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Bishops are lining up to keep Coalition in check

27 October 2011

Parliament is dealing with unprecedented levels of legislation. In response, the Bishops are becoming more concerned about protecting vulnerable people, says Tim Stevens

‘We need to be prepared to engage with the political world as it is’

NO British Government since Clement Atlee’s (1945-50) has at­tempted a programme of legis­lative reform on the scale of the one that the present Coalition is undertaking. Significant government legislation on the NHS, schools, social security, the police, and the devolution of powers to communities (to name but some) means that even the full-time politicians are finding it hard to keep up.

For the 26 C of E bishops in the Lords, the pace and weight of legislation poses huge challenges. This month, for the first time, we are allocating particular policy areas to each bishop. Bishops will still retain a breadth of concerns, but will now focus on two or three particular areas of legislation. It is a response both to the increased workload, and the increasing professionalisation, of the House of Lords.

All this government business is occurring against a backdrop of spreading economic gloom, falling living standards, and social unrest. Panels of inquiry are still trying to make sense of the riotous events of August, while noisy activists taking against global financial institutions have succeeded in closing St Paul’s Cathedral.

The Bishops have as great a claim as any in Parliament to understand at first hand how all this is affecting the most vulnerable, since it is often the clergy who witness and respond on the vicarage doorstep to the fragile human consequence of the political “hard choice”.

In the middle of all this, it is hard to see the wisdom of embarking on significant parliamentary reform, with its irrelevance to the country’s core concerns and its potentially damaging unforeseen consequences.

THREE principles appear to guide government policy, and have so far gone largely unchecked by the official Opposition. They are: the growing marketisation of public services, the politicisation of public in­stitutions, and the principle of conditionality in what was once

a proudly universalist social-security system. Public and pro­fessionals alike have not been slow to voice concern.

First, is the marketisation of the NHS. The Health Bill, currently before the Lords, has already suffered one near-fatal incident, when a sizeable minority of concerned peers (plus six bishops) attempted to slow its progress to allow greater scrutiny of the concerns of NHS professionals about the increased place of private competition.

The episode revealed an anxiety touched on by the Archbishop of Canterbury in recent months: how far should a Coalition Government, formed by necessity as a result of a General Election that no party actually won, proceed as though it had a settled and popular mandate for radical change?

SECOND, we see the growing polit­icisation of public institutions. Plans for directly elected police com­missioners — now approved, despite Lords opposition — and for the abolition of the current House of Lords and its replacement with a largely elected body signal a worrying tendency on the part of Government to believe that concerns about the effectiveness of an institution can be resolved simply by throwing elections at it.

We should all have grave concerns about the unforeseen consequences for national institutions of this growth in party-political influence, especially at a time when mass-membership and participation in our political parties is so low.

Furthermore, the large influx of former MPs to the Lords (especially on the Opposition side) has seen the Lords become more assertive, more obstructive, and less considerate — hardly a good omen for an elected Second Chamber, should one be chosen.

THIRD, the principle of con­dition­ality is being introduced into welfare reform. The apparent abandonment of the language of public resources distributed on the basis of need rather than the recipient’s capacity for return is a concern to all of us.

We would also do well to support the Archbishop’s recent call in the New Statesman to Government to dispel some of the public’s anxiety about cuts by spelling out clear principles for what minimum standards of public service ought to be.

  In the immediate term, bishops are being a questioning presence during the passage of the Welfare Reform Bill. The Children’s Society has calculated that 75 per cent of those to be affected by the overall cap on social security will be children.

This, coupled with dire predictions elsewhere about levels of child poverty, means that we have to be focused when looking at measures that are going to shape the gener­ations still to come. Bishops have lent their support to amendments on minimum-income standards, and are set to lead the debate in the Lords on amendments to try to mitigate some of the worst effects on the vulnerable of the cap on social-security pay­ments.

HOW we insulate those who are most at risk from, but least to blame for, the continuing downturn is a vital consideration. On this, the Church surely needs to find its voice locally, regionally, and nationally. If we are in the business of helping the country achieve real change, we need to be prepared to engage with the political world as it is.

We have good precedents. Five months before the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Archbishop of Canterbury hosted a debate in the House of Lords on how we protect the poorest during an economic downturn. After the May 2010 election, I tabled the first Lords debate on what the Big Society might be able to deliver in practical terms.

Political wisdom is the capacity to discern how a body of political principle is to take concrete form in policy-making at a particular time and place. It may be that part of the task of shaping that wisdom falls heavily on the Bishops of the Church of England at the moment.

The Rt Revd Tim Stevens is the Bishop of Leicester.

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