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More long-term planning needed, say bishops in response to the King’s Speech

17 November 2023

Richard Chapman

Some of the Lords Spiritual in the Bishops’ Robing Room in the House of Lords, before hearing the King’s Speech, on Tuesday of last week

Some of the Lords Spiritual in the Bishops’ Robing Room in the House of Lords, before hearing the King’s Speech, on Tuesday of last week

BISHOPS have welcomed aspects of the King’s Speech, delivered at the State Opening of Parliament on Tuesday of last week (News, 10 November), but said that it lacked sufficient long-term planning in areas such as social care, mental health, and climate change.

During the past week, bishops in the House of Lords have contributed to debates on the Speech, which set out the Government’s legislative agenda for the coming year.

On Monday, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, said that, while the Speech had “expressed the Government’s intention to make difficult long-term decisions to build a better future for the country”, he was “struggling to see much evidence of that plan”.

Long-term thinking about the country’s future required putting children, families, and the environment “at the heart of every policy”, he said. He welcomed the Government’s plan to increase the number of young people taking “high-quality apprenticeships”, but he urged the Government to prioritise the well-being of children “inside and outside the school gates”.

Poverty limited opportunity and life chances, Bishop Butler said, but “the implementation of the two-child limit, the benefit cap, and low levels of Universal Credit continue to push more families into poverty, impacting their education and futures.”

The Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, speaking in the same debate on Monday, said that the Government’s plan to move the economy to net zero was lacking “effective leadership of granular policy, whether that is in the transition to electric vehicles, decarbonising home heating, or encouraging behaviour change”.

The tone of the King’s Speech suggested “that the world is more or less succeeding in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. The opposite is, of course, the case. We need greater leadership and co-ordination across every government department and an increased sense of urgency in this legislative programme.”

Dr Croft also addressed another long-term challenge: artificial intelligence. He welcomed “the promise of new legal frameworks for self-driving vehicles, new competition rules for digital markets, and the encouragement of innovation in machine learning”; but he encouraged the Government “to invest more deeply in dialogue with civil society about the impact of these new technologies”.

He continued: “The Government have entered a dialogue with the tech companies, which is welcome, but this dialogue must be further informed by trade unions, academia, community groups, and faith communities, to build trust and confidence about the kind of society we are building.”

The Bishops of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich and Norwich, the Rt Revd Martin Seeley and the Rt Revd Graham Usher, also took up the theme of climate change in their responses to the King’s Speech.

Bishop Seeley referred to the hope expressed that the UK would encourage other countries to improve their climate commitments. But he suggested: “I believe that we should encourage others to be more ambitious with their own targets, rather than scaling back our own.”

Proposed new offshore petroleum licences would not aid the UK’s transition to net zero, nor would they improve the country’s energy security or reduce customer bills, he said. “UK oil and gas production has reduced by almost 75 per cent over the past couple of decades; so the direction of travel is clear. It is this direction — away from fossil fuels — that we need to invest in wholeheartedly if we are to secure energy security.”

Bishop Usher, the lead bishop for the environment, in his maiden speech, said that “we have a long way to go to leave nature in the better place than we found it. . . This needs cross-party leadership and a commitment long into the future.”

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, speaking in a debate on the King’s Speech on Thursday of last week, focused her remarks on health policy.

She welcomed “the indication in the Speech that the Government will legislate for a ban on smoking”, which was “the single biggest preventable killer in the UK, but it is also an example of pronounced health inequality”.

While banning smoking would “undoubtedly account for significant reductions in preventable cancers”, the Government should do more to reduce wider health inequalities. “The failure to publish the health inequalities White Paper in the previous Session is lamentable,” she said.

Bishop Mullally also expressed disappointment that a mental-health Bill was not included in the King’s Speech. “Reform of the Mental Health Act is long overdue, and the inequalities that people face under it need serious attention.”

Action was also needed, she said, to improve conditions for NHS workers. “The NHS staff experience remains one of exhaustion, overwork, and understaffing, and I continue to remain concerned about the state of industrial relations following the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act.”

Bishop Mullally also expressed disappointment that the King’s Speech “did not contain news of a ban on conversion therapy”.

Speaking in the same debate, the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, called for “joined-up thinking” across government departments. The Speech had spoken of both regenerating towns and keeping communities safe. “All of this is possible only if there is joined-up, holistic and long-term thinking. Discussions around local communities, housing, health, and public services cannot be boxed separately from that stated commitment to keep communities safe.”

The Archbishop of York responded to the King’s Speech in the Lords on Wednesday of last week. He drew attention to the Speech’s laying an order for the Government to establish a combined mayoral authority for York and North Yorkshire. “This is very good news for the North, and is the first deal of its kind that includes a large rural area in combination with a small city, and therefore is an opportunity for a new model that does not require a big city for its success,” he said.

He continued: “Certainly, in York and North Yorkshire, a regional view is required to understand the area’s huge variety and opportunities, but also its inequalities, and to address them. What is needed in our government is consensus and longer-term planning, which is the sort of thing devolved government can deliver.”

One of the most contentious parts of devolved government, he said, was transport.To state the obvious, the failure to join up the east and the west in national-scale transport projects remains a very serious issue for all of us who live in, but sometimes struggle to travel across, the North,” he said.

The Network North proposals, announced the previous day, which would replace the HS2 project, “feel like an afterthought”, he said. “They were announced so quickly that they eluded consultation. They do not seem to point to a well-measured decision that prioritises levelling up or investment in the North.”

On Tuesday, the Bishop of Newcastle, Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, made her maiden speech in the Lords, during another debate on the King’s Speech. Media policy was among her interests, particularly the place of religion and ethics, she said. The draft Media Bill, published earlier this year, contained “no metrics for ensuring a minimum service in relation to religion in public service broadcasting; flexibility is being offered instead.

“But if there are no mechanisms for measuring requirements, then how will we know whether or not broadcasters are fulfilling their unquantifiable remit? My colleague the Rt Revd Prelate the Bishop of Leeds and I will be tracking the Bill with great interest and attention to detail.”

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