Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham makes maiden speech during debate on food crisis in Africa and Ukraine war

On 21st July 2022 the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, Rt Revd Paul Williams, delivered his maiden speech in the House of Lords during Lord Alton’s debate, “that this House takes note of (1) the impact of the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports on food insecurity in developing countries, and (2) its contribution to the danger of famine in (a) the Horn of Africa, and (b) East Africa.”

The Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham (Maiden Speech): My Lords, I begin by thanking fellow Members for their gracious welcome and expressing my gratitude to the parliamentary staff and officers who have so kindly supported my introduction to the House.

It is an honour to make this maiden speech in such an important debate, which focuses so clearly on the needs of the most vulnerable: those affected by the sudden steep rise in global food prices resulting from Russia’s terrible war and blockade in Ukraine. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, both for bringing this debate to the House and for his long record of campaigning advocacy on behalf of those whose suffering is too often overlooked.

It is more than 12 years since a Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham has been in this House, although the previous bishop has been a passionate advocate for the poor and young since joining the House as my right reverend friend the Bishop of Durham. Nurturing the aspirations and potential of young people, particularly their influence and impact as future leaders, has long been a distinct feature of my own work, first for 17 years in parish ministry, including 10 as a vicar in south Buckinghamshire, then for 13 years as a bishop. I started out in west London as area Bishop of Kensington, and for the past seven years I have been a diocesan bishop in the east Midlands, where, along with my family, I now feel very much at home. It is my interest in the development of young people that underpins my contribution to the debate today.

Although the city and county of Nottingham are perhaps most famous for the folklore hero Robin Hood, the region has a long track record of nurturing many lesser-known heroes, who have none the less been world-shapers, championing the causes of the poor and the young; they include the inspirational founders of the Salvation Army, Catherine and William Booth. Since moving to the diocese, I have been inspired by modern heroes on the ground making a difference to the life chances and prospects of young people, proving that nurturing every talent matters.

What has struck me most is that, although parts of the city and county continue to struggle with higher than average levels of poverty, the aspirations of young people are rising. Their innate instinct to make a difference is far from parochial. Their outlook is global. They see themselves as part of an interconnected and increasingly interdependent world. That is why there should be no tension between charity at home and abroad. Their example inspires my engagement in this debate.

Compassion for those who suffer was characteristic of Jesus Christ. In the gospels, it is clear that he frequently surprised those around him by disturbing their inclination to limit the boundaries of who may qualify as a neighbour and how far their responsibility to care should extend. The lessons of the good Samaritan are rightly deeply imbedded into our spiritual heritage as a nation. I suggest that they should inform our urgent response to the crisis in the Horn of Africa and east Africa. This is no time to look away. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, there are now 7.1 million malnourished children in the Horn of Africa, with 2 million severely malnourished. The position is similar in east Africa.

I want to draw particular attention to how the needs of young people are disproportionately affected by the present food insecurity, not only their health but their education and life chances. Informed by some valuable links that churches in my diocese have with schools in Uganda, it is clear that the food crisis is already causing many schools to reduce their teaching week as they simply do not have enough food for the children in their care. According to the World Food Programme, one in three schoolchildren in Uganda has no food to eat during the school day. Feeding learners has become an essential priority for schools across that region. Families in desperate need also keep children out of school. Instead, they find themselves working to help earn a little more to pay for food, the cost of which has risen by nearly 14% since January. This is in a country that has the highest number of refugees and asylum seekers in Africa—nearly 1.6 million as of March. With acute malnutrition rising fastest among under-fives in the region, many thousands of children will not even reach school age.

This is not only a short-term crisis of survival. It has longer-term tragic consequences, undermining the capacity of a rising generation to be equipped with the education, skills and personal support that they need and deserve. There are tens of thousands of teachers in Uganda—and no doubt across the region—with a heartfelt and compelling vision for their students. They see the difference that a consistent, supportive and uninterrupted education can make to the future of the nation; it can also be a major contributor to food system resilience, which must be an important longer-term goal.

It is true that large sums have already been given, both bilaterally and through multilateral projects in these regions, but the need is now greater still. We should not wait until a famine is declared. Although I am thankful for some signs of progress that may result in the recent initiatives by the Turkish Government to provide safe passage for grain from Ukraine, I none the less ask the Minister this: will the Government consider increasing further bilateral aid to the Horn of Africa and east Africa without delay? It is not too late to save lives and prevent a devastating famine, with the unacceptable human cost that will result. In the long term, immediate intervention will improve the prospects and God-given potential of millions of young people across that region.

Hansard source

Extracts from the speeches that followed:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans…My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for his brilliant introduction to this debate. I also welcome my colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, and congratulate him on his maiden speech. I know he has huge experience to offer to this House and will be drawing not least on the huge successes and, indeed, some of the challenges of the east Midlands, where he is based. We look forward to hearing much more from him.

Lord Risby (Con):..My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate. I particularly congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham on his most informative and, frankly, moving speech. We all much look forward to his future contributions in your Lordships’ House.

Lord Balfe (Con)..I welcome the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham to our ranks. I am sure we will hear much more from him. On the basis of his maiden speech, I certainly hope so, because I think we will all benefit from his wisdom.

Lord Cormack (Con):..It is very good that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham has made his maiden speech. We welcome him to the House and we hope there will be many more contributions, particularly on those subjects on which Bishops, frankly, should hold forth in this House.

The Earl of Sandwich (CB)..Many local communities have been displaced by communal violence in South Sudan. UNICEF is appealing on behalf of malnourished children, such as those referred to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, whom I welcome to the House. He spoke very movingly about children in Uganda. Other smaller UN agencies such as the IOM, which manages migration, are doing a remarkable job looking after the more vulnerable refugees and displaced and trafficked people.

Lord Polak (Con):..My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for his consistent humanity and leadership, and congratulate the right reverend Prelate on his excellent maiden speech. I was thinking that the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham is probably the only bishop with two racecourses.

Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)..It is in that regard that I turn to the maiden speech from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham. The House will benefit from his expertise and wisdom on the issues that he spoke about. His speech today was passionate and powerful, but also very grounded; that is an attribute that will be of enormous benefit to your Lordships’ House. I welcome him joining us and look forward to further contributions from him.

The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con): ..I join others in welcoming the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham to his place. His contribution today was insightful and showed expertise, but it also very much brought home the importance and the role of faith in finding some of the solutions. As someone who just oversaw the delivery of the FoRB conference in London, I think faith institutions and faith NGOs, as well as others, have an important role to play as we face up to many of the development challenges, including those humanitarian causes around the world.

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB): In his excellent maiden speech, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham reminded us of the connections between his diocese and the Salvation Army. He talked specifically about Uganda, his links with that part of Africa and the impact of the crisis on the life chances of young people. We all look forward to hearing many more speeches from him in the future.

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