Workers (Economic Affairs Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 12:51 pm ar 8 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of The Bishop of Bristol The Bishop of Bristol Bishop 12:51, 8 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak in this important debate about the nature of the UK workforce in a challenging economic climate. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, as have others, and all the members of the Economic Affairs Committee who worked to produce this report and have stimulated our thinking today.

On a personal note, having recently found it hard to recruit lay staff to my office in Bristol, I am very grateful for being informed by the report we are debating today. At the heart of my diocese, you can find the New Room, the chapel where John Wesley led the first Methodist congregation from 1739. As part of his pioneering ministry, he offered “Rules of a Helper” to ordained Ministers, the first of which is:

“Never be unemployed a moment, never be triflingly employed, never while away time”.

While the word “unemployed” might have pricked the ears of your Lordships in the context of this debate, the final clause may be the significant one here. In effect, we are reminded about the importance of using our time on earth well. There is work to be done, good news to share and disciples to be made. Wesley was on to something. There is great purpose and fulfilment to be found in using our time well, maximising our skills and ensuring we fulfil our potential. It enriches our lives and the lives of our community, and that is central to my remarks today.

I pay tribute to the work of the charity Livability as I begin by considering the area of disability. Livability seeks to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities and to create a life that adds up for them. Five of Livability’s 10 residents in Eastbourne—Stacey, Debbie, Bob, Linda and Shaun—are in in work, well above the national average for disabled people, finding independence and fulfilment in jobs that enable them to serve others. Several of the residents in Eastbourne engaged with the Archbishops’ Commission on Reimagining Care, helping to guide the commission’s thinking and the articulation of a vision in which everyone can be supported to flourish, regardless of age or ability.

Good employers play an important role in developing every employee’s skills. There are many good employers, including, I have no doubt, the employers of our friends at Livability, but we need to ensure that employers are doing everything they can to meet their obligations under the Equality Act and to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees, making them feel welcome in practice as well as in their procedures. In the last Autumn Statement, the Government made significant efforts to encourage disabled people back into work. A Government Minister noted that disabled people should do their duty and work if they could. An emphasis was made on encouraging disabled people therefore to work from home, yet the sectors with the most significant shortages—social care, hospitality and retail—provide few jobs which can be done effectively from home.

There are wider societal implications from the absence of workers in our economic environment. The report we are discussing today demonstrates that the shortages in the labour market are particularly acute because people are retiring earlier. We have heard that laid out extensively. At the same time, just this week, the International Longevity Centre has released a report saying that the state pension age might need to increase to keep in line the proportion of workers per state pensioner. Without more careful consideration about the nature, attractiveness and meaning of work itself, we risk becoming an ever more unequal society in which people work longer than they probably should to maintain services for people well enough to work but with the means to retire early.

The report of the Archbishops’ Commission on Families and Households noted that the pandemic changed much about how we think about our work, relationships and well-being. I note that the committee’s report reflected on early retirements triggered by the pandemic as being a lifestyle choice for many, which undoubtedly is true for some with the means to do so. I add that a contributing factor must also be the weight of the loss we have shared together with our families and communities. As the Covid inquiry continues, the extent of the loss and bereavement we faced is something with which we may only be beginning to come to terms.

Finally, this report quite reasonably focuses on the employment picture in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic. The pandemic showed us just how quickly circumstances can change. The development of artificial intelligence and the rapid pace of change we are seeing as a result of generative AI leave us with profound moral questions as we consider the future of work. Technology is not neutral. We need a set of principles which underpin our engagement with this fourth industrial revolution. It is not clear where we are heading. The Church of England will be exploring this in the coming weeks as we seek to engage with the Rome call for an ethical approach to AI and deeper reflection on the crucial elements of fair and fulfilling work in the face of AI and technologies to come. In the meantime, the committee’s report is excellent and gives us much to think about in terms of understanding employment trends. I am grateful for it and for this debate.