had very close working relationships with one of our parishes on the edge of Middlesbrough—and saw, in this large primary school, that all the teaching staff were female. The vicar of the parish, who had a marvellous role there, was also female—a very impressive female priest. I thought, “Everybody who is in a position of achievement, power and authority here is female.” The one person who was male was the person who was in charge of sport. It is positive in its way, but it did not say anything to the boys in that school about what their aspirations might be. Where do we find the role models? In particular, the challenge to us as nation, as wider society, as a wider issue than something we can legislate for, is to find role models for boys, in particular, to help them grow and become mature and responsible citizens.

I want to touch briefly on something that has already been explored by the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley: the voluntary sector and its relationships with the statutory sector. When I was a curate, first ordained in Plymouth back in the 1980s, the probation service was in the lead in terms of partnership with the voluntary sector. It invested, from its own funding, in the voluntary sector that it worked with and set up voluntary charities. For example, it set up a garage where boys, again, who had a criminal record or were at risk of offending through stealing cars and motorbikes, could be taught mechanics and develop skills that might help them find employment. This extraordinary partnership between the voluntary and statutory sectors was modelled in a variety of other ways as well. Reading the report, one of the questions I had was the extent to which the initiative for forging those links rests with the voluntary or the statutory sector. It is not entirely clear where the responsibility might be, or just how far that relationship might go.

Relationships are at the heart of tackling deprivation and vulnerability for children. Looking at the voluntary sector, one area that is not touched on here is, once again, the question of the extended family. Certainly, on Teesside it was probably the most important relationship, between child and grandparent, as children grew through their teenage years. What we offer encompasses a wider community, and builds on relationships, as I think has already been rehearsed in this debate. This is very important.

On the business of information sharing and schools, it is certainly very important that information is shared, and schools are of enormous importance. I valued the reference to education in the report, but I want to speak up for what I have seen in some of our church schools, when I was in Yorkshire and on Teesside, but even in Sussex. There is pressure on teachers to take on responsibilities for which they have not necessarily been prepared, where information can be a burden and possibly a trauma, in terms of how they are then expected to respond. How do we prepare those who are working in education for this? What investment is made to support them? How do we ensure that this aspect of their work, which is increasing, I think, does not demoralise the profession, as we see a rapid departure from our teaching profession? These are important issues to be addressed in the application and implementation of some of the hopes in this report.

Finally, I touch on something that I mentioned earlier, in terms of the perspective of family hubs and the age range, and that is loneliness. The age range 18 to 25 as an area for support strikes me as being very important. It touches on what it means to be lonely. As many youngsters find themselves in a world where our society is atomised, where do they find reliable safe spaces and relationships? Psalm 68, used by the young man who was working with youngsters on Teesside, also has an interesting statement:

“God setteth the solitary in families.”

I think the loneliness of many of our young people begs us to answer how they find the family in which they will be valued, encouraged and given purpose for their lives.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Baroness Chapman of Darlington (Lab): It might interest the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester that early intervention spending in Middlesbrough, where he worked, reduced by 64% between 2010 and 2019. I know Middlesbrough very well, as my family is from South Bank. When you read statistics like that and you know that community, you have to wonder what on earth was going on that a decision such as that could have been made. We know why it happened—it is because there was no strategy. If there had been, decisions about local government spending would not have been divorced from decisions that were made about child poverty and the Department for Education. Those things just have not been joined up. When local government finances were squeezed from 2010, when local government was responsible for many of the early intervention services that we are discussing this evening, what did Ministers think would happen to support for the most vulnerable children, often provided by their local council?

Baroness Barran (Con): On the issues about working with the voluntary sector, I absolutely support the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester about the important role that the sector plays. The Government work very actively with the voluntary sector across many areas, including addressing some of the causes of vulnerabilities, such as alcohol misuse and domestic abuse, and working with the sector to prevent children being drawn into crime. We have also renewed a £560 million commitment for youth services, and many of our partners in the holiday activities and food programme are also from the voluntary sector.

Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top (Lab): I was also grateful to the right reverend Prelate for his contribution—not as a member of the committee, but if he is interested; we are always interested in the Bishops’ Bench. He was able to talk about somewhere that my noble friend Lady Chapman and I both know very well: Grangetown. I visited that Sure Start centre myself. It was always so great to visit, because there was so much energy, commitment and determination to make things better. I thank him for his contribution.

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