1 Lord Bishop of Manchester debates involving HM Treasury

Autumn Statement 2023

Lord Bishop of Manchester Excerpts
Wednesday 29th November 2023

(7 months, 2 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Bishop of Manchester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Manchester
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My Lords, that felt more like a speech about a future Autumn Statement from a Labour Government than about the current one before us.

I too welcome the Minister to her new role and look forward to hearing from her often in this House. However, I suspect that, even if you are a Treasury Minister, every Autumn Statement feels like a missed opportunity. There are always things that each one of us would have liked to have seen given a higher priority and areas of spend to which we would have wanted greater resources allocated. There may also be things on which we think too much money is being spent, although they may be a little less common.

I begin by being grateful for a number of items announced this time. I am not sure that I can sustain that congratulatory perspective all the way through my remarks—your Lordships know me too well to expect that—but I will at least start in a positive direction. The uprating of working-age benefits by 6.7% and the 9.8% increase in the national living wage will go some way to stemming or slowing the growth and deepening of poverty among households who are striving and struggling with low-paid and insecure employment. My belief is that the money made available to our lowest-income households should not, however, be subject to annual political whim. More than a triple lock for pensions, we need an independent mechanism to ensure that benefits always cover the basic essentials of living.

To that extent, I would, as the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, urged, encourage support for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Trussell Trust proposal for what they call an “essentials guarantee”. This would provide long-term certainty that benefits would be enough to live on for all families. It would mean that the rate of universal credit is set by an independent body which takes the cost of essentials into account. But that is for the longer term; this year’s announcement is a step in the right direction.

The uprating of local housing allowance back to the 30th percentile is also something I welcome wholeheartedly. Freezing this figure during a period when private sector rents have risen rapidly busts any myth that holding LHA down would help keep private rents affordable. Instead, we have seen rent levels become one of the principal drivers of homelessness, now including homelessness among people who are in steady employment, especially in major cities such as my own. In inner Manchester, these new rates will provide an additional £41 per week or over £2,000 per year. This uprating will go some way to addressing the worst of the problem.

However, given that the national insurance reductions will take immediate effect, I fail to see why this is being delayed beyond the coming winter months, when homelessness wreaks its greatest toll on the health and lives of our fellow citizens. I would welcome a commitment, ideally from both Front-Benchers today, to not letting this level fall back below 30% in future years.

Taken together, these changes are a welcome step in the right direction. However, the parish of St Barnabas in Oldham, which serves one of the poorest communities in Greater Manchester, now finds itself operating a free laundry service for local people—people who cannot afford a washing machine or dryer, and for whom commercial laundrettes necessitate an expensive and difficult journey. We all know what happens when you try to dry clothes in a cold house: you get the kind of damp that we have seen wreak such havoc on people’s health. I applaud that parish’s initiative, but I deplore the need for it and I do not see measures in this Statement that are sufficient to render it no longer necessary.

However, there are several areas where I feel opportunities have been missed. As time is brief and other noble Lords have, and no doubt will, refer to many of them, I will focus on one in which I have a particular interest. From my work as co-chair of the National Police Ethics Committee, as set out in the Register of Lords’ Interests, I am deeply concerned as to how much police time is wasted by officers sitting in hospital A&E departments waiting to hand over people with mental health issues to the medical professionals who can properly assess their needs and then offer treatment. One of my right reverend friends on these Benches recently observed four officers spending six hours on such duties each. This was time that could and should have been spent preventing and detecting crime.

I applaud the Right Care, Right Person initiative, which seeks to divert people with health needs from inappropriate and wasteful periods of engagement with police. However, timely handovers will not be achieved without a more significant increase in funds for mental health in our hospitals and communities. We need an increase beyond what is in the Statement, at least commensurate with the dramatic growth in levels of need we witnessed through the pandemic years and beyond. We have a mental health crisis. I would be grateful if the Minister could give this House a commitment in principle for funding in mental health care, even if it is not possible to make money available today.

Finally—and I depart here from the from the noble Baroness who spoke before me—I suspect that many of us here feel that this Autumn Statement reflects a tiredness and a lack of ambition. It may speak of

“long-term decisions for a brighter future”,

but the reality feels somewhat different. Early in my years as a parish priest, I learned that one of the saddest signs of human decline and the approach of life’s end is a narrowing of horizons, physically and metaphorically, until they barely reach beyond the bedroom walls. I hope that, when we next hold an Autumn Statement debate, whichever party is in power after the forthcoming general election, it will feel able to bring us a bold and long-term vision for Britain’s future—not, as we have before us today, a whispered croak from a governmental deathbed.