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My Lords, I warmly welcome the report and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, and others involved. I find myself liking it more each time I read it. Its very modesty is its virtue, for a small number of strategic changes can make an immense difference. I speak from a background of nine years as a vicar in outer estate parishes in Halifax, in very poor communities, and seven years before my previous appointment as Bishop of Sheffield serving again some of the most impoverished regions in the country.
I will make two points. First, I wholeheartedly commend the vision of a government focus on supporting families. The default in our culture, and across a range of government departments, is a progressively greater focus on individuals in law and public policy. Yet we all exist as part of diverse families and networks of relationships—a fundamental insight of the Christian tradition. Such families are the cornerstone of our well-being and the common good. The proposals in section A of the report offer a necessary countercultural counterweight at the very heart of government that pays attention to this reality in the deep fabric of our lives. The proposals are more radical than they sound on first reading. Let us do them.
Secondly, I applaud hugely the report’s encouragement to work with voluntary and private sector partners. The task of supporting families is much too important to be left to government, national or local. However, government’s role is vital in setting vision and standards, as a convenor and broker. The charity PACT—Parents and Children Together—was founded by the Diocese of Oxford in 1911. PACT exists to build and strengthen families. Last year, as part of PACT’s work, we placed 87 adopted children in families and approved 49 families to adopt, as well as much other good work. Each extra family approved to adopt adds over £1.1 million in value to society.
Two years ago, Oxfordshire County Council had to cut its funding to its 43 children’s centres. All but eight of them were in danger, which would have been an immense loss to local communities. The council chose to work with the Churches and the voluntary sector. Correspondingly, there has been a tremendous response. Thanks to the power of “working with”, 38 of those centres will remain open under voluntary, Church and charitable leadership. Funding to these ventures is modest, but it needs to be consistent. As was said earlier, the staccato cycle of new funding followed by funding cuts and new initiatives starting then ending prematurely halts improving outcomes for the very families we seek to support.
I welcome the report wholeheartedly. The new focus, the “working with”, the modesty and the chance for a new beginning are vital. I hope sincerely that the Government will find the courage to take this manifesto forward.