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Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:37 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of The Bishop of Bradford The Bishop of Bradford Bishop 2:37 pm, 27th May 2010

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his humane and humorous introduction. I hope that he will follow the example rather than the advice of the noble Lord, Lord St John, as he continues his business. I will make a brief comment to the noble Lord, Lord Richard. It is the mosquito that is the most dangerous creature, not the crocodile. There are many mosquitoes around, ready to bite and infect.

I was particularly impressed by the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Bichard. I am grateful that he took our attention beyond the walls of Westminster and into the world out there that we are called to serve. The assertion in the Book of Proverbs that without a vision, the people perish, is open to a variety of interpretations. However, it probably rings true among political parties. The vision of Her Majesty's Government of a big society shaped by a legislative programme based on freedom, fairness and responsibility, is one that many of us would affirm-not least those of us who are members of communities of faith. We welcome the development of a partnership between the Government and civil society that will empower local people to tackle the issues that impact most closely on their lives, and which shape or misshape their existence-the issues that they understand best. Faith groups are well placed to play their part, alongside many other voluntary and community groups, in helping to turn vision into reality.

We have people on the ground already for whom loving their neighbour is part of their spiritual DNA. I imagine that any of my colleagues on this Bench could take your Lordships to Christian individuals and communities who are caring for people with learning difficulties, supporting the homeless and those suffering from alcohol and drug abuse, carrying the bereaved, and supporting people in debt and those who are ill. Your Lordships will be aware of the Christian origins of the hospice movement. Less commonly known is the fact that churches have more youth workers than does the public sector. If I want to show people what churches can do, I take them on to a particular outer estate in Bradford where, I have been told, half the homes have a member of their family in one or other of the various churches-but not on a Sunday. There is a wealth of community activities for people of all ages from the very young, involving playing and teaching massage for babies, to the elderly with their luncheon clubs and so on. It is an exceptional achievement but by no means unique. I could bore your Lordships for ever on it but I think I would be guilty of the sin of pride.

Next month, I shall be hosting a lunch here in the House on behalf of the Church Urban Fund. This wonderful charity specialises in providing seed corn grants for small projects which enhance personal and community well-being-making the bricks, so to speak, needed to build the big society. Some of these small projects grow beyond all expectation. However, there are some "buts". The big society and the relevant proposals in the gracious Speech, the encouraging of individual and social responsibility and the reliance on social enterprise, require a dramatic change in our political culture which needs to go far beyond the democratic reform of which most of us have been speaking. Some local councillors behave as though their elected status confers on them an exclusive responsibility to decide what is best for the local community. Voluntary groups are seen as unprofessional and as getting in the way. Yes, they are less professional but therefore they are also likely to be less bureaucratic and, at the same time, far more innovative.

Another "but" is that our most deprived communities have very low levels of self-esteem and social expectation, and this needs to be addressed if the big society is to become a reality. It is therefore unfortunate that just when the Government want to,

"train a new generation of community organisers and support the creation of neighbourhood groups across the UK, especially in the most deprived areas", a number of our innovative and effective courses in community development are facing an uncertain future. I think especially of the excellent MA in community development which the University of Westminster runs but which, I believe, is due to close.

A renewed civil society with genuine local decision-making on local issues will not only enhance our social fabric; it will also revitalise political life at the national level as people cut their teeth on, and get a taste for, politics-if noble Lords will pardon two metaphors which do not really belong together-in an arena where they see that they can make a difference. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Tope, said, in effect that vision will be no more than a pipe dream unless the Government devolve more financial decision-making to the local level. As in many areas of life, what we do with our money shows where our heart truly is, and that will be true for the new Government.

There is half a sentence in the gracious Speech which warms my heart more than any other part, although no one else has referred to it thus far, and indeed it requires little or no legislation. It is the expressed commitment of the Government to end the detention of children for immigration purposes. The locking up of children, many of whom are already traumatised by their experiences in their home countries, by an often tortuous journey to Britain and by their insecure existence here, is deeply inhumane and shameful to the values that we claim to hold in common as a civilised country. I ask the Government, through the Minister, whether it would be possible, as an earnest of their intention, to release those children who are currently held in detention.

I believe that the country wants the Government to control immigration. The temptation, though, is to have a draconian policy which creates the illusion of strong government rather than a thought-through policy based on those principles of freedom, fairness and responsibility to which the Government have committed themselves and which takes account of skills shortages and other special needs that we have. I hope that those same three principles will also govern the way that we process asylum seekers, the quality of the initial decision-making in particular, and also the way that the end of the process is handled.