The House of Lords debated the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement on 29th November 2022
The Lord Bishop of Gloucester: My Lords, growth is good and necessary, and it is clear that money does not grow on those proverbial trees. We find ourselves in extremely challenging times, and it seems to me that some of the measures that are set out in the Autumn Statement are prudent and necessary to rebalance the budget. I thank the Government for their desire to focus on supporting the poorest households, which is right and just, including their decision to increase benefits in line with inflation. Yet I have a number of concerns. I want to use my time to focus on just two key issues: first, food and feeding people, and, secondly, the criminal justice system. I declare an interest both as a trustee of Feeding Britain and as Anglican Bishop for prisons in England and Wales.
As I have seen first-hand in the diocese of Gloucester, food clubs and food banks are reporting record demands, with larger numbers of people seeking help for the first time and with much greater frequency. For reasons we know, food prices have soared well above inflation, and it would also seem that food supplies are getting more difficult to acquire in sufficient quantities. In order for people to safely navigate their way to next April without being hungry and to lessen the need for food aid, it would be helpful if there could be a further reduction in the rate of deductions from universal credit, as well as the introduction of something akin to a yellow card warning system in place of the current sanctions policy.
In the meantime, churches and different faith groups are playing their part, not only regarding food banks and food provision but in working with local community organisations and borough and county councils to run warm spaces, often with food provision, in our urban and rural communities. In Gloucestershire, we have an imaginative initiative called The Long Table, which not only aims to tackle hunger and loneliness and build community but is also investing in people and working to build food resilience and food sustainability, working in relationship with local farmers and food producers.
If food provision is to be sustainable, we need British farming to be viable in order to feed Britain and to grow the economy. It is not just high costs for fuel and feed which are a threat but the fact that, following the removal of the basic payment scheme, there is still a lack of clarity around the environmental land management scheme. The farming sector needs a properly funded agricultural transition plan if it is to plan effectively for the future, grow its business and ensure food sustainability for us all.
In the big picture of the Budget, what do we need to fund and where do we need yet more radical thinking regarding existing expenditure? That brings me to my second area: that of the criminal justice system. I observe a criminal justice system under great pressure, not least financially, and there is a desperate need for a robust and courageous review of our criminal justice system which will then inform when and how money is spent. A wise move would be to spend less on expanding the prison population and more on rehabilitation and reducing reoffending and indeed offending in the first place. For example, where is the join-up between money spent on prisons and money spent on addiction prevention and rehabilitation? Where is the join-up between investing in adequate housing for those leaving prison, and thus reducing reoffending, and the high cost of repeatedly sending someone to prison?
When it comes to women’s centres, I am aware that I am like a squeaky wheel, but I repeat that it costs about £5,000 a year for a woman to engage with a woman’s centre, with the outcome of significantly reduced rates of reoffending, while a place in prison costs nearer £60,000 per year. If the Government want to save money, here is a way forward which is good for all—although the starting place is not the balance sheet but a radical and courageous review of our criminal justice system. Let us not add 18,000 people to the numbers locked up in cells and let the taxpayer pay the £4 billion bill but properly invest in rehabilitation, appropriate education and skills, and prevent reoffending and seriously reduce the prison population. If the Government want to save money and redistribute expenditure, then look at the data, listen to those working in prisons and rehabilitation in the community, listen to offenders and those at risk of offending, and indeed, listen to victims of crime, and do not build more prisons and send more and more people to prison for longer as a short-term response to populist headlines regarding crime. The evidence does not support that.
To draw to a close, I am aware that I have touched briefly on only two areas. Only time will tell whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s balancing act is successful for the long-term growth of our economy and the good of the most vulnerable. However, I believe there is some further rebalancing and joined-up thinking to do, which will not only serve us better financially but will help to shape the kind of country we want and need to be.