On Monday in the House of Lords I spoke on the debate on tax credit amendments. Often the debates in the House of Lords can be very technical and, dare I say it, even a little dry. But this was very different. Feelings ran high, for two reasons. The first was that the stakes are immensely high. Had the new regulations gone through in the form that was proposed, working people and families on low incomes would have seen a dramatic fall in their income from next April - up to £2,600 for a family with two children and £3,000 for a family with three children. Often this would have amounted to 10% of already modest incomes. That is a huge and unacceptable burden on families, including children, that are already working hard and yet struggling to make ends meet.
We often hear the government talking about for incentives for people to work, that work should pay. This proposal seemed to me and others to be a punishment on those honest families who are doing their very best to provide for their families and so I tabled an amendment to 'regret' the changes and ask the Government to consult and revisit them. As it was my amendment did not get put to a vote because others before it were passed.
After listening to the debate I was glad to vote for one of those other three amendments which forced the government to look again at their plans. I am pleased by this outcome, but it still leaves open some significant questions that the Commons and the Lords must now address. This is because some people have claimed that the House of Lords does not have the constitutional right to ask Government to think again on financial matters passed by the Commons. Others say that this was a shortcut way to make a significant policy change and that the detail of the changes was not in a finance bill or in the Government's pre-election manifesto. The Government has now announced a review of the conventions which I hope will offer more clarity on such matters when they arise in future.
So alongside the real and pressing moral issues we debated, and our profound concern for the wellbeing of those poorer families who work so hard to meet their families' needs, we also found ourselves embroiled in what many are describing as a constitutional crisis. Bishops are always in a slightly difficult position in these circumstances. We are not there to serve the interests of any political party and I think it's important that we don't get involve in party political battles. Monday's debate was difficult in part because there were some strong party political debates and I did not want to align myself with one party or another. In the end I spoke and voted as I did because, having listened to the arguments, I felt that it was really important that time was built into the government's proposals in order to ensure that the needs of those who are most vulnerable are addressed.
I am delighted that together we were able to take such a strong stand, and glad to play my small part in that. My prayers right now are very much with the government ministers and all involved in this, as they listen and respond to the questions and issues that were raised yesterday. The principal concern, it seems to me, is to address the mismatch between the proposed immediate substantial 'hit' of tax credit changes and the incremental - and hopefully compensatory - improvements to the minimum wage and tax thresholds over the coming years.
The Government's aspiration for a higher pay, lower tax, and lower welfare economy has my strong support. The task is to make the transition without hurt and harm to those working on lowest incomes. I remain committed to doing all I can to support those, locally in my diocese and nationally, who work hard yet still find themselves struggling to make ends meet.
Christopher Foster is the ninth and current Bishop of Portsmouth