Main Site         

Both the new Archbishop of Canterbury and Iain Duncan Smith need to think in more detail about welfare reform

2013 March 15

The Church of England is now the Labour Party at prayer, according to its unimaginative critics in the Conservative Party. There is nothing like reviving an old cliché to avoid the effort of serious thinking. But there must be better ways to deal with welfare reform than redigging old trench-lines from the Thacher/Runcie era. Anglican bishops have expressed concern over the Coalition’s proposal to limit increases in most benefits and tax credits to one per cent over the next three years. The plan means that, regardless of how much prices rise in that time, poorer families with young children will pay the price for inflation which is currently running at 2.7 per cent. The poorest, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, pointed out, will be hit hardest. About 60 per cent of the savings will come from the bottom third of households. Only 3 per cent will come from the wealthiest third.

This should be a matter of concern for any government. But instead of acknowledging that the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, issued a counterblast declaiming that: “there is nothing moral or fair about a system which I inherited that trapped people in welfare dependency”. Getting people back to work is the way to end child poverty, he added.

False polarisations are unhelpful here. Right-wing ideologues declare that Dr Welby’s view of poverty is socialist rather than Christian. He is accepting – they say, without any evidence –  the old Labour government’s arbitrary definition of poverty as covering anyone below 60 per cent of median earnings. Real poverty is spiritual and comes from the Welfare State having created a dependency culture which, far from liberating the poor, enslaves them.

None of this tells the whole truth as Dr Welby and Mr Duncan Smith both know, being students of Catholic Social Teaching which insists that two principles – solidarity and subsidiarity – must be at work in such issues. Solidarity requires we see our mutual interdependence as a moral imperative as well as a social reality. Subsidiarity insists that the state should not take over what individuals or groups can do. And CST sees work as more than just a right or a responsibility. It is, as Pope John Paul II said, “the particular mark of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons”. Work is quintessential to our nature.

Yet it is a non-sequitur to move from that to right-wing expostulations that it cannot be right for some people to get more in benefits than the average family’s take-home pay of £26,000 per year. It can perfectly be right – in circumstances where that reflects what a particular family needs.  Need, not dessert, is the yardstick for solidarity. Those bishops with experience as parish priests know that from living among the poor in parts of the inner city where church ministers are often the only middle-class professionals still present after 5pm. So dependency and perverse incentives are a moral issue. But so is the support of the most vulnerable, especially where there are no jobs.

We may need new incentives to spur the workshy into employment. But those must be structured so that they do not use the vulnerability of children as the stick with which to beat idle parents. Other mechanisms must be devised. Children should not be used as hostages. So the bishops are right to be fielding an amendment in the House of Lords targeted at those cuts that would have the greatest impact on children. The government should be revisiting the minutiae too. It is not principles which are in conflict here. The devil, they say, is in the detail. But sometimes that may be where God is to be found too.

The Church Times

Comments are closed.