Bishop of Leicester makes maiden speech in debate on asylum, refugees and integration

On 9th December 2022 the Bishop of Leicester, Rt Revd Martyn Snow, made his first speech in the House of Lords, during the Archbishop of Canterbury’s debate on the principles behind UK asylum and refugee policy.

The Lord Bishop of Leicester (Maiden Speech): My Lords, it is a privilege to make my maiden speech in this most important debate. I am grateful to my most reverend friend the Archbishop of Canterbury for putting forward this Motion. I am grateful also to noble Lords for their welcome today. I look forward to learning from, and working with, them in service of His Majesty’s Government and our great nation. As one of my relatives was the first ever manager of the English football team, I echo the noble Lord, Lord Sahota, in his hope that his and my elevation may lead to success as in 1966.

As Bishop of Leicester, I have the honour of serving a city which has been made by migration, including those seeking asylum. Among them were Asian refugees expelled from Uganda 50 years ago and Somalian refugees fleeing the civil war in the 1990s. Socially, culturally and economically, Leicester has benefited phenomenally from the talents, hard work and rich heritage of migrant communities.

I do not wish to speak of migrants, as I believe we often do, as “other”—a group distinct from ourselves—for I too am a migrant. I was born in Indonesia and spent my early years growing up there. I also benefited from several years working with my wife in Guinea in west Africa. Here in the UK, I have moved between Sheffield, Gloucester, and Leicester. Most fundamentally, I belong to a spiritual tradition which sees all those who follow Jesus as “pilgrims in this foreign land”, as the famous hymn goes. At many points in my life I have been dependent on the hospitality of others; dependent upon them seeing me as kin, as a fellow human, as a friend and not a foe; dependent also on the generosity of strangers, friends and ultimately, on the graciousness of God.

Indeed, since entering this House, I have depended on the advice, patience and thoughtfulness of my sponsors, my fellow Lords spiritual and Members of this House, the officials and staff here and my diocesan colleagues; I am very grateful to them all. Like any newcomer, I have needed shepherding into unfamiliar spaces and ways of doing things. However, I fear that as a nation we offer little of that welcome, guidance and orientation to refugees and asylum seekers—our fellow men and women who have suffered trauma, terror, abuse and hardship on their journey.

In Leicester, we have a number of hotels accommodating asylum seekers. They may have a roof over their heads, but they are not given even the most basic of means of living as human beings. They do not have the freedom to make even small decisions like what to eat, the independence that comes from having enough money to buy essentials for oneself, or the stable connections to a community which offers a sense of belonging and support. At the drop of a hat, they can find themselves relocated to another part of the UK or deported forcibly, returning to a place they were so desperate to leave.

The noble Lord, Lord Lilley, asked for examples of what the Church is doing to support such people. I want to assure him that in Leicester there are those from our churches who visit people in these hotels to provide clothing and food. In one recent event I know of, they held a cultural evening for Kurdish women with food and dancing. This was an opportunity to learn from their culture even as they learn from ours.

In denying refugees and asylum seekers their agency, dignity and their need for creativity and community, it is not only them we dehumanise, but ourselves as well. I believe that Christ showed us that true humanity is showing love over fear. When we are possessed by fear of the “other”, fear of losing control over our borders, or fear of what refugees show us of the fragility of human structures and ways of life, we are lesser versions of ourselves.

Of course, recognising our kinship with asylum seekers and refugees does not decide the political questions around immigration. Questions of integration and how to live well together must still be wrestled with, but those are questions we must grapple with regardless and we must do so with sincerity and integrity. The unrest that Leicester experienced in September this year demonstrates why we need robust strategies that support integration. On both sides of the Chamber and in both Houses we can all agree that we want a country where people of all backgrounds and beliefs can work, live and learn together, enriched by our diversity. However, we cannot be naive in assuming that strong, cohesive communities occur by default.

Integration requires efforts from all government departments, not just the Home Office. The DCMS, with its new Online Safety Bill, for example, can help to limit the sort of disinformation that fuelled the disorder in Leicester. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office can take seriously how political affairs in other countries have ripple effects here in the UK. The Department for Education can ensure that all children leave schools with a strong understanding of and respect for the various faith traditions present in the UK.

We cannot offer true refuge if we do not have a collective home to welcome people into. Through kindness, compassion and the recognition of someone’s inherent dignity and worth, we can make anywhere feel like home. It is how the UK and Leicester have come to be home to me, and how I hope this House will also come to be somewhere I am familiar with.

Lord Robathan (Con): [extract] My Lords, I am delighted to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, in whose diocese I live and worship. He made an excellent speech. I have never heard him give a sermon; perhaps we can put that right at a later date. I agreed with quite a lot of what he said—surprisingly. I regard his predecessor, Tim Stevens, as a friend; I hope Tim Stevens regards me as a friend as well.

My view is as a still-loyal member of the Church of England. On Sunday I heard an excellent sermon from David Hebblewhite, who the right reverend Prelate might know, in Stanford-on-Avon on the origins of the Christmas stocking. How many people here know the origins of the Christmas stocking? I did not until then and I am 71. My view is that we need a spiritual and moral dimension to politics, government policy and legislation. It is a minority view, but I therefore support having an episcopal Bench in the House of Lords and having an established Church—and I will continue to do so. I welcome the right reverend Prelate. Another of his predecessors, Guy Vernon Smith, married my mother in Cosby—twice, unfortunately, because her first husband is on the war memorial. I hope to see more of him here and in Leicester.


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