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Hymn singing, Ethiopia, Skills Bill, Hillsborough, and more: News from the Church in Parliament

Yesterday, the Bishop of Leeds asked a question about singing hymns, and spoke in the Skills Bill debate. The Bishop of St Albans asked a question about Tigray and gambling-related harm among service personnel. 

On Monday, the Bishop of Leeds asked questions on the Union and Hillsborough.

Full transcript below:

House of Lords:

Tuesday 15th June 2021

Hymn Singing

The Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines, said: "My Lords, regardless of matters of hindsight, does the Minister agree that prolonging the restrictions might be justified for certain reasons? I do not demur from that, but the prolonging of inconsistencies is a serious impediment to public adherence to the rules. You do not have to look very far to see where the discipline broke down a long time ago. For example—this is not special pleading; it is just at the forefront of my mind—you can sing in a pub but not in a church. This is what brings the rules into disrepute, and therefore people do not agree with them.

"Secondly, can the Minister say something in response to Michael Gove’s reported comments about acceptable death rates? We have learned to live with acceptable death rates from flu and other seasonal diseases. Will the Government do some work on what might be an acceptable death rate from Covid in future and be up-front with the country as to what that might be? I think we can take it."

Lord Bethell, on behalf of the Government, said: "I hear loud and clear the frustration of many noble Lords on the question of singing in churches; it is enormously frustrating to those who have a passion for singing.

"But I would be pretending to be other than I am if I did not level with the right reverend Prelate and say that this is an airborne, aerosol disease. It is breathed into buildings at huge risk to those inside, and there is a direct correlation between infection rates, that aerosol and that kind of singing.

"The decision has been made with huge regret and not without a huge amount of scientific analysis, and those who have made their case have been heard loud and clear—but we have to fight this virus and prevent people getting sick.

"I do not accept the right reverend Prelate’s view that discipline has broken down. Quite the opposite: I am astounded by the British public and their adherence to voluntary guidelines and arrangements.

"I pay tribute to the British public, and I do not think that the right reverend Prelate does any favours when he suggests that discipline has broken down.

"Lastly, I really do not accept the concept of an acceptable death rate. That is not how we play the health system in this country. We are here to save lives; that is our priority. There is a balance between the economy, freedom and lives, but as a Health Minister my starting point is to save lives."


The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, said: "I wonder if the Minister would comment on whether Her Majesty’s Government have been able to validate allegations that white phosphorus was used against civilians in Tigray, despite the categorical denial of the Ethiopian Government."

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, on behalf of the Government, said: "The right reverend Prelate raises an important point. We are awaiting, and certainly support, the full investigation. Various UN agencies, including OCHA and the UNHCR, are working to establish the facts of that very incident."

Service Personnel Wellbeing

The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, said: "My Lords, in the UK it is estimated that former Armed Forces personnel are eight times more likely to develop gambling problems than civilians. They suffer from higher rates of mental health issues and alcohol problems, factors which may feed into the higher rate of problem gambling. Will Her Majesty’s Government commit to surveying the gambling habits of serving personnel so that we can better provide for our military as they transition to civilian life?"

Baroness Stedman-Scott, on behalf of the Government, said: "The right reverend Prelate raises a serious issue that people are well aware of. I would like to offer a meeting with him just to get some more detail from him, and then I will of course take that back to the department."

Skills Bill

The Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines, said: "My Lords, I strongly endorse the previous speech, particularly as it notes the crazy distinction between vocational and academic study. On these Benches, we welcome the commitment from the Government to the further education and skills sector as set out in the Bill. It is particularly pleasing to see that the Bill builds on the practical reforms outlined in the Skills for Jobs White Paper. In this context, I also strongly commend to the House the Church of England’s new vision for further education report, published at the end of April, which also recognises the key role that FE plays in driving individual, community and societal transformation.

"I wish to make three points. First, how might learners be enabled or incentivised to upskill or reskill, particularly those such as the long-term furloughed or people heavily reliant on welfare payments, who have been particularly impacted by the pandemic? The Bill outlines structures and organisations required for delivering training but does not suggest how such people actually get to the training in the first place. Clearly, the welcome commitment to a reintroduction of maintenance grants is a significant part of this, yet the need, already referred to by other speakers, to cover basic living expenses while studying is an immediate and powerful potential barrier to learning. This could be an opportune time to reconsider the 16 hours-a-week work rule for those in receipt of universal credit, with proper safeguards in place to prevent abuse of the system. Great training is pointless if the people who need it are not incentivised to access it.

"Secondly, how do the Government plan to ensure that local SME voices are heard and not overpowered by larger employers, which typically find it easier to meet expectations from Government? Over 80% of the UK economy is driven by the service sector, which is dominated by small and medium-sized employers. SMEs play a central role in levelling up, as they are typically more likely to employ those from disadvantaged groups with lower employment chances. This lies behind Wakefield Council’s launch, in March, of its new strategy to become a 'Learning City and District', one of the four pillars of which is to: 'Provide an inclusive jobs market for residents to find and sustain well paid employment, by ensuring access to learning is available for all levels and to all ages with increased participation from hard to reach/disadvantaged communities.'

"An employer-centred focus is crucial to the success of the skills reforms. However, equally crucial is the development of longer-term thinking about the future skills needs of society. This means that meeting present perceived needs locally must be balanced by an appreciation of longer-term changes in future skills demand, particularly if we are to join up local and national provision.

"Thirdly, colleges play a vital role in providing for students with specific learning difficulties and disabilities. According to the Association of Colleges, such students make up 17% of the overall intake, a figure which rises to 23% of 16 to 18 year-old learners. In 2019-20, local authorities placed over 64,000 students with education, health and care plans in colleges—90% of them in general FE colleges and the rest in specialist institutions. The funding regime does not provide support for students in FE who do not have EHCPs to anything like the degree required, yet the Bill makes no specific reference to such students, although we welcome the promised Green Paper due in the summer. It would be helpful if the Minister could consider how the appropriate degree of priority could be given to this diverse cohort of learners in policy and funding terms, and how that might best be reflected in the Bill, as it passes through the House."

Monday 14th June 2021

Constitutional Matters

The Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines, said: "My Lords, I am not sure whether I heard reference to federalism there.

"Does the Minister agree that, because of the nature of the debate and the threats to the union, we need to get ahead of the game in relation to the union and its associated constitutional arrangements, and that this is urgent?

"Will the Government ensure that such discussions are cross-party and cross-society when they do take place?"

Lord True, on behalf of the Government, said: "My Lords, all those kinds of discussions certainly benefit from the widest range of opinions.

"The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, did raise the issue of a federal approach, and I responded to that. I assure the right reverend Prelate that the Government’s ears are always open."


The Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines, said: "My Lords, what have the Government learned about the process of justice and public confidence in law, when a trial can collapse one day and a defence counsel stands in the street outside the court and maintains unequivocally that this proves that there has not been a cover-up, yet almost the next day the police admit such cover-ups and compensation is duly paid?"

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, on behalf of the Government, said: "My Lords, as Prime Minister David Cameron said when he made the apology in the other place, the families 'suffered a double injustice: the injustice of the … events' themselves, 'the failure of the state to protect' them 'and the indefensible wait to get to the truth;' and also the offence of 'the denigration of the deceased.'

"When I was at the Bar, it was generally regarded as unwise or sometimes improper to comment publicly about your cases. I certainly commend that approach to anybody who says anything about the acts of the Liverpool fans. The Sun itself had to provide a full apology. It well behoves everybody else to read the Bishop Jones inquiry if they want to find out what the truth actually is."
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