My Lords, the theological understanding of grace is of the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it, not because of anything we have done to deserve it. In these early days in your Lordships’ House, it is grace that I have experienced—wonderful kindness and a warmth of welcome from your Lordships, the staff and all who work in this place. It has been entirely undeserved but a truly heart-warming experience. It will be no surprise to your Lordships that one of the loveliest and warmest welcomes came from the late Lord Walton—a fine and godly man, and a distinguished son of the north-east.
I grew up in the 1950s on a large London overspill council estate. In those large sprawling estates there were precious few community facilities and the school I attended had two classes of 45 children in each year group. The life chances of many growing up on that estate were very limited. Out of the 90 children in my year group, only 10 went to grammar school.
Two things were key in supporting me through those childhood years. The first was to be fortunate enough to be born into a loving family and the second was to be blessed by some truly inspirational, vocational teachers, who gave so generously of their free time to expand our horizons above and beyond the ordinary. One of those teachers was Mrs. Boyd, who started a debating society at our school. She had a passion for the art of debating and wanted us to catch that passion. Her sister, the late Lady Birk, had just been introduced to the Lords as one of those pioneering early women life Peers. Through Lady Birk’s good offices, Mrs Boyd brought our little debating team to this place to inspire us by witnessing debating at its best. How could I have imagined, as a 16 year-old girl up in that Gallery, that one day I would find myself making a maiden speech in your Lordships’ House?
I have the privilege of being the 12th Bishop of Newcastle. I would like to pay tribute to my predecessor, Bishop Martin—a fine Bishop and one of the longest-serving Bishops in your Lordships’ House. I will do my best to be a worthy successor, with the important exception that I will probably spend slightly less time in the smoking shed.
My diocese stretches from the River Tyne in the south to the River Tweed in the north and encompasses the city of Newcastle, North Tyneside and the county of Northumberland, together with a very small area of eastern Cumbria and four parishes in northern County Durham. Newcastle diocese is wonderful, with extraordinary contrasts: from the vibrant regional capital of Newcastle upon Tyne, with two world-class universities and 50,000 students, to the remote hill farms, some still without mains electricity and water; from the Northumberland Church of England Academy with 2,500 students in Ashington, to our smallest Church of England school on Holy Island with just four children. We have the stunning Dark Skies at Kielder and the bright lights of the big city, alongside places of pilgrimage such as Holy Island—or St James’ Park. The beauty of my diocese takes my breath away.
The gracious Speech emphasised the importance of increasing life chances for the most disadvantaged, supporting economic recovery, creating jobs and apprenticeships, and creating the kind of infrastructure that businesses need to grow. All these issues are absolutely key to economic and human flourishing in the north-east. The issues around the development of the northern powerhouse are also of great significance. I therefore warmly welcome the commitment from the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, earlier in this debate to regional growth in the north and the Midlands.
The people of the north-east are warm, hospitable, proud and resilient. Our workforce is famed for its loyalty, with a very low staff turnover. The north-east is not a problem to be solved by the rest of the country but an asset to be valued. We are one of the very few parts of the UK with a surplus of both water and energy. Rather than transporting these vital resources to other parts of the country, we should be looking to relocate water-and energy-intensive businesses to the north-east. We are the only region in the UK with a consistent positive balance of trade and we export nearly a third of everything we make and do.
As I have journeyed around the diocese in my first five months, I have seen more signs of hope than I have time to talk about. Let me give just one example— Port of Blyth. Blyth, on the coast in the south-east corner of Northumberland, is one of the most deprived areas in the whole of England. With the closure of the Alcan Lynemouth aluminium smelter in 2012, the future of the port looked bleak. But with great leadership, a determination to find new trade and a policy of recruiting local young people who stay, Port of Blyth is now facing an increasingly optimistic future. It has just announced record results for 2015, with a doubling of pre-tax profits to £1.2 million.
Human flourishing in all its forms, including economic flourishing, depends above all on our most precious resource: our people. If these signs of flourishing are to be sustained and grow, we need the commitments in the gracious Speech to be made real in everyday lives. The most important of these commitments is to our children. There are many areas of poverty in the north-east, Blyth among them, where children’s life chances will continue to be curtailed without the determination and ambition to give such children the start in life that they deserve.
As I experienced so powerfully in my own early life, education can be absolutely transformative. Northumberland is the most sparsely populated county in England, so it is not surprising that our schools are inevitably among the smallest in the country. I therefore warmly welcome the commitment in the education White Paper to provide sparsity funding for every single small rural school, but I hope that this will not be at the expense of schools in urban areas. We need to support schools in all disadvantaged areas if the commitment to life chances is to be realised. That is made very clear in the report on northern schools issued this week by the IPPR North and Teach First, where the gap in secondary education for disadvantaged children is particularly highlighted.
The northern powerhouse will be anything but unless there is a 100% commitment to adequate funding—funding for education, apprenticeships and the infrastructure that the north-east needs. It would be this kind of vision and commitment that would make a real difference.