The Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd Steven Croft, spoke in today’s debate on the Address in the House of Lords.

“My Lords, I rise to speak about the climate emergency and declare an interest as a member of the Advisory Board of the Environmental Change Institute in the University of Oxford.

The minister said in his opening address that Climate Change will test us all. And it will. David Wallace Wells book, The Uninhabitable Earth, should in my view be required reading for every member of this House. Wells begins his graphic description of the future of the Earth with the unforgettable words: It is much, much, much worse than you think. He goes on to describe the effects and the economic costs of bush fires, drought, mass migration, sea and air pollution, flooding and extreme weather. I read Wells early last year and have watched his words become the lived reality of people in California and Australia, across Southern Africa and Indonesia, and closer to home in the floods in South Yorkshire.

We are living through an environmental catastrophe, and that catastrophe will increasingly shape our foreign and domestic policy, our economic life and our politics over the next decade. The science is clear. The needs are urgent. How will we respond?

I welcome all that the minister said. The government are to be congratulated on embracing the target of net zero by 2050. The government are to be congratulated on their ambition to lead the COP talks in November. The talks have the potential to change the world.

The challenge now is to fill out this vision with specific planned action. First we need a detailed accountable plan of how our economy will reach net zero by 2050 or earlier. If we’re serious, we must have a year by year accountable strategy.

Second, governments and responsible investors, including the churches, need to stop investing in and subsidising fossil fuels and invest in renewables here and across the world. As Mark Carney has argued recently very powerfully.

Third bring forward some bold, eye-catching initiatives to show the world that Britain means business and that we can reach these targets: have the courage to bring forward the ban on petrol and diesel vehicles to 2030. Fund an ambitious new energy efficiency programme. Give more detail on the projected investment and mitigation in flood defences here and overseas.

There is a moral imperative to act for the sake of the earth and for the sake of the poorest. Those who have contributed least to climate change are suffering the most and will suffer most in the future. But this is one of those very rare moments when to do the right thing ethically is also to do the right thing for the economic prosperity of the country and our place in the world. The cost of acting slowly is increasing.

The 2018 forest fires in California cost $400 billion, the equivalent of the entire US Defence budget. Every year now counts.

Your Lordships will remember the story in the Book of Genesis of Pharoah’s dream, interpreted by Joseph. Seven fat cows consumed by seven thin cows. Seven years of plenty eaten by seven years of famine. We have no need of Joseph to interpret the impending disaster. We have the IPCC and the global scientific community. But we need a Government with the wisdom of Joseph to use these next seven years well and to put us on the pathway to recovery and set out a new agenda for the next decade for the world.

My Lords we must not fail.”

Steven Croft

Watch Bishop Steven speaking in the debate and follow Bishop Steven on Facebook

The Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd Steven Croft, spoke in a debate in the House of Lords this afternoon about protecting and representing the interests of future generations in policy making. Bishop Steven spoke on climate chaos, the rise of artificial intelligence and the impact of both on young people’s mental health.

Join Bishop Steven at the Mass Lobby of MPs on 26 June. Full details here: https://www.theclimatecoalition.org/thetimeisnow

“My Lords, I warmly welcome this debate and want to express my appreciation to Lord Bird for his intiative and his proposals. Lord Bird has set out very well the case for a Select Committee and for a Future Generations Commissioner.

The moral case has shifted in recent years. In the Anthropocene era, humanity’s effect on the environment means that that the interests not just of the next generation but every generation beyond that need to be protected in our policy making.

The world is living through deepening environmental catastrophe. The impact of climate change is already severe. It will become worse with each decade and each generation. The world is currently heading for average global warming of 2 degrees and more by 2050. Global net carbon emissions continue to rise. The risks of unforeseen and catastrophic compound effects on the environment increase with every year.

My Lords the two biblical images of hell are a burning planet too hot to sustain life and a rubbish dump. We are in danger of bequeathing both to our children and grandchildren. It is hugely irresponsible – to take short term decisions in the interests of only of the current generation.

I warmly welcome the government’s historic commitment to a net zero carbon economy by 2050 and I congratulate the Prime Minister on naming this goal as a vital part of her legacy. I warmly welcome the government’s international leadership and the bid to host the vital 2020 Climate Summit. These goals need support across Parliament. The voice of those future generations needs to be strengthened in that debate.

Future generations also need to be protected in the rapid pace of technological change. Here I speak as a Board Member of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. The pace of change and the effects of technology on the mental health of the young are significant.

I warmly commend the Information Commissioner’s Office recent guidelines on Age Appropriate Design, which aim to protect the most vulnerable from the predatory big tech companies. I warmly commend the government for bringing forward the Online Harms White Paper. I hope both will be turning points in the development of new technologies which protect rather than exploit the most vulnerable.

We will need in the coming years agility and public leadership in responding to new technologies and data in the areas of health, education, the labour market, smart cities, algorithmic decision making, facial recognition and the regulation of the mining of personal information for commercial gain. The interests of future generations need a voice.

Finally these proposals are so helpful in that they address a decrease in social cohesion across the generations. The APPG on Social Cohesion recently published a comprehensive study on intergenerational connection.

The generations have become increasingly segregated. We can allow that process of drift to continue with serious social consequences. Or we can exercise leadership to build social capital between the generations. Families and faith communities have a vital role to play and are part of the glue which binds generations together. Local government has a role as does business and the third sector. But national government must play its part.

The proposals to give a structured voice to the interests of future generations is warmly to be welcomed. I warmly support Lord Bird’s proposals and hope they will attract the support of the whole House.”

Steven Croft

The Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd Steven Croft, spoke in the House of Lords yesterday as the House debated Further discussions with the European Union under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union.

“My Lords, I always rise to speak in this Chamber with some fear and trepidation but never more so than today: not only because of the expertise, passion and conviction in this Chamber but also the jeopardy in which we find ourselves as a nation and a Parliament.

My journey through the Brexit process is that for seven years until the referendum year, I was the bishop in Sheffield and South Yorkshire, where some of the communities voted by almost 70% to leave the European Union. I moved shortly afterwards to the Diocese of Oxford, where the three counties, by and large, are significantly in favour of remain.

I suspect that historians will look back on this process and focus not so much on the calling of the referendum or even the referendum itself but on the long period of indecision and paralysis that has followed. I spent some time in Canterbury Cathedral some weeks ago and stood on the place where Thomas Becket was murdered. We were reminded in the cathedral of Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral. In his moment of great peril and jeopardy, Becket is visited by four tempters who, in the play, become his four assassins.

I think four significant temptations have grown in proportion to become dangerous assassins facing Parliament in the coming weeks.

The first is to allow our course to be shaped by self-interest and personal ambition. This Brexit debate has been marred from the beginning, it seems, by the narrow calculation of those hoping to gain or retain high office. From the perspective of the country, nothing has undermined trust in our politics more than this untrammelled ambition, which is apparent to all.

I do not single out a particular party or a section of a particular party. One of the dangers of our politics at present is that personal ambition is being put before the country and I think we need to draw that period to an end with great urgency, lest our politics and our confidence in democracy be damaged for a very long time. Conversely, nothing will restore trust in our politics more than putting the interests of the nation ahead of personal position.

The second temptation is to allow yourself to be swayed by narrow party interests and the pursuit of or retention of power in the short term. The issues at stake here are much greater than the rise and fall of particular parties or factions. We need our MPs and Peers to act in the greater national interest and for national unity. I would argue that Parliament needs to come together if the nation is to come together and emerge from this long period of division and introspection.

The third temptation is nostalgia—a romantic attachment to the past. It is wrong to imagine that we can reverse the effects of one referendum by another or go back to a time before the Brexit debates began, when all was well, or go back still further to a different age of independence and imagined glory. We cannot. We must deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be, and steer our course accordingly; the leadership that we offer will be judged by this measure.

The fourth and final temptation is idealism: in a world of difficult choices and necessary compromise, holding on to an ideal which is no longer tenable, whether it is a particular kind of leaving or remaining or something else. This, it seems to me, is currently the greatest barrier to positive cross-party consensus. A coming together across Parliament is impossible without the willingness to compromise, and one of the encouraging features of recent weeks has been cross-party engagement.

As others have said, there are huge issues facing our world and our country: climate chaos, care for the poorest, increasing equality and opportunity, our changing relationship with technology, and the challenge of social care and health funding. We cannot allow our national attention to be diverted from these issues by prolonging still further a series of adjustments to our relationship with Europe. The nation is looking to its political leaders for a strong, compelling and united vision of the future that enables us to see beyond these debates in a way that brings unity and common purpose.

The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury has spoken in this House about the vital importance of reconciliation in these debates and the protection of the poorest in society. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York has written of the need to preserve trust and confidence in our democratic institutions through a time of significant national jeopardy. I hope and pray that, in the midst of these ​difficult debates, we will be able to turn aside from those four temptations, seek meaningful compromise and act for the common good. I underscore the request to the Minister to lay out for us the ways in which the Government will continue to foster cross-party collaboration and listening, move towards a positive consensus and work to draw Parliament and the country back together.”

 

Steven Croft

Developing Artificial Intelligence in the UK

 

For the past year, I’ve been a member of the House of Lord’s Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence. The Committee of 13 members received 223 pieces of written evidence and took oral sessions from 57 witnesses over 22 sessions between October and December. It has been a fascinating process.

The Committee’s report is published today. It’s called AI in the UK: ready, willing and able? You can find it on the Committee website.

When I first started to engage with questions of Artificial Intelligence, I thought the real dangers to humankind were a generation away and the stuff of science fiction. The books and talks that kept me awake at night were about general AI: conscious machines (probably more than a generation away if not more).

The more I heard, the more the evidence that kept me awake at night was in the present not the future. Artificial Intelligence is a present reality not a future possibility. AI is used, and will be used, in all kinds of everyday ways. Consider this vignette from the opening pages of the report…

You wake up, refreshed, as your phone alarm goes off at 7:06am, having analysed your previous night’s sleep to work out the best point to interrupt your sleep cycle. You ask your voice assistant for an overview of the news, and it reads out a curated selection based on your interests. Your local MP is defending herself—a video has emerged which seems to show her privately attacking her party leader. The MP claims her face has been copied into the footage, and experts argue over the authenticity of the footage. As you leave, your daughter is practising for an upcoming exam with the help of an AI education app on her smartphone, which provides her with personalised content based on her strengths and weaknesses in previous lessons…

There is immense potential for good in AI: labour saving routine jobs can be delegated; we can be better connected; there is a remedy for stagnant productivity in the economy which will be a real benefit; there will be significant advances in medicine, especially in diagnosis and detection. In time, the roads may be safer and transport more efficient.

There are also significant risks. Our data in the wrong hands mean that political debate and opinion can be manipulated in very subtle ways. Important decisions about our lives might be made with little human involvement. Inequality may widen further. Our mental health might be eroded because of the big questions raised about AI.

This is a critical moment. Humankind has the power now to shape Artificial Intelligence as it develops. To do that we need a strong ethical base: a sense of what is right and what is harmful in AI.

I’m delighted that the Prime Minister has committed the United Kingdom to give an ethical lead in this area. Theresa May said in a recent speech in Davos in January:

“We want our new world leading centre for Data Ethics and Innovation to work closely with international partners to build a common understanding of how to ensure the safe, ethical and innovative development of artificial intelligence”

That new ethical framework will not come from the Big Tech companies and Silicon Valley which seek the minimum regulation and maximum freedom. Nor will it come from China, the other major global investor in AI, which takes a very different view of how personal data should be handled. It is most likely to come from Europe, with its strong foundation in Christian values and the rights of the individual and most of all, at present, from the United Kingdom, which is also a global player in the development of technology.

The underlying theme of the Select Committee’s recommendations is that ethics must be put at the centre of the development and use of AI. We believe that Britain has a vital role in leading the international community in shaping Artificial Intelligence for the common good rather than passively accepting its consequences.

The Government has already announced the creation of a new Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation to lead in this area. The Select Committee’s proposals will support the Centre’s work.

Towards the end of our enquiry, the Committee shaped five principles which we offer as a starting point for the Centre’s work. They emerged from very careful listening to those who came to meet us from industry and universities and regulators. Almost everyone we met was concerned about ethics and the need for an ethical vision to guide the development of these very powerful tools which will shape society in the next generation.

These are our five core principles (or AI Code) with a short commentary on each:

Artificial intelligence should be developed for the common good and benefit of humanity

Why is this important? AI is about more than making tasks easer or commercial advantage or one group exploiting another. AI is a powerful technology which can shape our understanding of work and income and our health. It’s too important to be left to multinational companies operating on behalf of their shareholders or to a tiny group of innovators. We need a big, wide public debate. It’s also vital that as a society we encourage the best minds towards using AI to solve the most critical problems facing the planet. It would be a tragedy if the main fruits of AI were simply better computer generated graphics or quicker ways to order takeaway pizza.

Artificial Intelligence should operate on principles of intelligibility and fairness

This is absolutely vital. There is a striking tendency in AI at the moment to anthropomorphise: to make machines seem human. This looks harmless at first until you begin to consider the consequences. Suppose in a few years time you are unable to tell whether that call from the bank is from an AI or a person? Suppose you apply for a job and the decisions about your application are all taken by a computer?

Suppose that computer is using a faulty data set, biased against you but you never get to know that? There are already a number of chatbots available offering cognitive behavioural therapy. Some of them charge money. Suppose they get better and better and imitating humans. What is to prevent vulnerable people being exploited? Regulation and monitoring is needed not for the first generation of developers (who are mainly very ethical) but for the generation after that.

Artificial intelligence should not be used to diminish the data rights or privacy of individuals, families or communities.

The Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandals erupted the week after the Select Committee agreed its final report. They underline the need for this principle. Data is the oil of the AI revolution. It is vital to fuel machine learning and wide application of AI. But data also contains the essence of identity and personality. It is fundamental that our data is safeguarded and not exploited.

All citizens have the right to be educated to enable them to flourish mentally, emotionally and economically alongside artificial intelligence.

AI is a disruptive technology. Some jobs will diminish or disappear. New jobs will emerge—but they will be different and probably not there in the same numbers as the jobs we lose. Inequality will increase unless we take positive steps to counter this. The economic predictions are uncertain. It is however absolutely clear that the only way to counter this disruption is education and lifelong learning. That education is not only about reskilling the workforce. There is a universal need for everyone to learn how to flourish in a new digital world. Providing that education is the responsibility of government.

The autonomous power to hurt, destroy or deceive human beings should never be vested in artificial intelligence.

Autonomous weapons are a present reality and a future prospect. This will change warfare for ever. The UK’s position on them is, at best, ambiguous: we use definitions which are out of step with the rest of the world. The Select Committee calls on the government for much greater clarity here and again, for a wider public debate. Deception is already a feature of AI in cyberwarfare and covert attempts to change perceptions of truth and public opinion. Unless we guard values of public truth and courtesy and freedom then our society is vulnerable.

Artificial Intelligence is here to stay. It has the capacity to shape our lives in many different ways. This is the moment to ensure that humankind shapes AI to serve the common good and all humanity rather than allowing AI driven by commercial or other interests to shape our future and our national life.

 

The Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd Steven Croft, spoke in the House of Lords today on the role of education in building a flourishing and skilled society. The debate was proposed by the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

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THE Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd Steven Croft, has welcomed the Manifesto to Strengthen Families.

In a speech to the House of Lords on Thursday November 2nd, he said:

“My Lords I warmly welcome this report. I like it more each time I read it. It’s very modesty is its virtue. A small number of strategic changes can make an immense difference. Two points:

I commend the vision of a government focussed on supporting families.

The default in our culture is a greater focus on individuals in law and public policy.

Yet we all exist as part of diverse families and networks of relationships: a fundamental insight of Christian tradition. These families are the cornerstone of our well being and the common good.

The proposals in Section A of the report offer a necessary counterweight at the heart of government which pays attention to the deep fabric of our lives. They are more radical than they sound. Let’s do them.

Second, I applaud the encouragement to work with voluntary and private sector partners.

The task of supporting families is much too important to be left to government. But government’s role is vital in setting vision and standards, as a convenor and broker.

The charity PACT was founded by the Diocese of Oxford in 1911. PACT exists to build and strengthen families.

Last year, as part of PACTs work we placed 87 adopted children in families and approved 49 families to adopt. Each extra family approved to adopt adds over £1.1 million in value to society.

2 years ago Oxfordshire County Council had to cut its funding to its 43 Children’s Centres. All but 8 were in danger which would have been an immense loss to local communities. The Council worked with the churches and voluntary sector. There has been a tremendous response. Thanks to the power of working with, 38 will remain open.

Funding to these ventures can be modest but it needs to be consistent. The staccato cycle of new funding followed by funding cuts, new initiatives starting then ending prematurely halts improving outcomes for the very families we seek to support.

My Lords I welcome this report: the new focus, the working with, the modesty and the chance for a new beginning. I hope sincerely the government will find the courage to take this manifesto forward.”

Watch Bishop Steven speaking in the House of Lords

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In case anyone might be wondering what bishops do in the House of Lords, here’s a summary of my week.

I was then “duty bishop” from 5-10 March 2017. We each do a couple of weeks of duty a year and then serve as we can in various ways.

Our first task at the beginning of each session is lead prayers for the House: always well attended and taken seriously.

Monday My  aim is to get my head round the week ahead. I’m asked to monitor and follow the debates on the Committee stage of the Higher Education and Research bill. This is a major bill aiming to raise the quality of teaching in Universities. I speak to an amendment about protecting the rights of disabled students and vote (against the Government) in two divisions. The key role of the Lords is improving legislation sent on by the House of Commons and the Lords Spiritual play their part in that process. The Bishop of Worcester speaks in a short evening  debate on assisted dying.

Tuesday Brexit day. The chamber is packed with a record number of peers (and bishops). The debates are  on amendments to the bill to trigger Article 50 and begin the process of leaving the European Union. A day of high emotion and big speeches by great Parliamentarians. The best came from Lords Hailsham and Heseltine.  A notable speech from the Archbishop of Canterbury. I vote with the Government on the first main amendment (for a second referendum) but against the Government on a second (to write into the bill the requirement to come back to Parliament).

Each Lords session also has four questions to ministers. I try to ask a supplementary but failed. Someone came in first on exactly the same issue.

Wednesday looks quieter. We’re  back to scrutinising and improving the HE bill. At short notice, I’m asked to speak to an amendment to safeguard the Archbishop of Canterbury’s degree awarding powers. It carries. More divisions (or votes) on the HE bill and a long and vigorous debate on the Teaching Excellence Framework. The budget is happening in another place, just along the corridor but hardly gets a mention.

Thursday Another opportunity to ask a supplementary. This time I have three prepared. The question was on Universal Credit and hardship caused by delays in welfare payments. The Bishop of Coventry has a question on Iraq.

The main business of the day is the second reading of the Criminal Finances Bill. This is a wide ranging bill with all party support aimed at preventing the financing of terrorism, tax fraud and grand corruption in or through the United Kingdom.  I speak in the debate, supported by Christian Aid, to encourage the government to aim even higher in battling tax evasion through public registers of beneficial ownership. No votes today.

Friday The House approves the second reading of a private members bill to reduce homelessness.  The Bishop of St Albans speaks in an important short debate on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women.

All in all a fascinating week (and different from my normal routines). There is some follow up to do: a letter to the minister about his answer to my question on Universal Credit and some possible amendments to the Criminal Finances bill. I won’t be there for the ping pong with the Commons on Brexit.

The baton passes to the Bishop of Chester on Monday  . . .

 

 

My Lords,

May I from these benches warmly welcome the Sustainable Development Goals and the government’s commitment to them.

Like others I was initially somewhat sceptical about a document which contains 17 goals and 169 targets.  These are not even memorable or round numbers.  I have to say, however, I am inspired by the single vision for our world which drives and shapes these goals.  That vision is set out in the ambitious declaration which forms the preface to the draft document to be considered and I hope agreed at the September summit.

The language of the declaration is lofty and rightly so.  I quote: “Never before have world leaders pledged common action and endeavour across such a broad and universal policy agenda”.  And again, “We can be the first generation to succeed in ending poverty just as we may be the last to have a chance of saving the planet”.

The vision in this document of sustainable development, a safer world with more resilient institutions where no-one is left behind is one that is consistent with the Christian tradition and those of the major world faiths.  I applaud it, believe it and support it.

However it is a vision which needs to be communicated well and implemented with rigour and it is here I want to focus my remarks.

The single vision is broken down in the report into just five areas of critical importance.  These five areas are easy to name, to remember and to communicate:  People, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership.  Preachers love alliteration.

I would encourage the government to place real weight on these shorter, more memorable and more accessible headings, for this reason.  These visionary goals for our world will only be realised as they are widely understood and communicated. This vision will never be realised if it is the vision only of politicians and NGO’s.  It must become the vision of all the majority of people on the planet, a shared vision of prosperity, peace and partnership.  The goals need to be spoken of in schools and universities and in the media.  There needs to be international debate.  Resources need to be invested here and elsewhere in education and building awareness of the values which underpin this vision which are no longer self evident in our society or across the world.

My Lords I was a member a few years ago of the city wide fairness commission in Sheffield.  I assumed at the beginning of the process, that fairness would be a shared concept among the population, that we were articulating a common vision.  On the day of the report’s publication I appeared on local radio.  The phone in responses revealed that my assumption was wide of the mark.  A big vision and detailed targets are both excellent but in between comes the harder task of transforming human attitudes and building deeper generosity of spirit: explaining the reasons why we seek a better world for all.  The churches and faith communities have a key role here. We understand we are global citizens. We share the deeper values which lie beneath these goals.

To quote from the report again: “…we are setting out a supremely ambitious and transformational vision.  We envisage a world free of poverty, hunger, disease, and want where all life can thrive….a world in which every woman and girl enjoys full gender equality….a just, equitable, tolerant, open and socially inclusive world in which the needs of the most vulnerable are met….a world in which consumption and production patterns are sustainable”.

This vision is worthy of agreement and it is worth sharing and communicating throughout our nation and beyond it.  I hope the government will take this responsibility seriously.

It is also a vision which calls for clear plans for implementation.  Here I would encourage the government to pay careful attention to the plans for enacting this ambitious programme and for scrutiny and review.

May I therefore ask the Minister two specific questions:

Will the government commit to promoting the vision of the SDGs and to implement the agenda in this country in full.  If so how do you plan to do this?

How will the government use the high level summit to build support for an ambitious global climate change agreement in Paris in November and December.  If so what link does the minister see between the two summits?

We all listen more to those who practise what they preach.  The government’s rhetoric on climate change in the manifesto for the election was good.  The government’s record on climate change since the election is a cause of concern to many, myself included.

The independent Climate Change Committee have already raised the issue of a gap between the policies already in place and the policies needed to meet the climate change the government supports.

Many were therefore expecting a series of positive policy announcements to close this gap.  Instead, the gap seems to be widening.  The government has cut subsidies for solar and wind power, privatised the Green investment bank, is getting rid of the Green deal, has lifted the ban on certain harmful chemicals and has introduced a tax on electric cars.

Can the Minister confirm that the government will continue to hold to its commitments and support the positive and transformative vision of the Sustainable Development Goals with consistent, prompt and long term action especially on climate change?

 

+Steven Croft

17.9.15