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Bishop Pete delivers maiden speech in House of Lords

Bishop Pete in House of Lords

The speech took place during a debate on access to higher education.

Bishop Pete has delivered his maiden speech in the House of Lords, giving thanks for the opportunity to speak in the chamber.

He was formally introduced to the House of Lords back in March, and in yesterday’s debate (Monday 19 June) he spoke of the importance of ensuring good access to education in a wide range of communities.

Noting that the word ‘disciple’ means ‘learner’, Bishop Pete added ‘almost by definition, therefore, every Christian is rather obliged constantly to be seeking to grow in knowledge, in wisdom, in insight and skill. and the Christian church is therefore again almost by definition bound to be committed to the principle of lifelong learning.’

As one of 26 bishops of the Church of England sitting in the House of Lords, Bishop Pete and his colleagues among the Lords Spiritual will help to read prayers at the start of each day’s parliamentary business and play an active role in the life and work of the House, including in behind-the-scenes committee work scrutinising draft legislation. 

The full speech transcript of Bishop Pete’s speech is below:

My lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak for the first time in this chamber, in support of the aim of this bill to widen access to higher education, and I look forward to hearing the maiden speech of the noble Lord Sewell of Sanderstead. I would also like to begin by recording my thanks to members and to staff for the consistently warm and generous welcome I have received and the helpful induction I have been given.

If my experience of introduction to this house is typical, it speaks very well of the culture of this place. My Lord, on Thursday it will be exactly six years since I was consecrated as a bishop at York Minster and took up my present responsibilities. The wonderful diocese I serve is made up of former steelmaking and coal mining communities across much of South Yorkshire, but also farming communities in parts of the East Riding and even a port in the town of Goule.

I had never lived in South Yorkshire before but have found the city of Sheffield to be astonishingly green – I believe it to be the only city in England with a national park within its boundary. Sheffield of course also boasts two professional football clubs: Wednesday and United; the former play in blue and white stripes; the latter in red and white stripes, and rather gloriously both achieved promotion this past season. I am in the happy position of having not to choose between them but to be able to rejoice with them both because my own football allegiance belongs, for historic reasons, to Newcastle United, who of course play in black and white stripes. My lords will understand the pleasure it gives me to don my club’s colours every time I enter this chamber.

Every follower of Jesus Christ is a disciple and the word disciple simply means ‘learner’. Almost by definition, therefore, every Christian is rather obliged constantly to be seeking to grow in knowledge, in wisdom, in insight and skill, and the Christian church is therefore again almost by definition bound to be committed to the principle of lifelong learning, and therefore to support any bill which seeks to make lifelong learning more effective and more widely possible.

Personally, I recognise how privileged I am. I have benefited at the expense of the taxpayer from a world-class higher education studying for degrees in the traditional manner. I studied History as an undergraduate in Durham and then Theology as part of my training for the ordained Ministry in Cambridge, and subsequently took doctoral studies at Oxford, so I appreciate the value of scholarly immersion; of intense periods of lectures and seminars; and tutorials of reading and writing. But in ordained ministry over the past 35 years, I have served on Tyneside and Teeside; in the West Midlands; on Merseyside and in South Yorkshire. Immersion in these communities has left me in no doubt that a greater flexibility and access to a higher education is urgently needed.

Apprenticeship schemes have generally and lamentably languished in recent years, and new initiatives are urgently needed to revive them, or at least to fill the gap in training which those schemes previously met. In the Diocese of Sheffield we boast two top-ranking universities: Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Sheffield, as well as the Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust. But across the Diocese as a whole, we’re equally proud of our less heralded colleges with HE provision in Sheffield, Barnsley, the Dearne Valley, Doncaster and Rotherham.

I was at Rotherham College only last week to meet the staff who are responsible for its HE provision and to hear from them about this bill. Few of the HE students at Rotherham College are in a position to access the education I received. Their domestic circumstances and accessibility to learning are often very different from my own, and they require more flexible funding arrangements. They may be combining higher education with employment or childcare in a way I never did.

The shift envisaged in this bill to enable learners, including mature students, to access funding in a modular way is surely right and good. As noble lords may be aware, no fewer than 11 universities in this country have a Church of England foundation and retain a Church of England ethos. Known as the Cathedrals Group, these 11 HE institutions educate 100,000 students a year. These learners, as much as any others, stand to benefit from the provisions of this bill to unlock new opportunities for lifelong learning and to support a greater plurality of roots into higher education.

These are very laudable aims and I gladly support them. However, I came away from that visit to Rotherham College last week with some sense of the scale of implementation challenge which are bound to attend a bill as ambitious as this one. For example, in the management of learning provision to ensure that supply is as flexible as demand, or on the impact if learners take advantage of newly flexible grant arrangements to switch providers, perhaps multiple times in the accumulation of their modules and credits. I realise that there is much detail in relation to this bill that still needs to be worked through, but I wonder if the noble lady, the minister, could assure the house that the government is aware of implementation challenges such as these and will address them perhaps at committee stage.

I note in closing that my colleague, the Bishop of Coventry – lead Bishop for the Church of England in FE and HE would also add his support to this bill, though he regrets he is unable to be in the house today. My lords, it is a great privilege to participate in this debate and I look forward to many more such opportunities in the years ahead.

Bishop Pete’s maiden speech in the House of Lords