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Bishops query government plans for homelessness, the environment, and justice

13 May 2022


Tents of homeless people on the Victoria Embankment in London early last month

Tents of homeless people on the Victoria Embankment in London early last month

BISHOPS raised concerns this week about the scope of the Government’s “levelling-up” agenda, as well as its plans for social housing and public order.

The interventions came in the House of Lords on Wednesday and Thursday, in debates on the Government’s legislative agenda announced in the Queen’s Speech (News, 10 May).

On Wednesday, the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, noted that there was “scarcely a mention of the environment, climate change, and climate mitigation” in the Levelling Up White Paper, published in February.

“Local government needs to be supported to take full advantage of the potential of the green economy and green jobs, and every policy decision needs to be consistent with the net-zero goals and reflect the latest understanding of climate risks”, he said.

The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, praised the scope of the 12 missions identified in the White Paper, but said: “They now need to be accompanied by a determination to deliver them, which will be costly.”

He continued: “The Government’s priorities to strengthen the economy and ease the cost of living for families are the right ones at the right time, but we need them to be bedded into the rural as well as the urban.”

The Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, also addressed the challenges in ensuring that levelling up was delivered evenly across the country. In his maiden speech, he said that his experience of moving from Birmingham diocese — where he was the Bishop of Aston — to Guildford meant “moving from the diocese with the most deprivation in the country to the diocese with the least.

“That move has made me recognise both the urgency of the task to level up regions across the UK, and its extraordinary difficulty if we are to do more than simply tinker around the edges.”

He urged that the process of levelling up must not exclude pockets of deprivation in otherwise wealthy areas. “It is tough to live in a deprived community— there is absolutely no question about that — but it is also tough to be deprived in a wealthy community, constantly surrounded by reminders of how the other half lives.”

On its publication in February, the Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox, had criticised the White Paper, saying that it “barely begins to address the chronic under-investment of recent decades” (News, 2 February).

Speaking in the Lords on Wednesday, the Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, the C of E’s lead bishop on housing, urged the Government to “be ambitious” in its response to the challenges of homelessness and poor housing.

She welcomed the extra protections given to social-housing tenants in the Social Housing Regulation Bill, but said that these “must be coupled with significant investment in new social housing”.

Dr Francis-Dehqani endorsed the Coming Home report, produced in the wake of a symposium convened by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York last year, which called for a review of the effect of the social security system on housing (News, 21 February 2021).

“It is essential that all key stakeholders are part of that process,” she said. “We all have a valuable part to play, and we in the Church are eager to play ours.” She ended by suggesting: “So many of the social problems that we encounter in this country, from poor mental health to high crime rates, from school exclusion to domestic abuse, and many more, have their roots in or are exacerbated by poor housing.”

These themes were taken up on Thursday in debates on the justice system.

The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, the lead bishop on prisons, said that she was “perturbed” that in the Queen’s Speech there was no reference to “preventive and rehabilitative measures. . .

“We are failing both victims and perpetrators of crime, and, indeed, society itself,” she told the peers, several of whom echoed her remarks in later speeches. “Sending to prison mothers whose non-violent offending is rooted in multiple disadvantages is failing communities and haemorrhaging money,” she said.

The Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, addressed proposals for a Public Order Bill aimed at preventing the tactics used by groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil. He suggested that such measures would “impact adversely” on “legitimate protest”.

He also looked at the Government’s proposed Bill of Rights, designed to supplant the Human Rights Act. “In our system, the historic check of the legislature on the Government has always and continues to be a matter of dynamic friction,” he said.

“Our legislature, our Government, our courts and, indeed, our constitution will flourish all the better if we nurture a determined respect for our institutions and commit to living out the highest ideals in their operation.”

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