The Church’s Embarrassing Welfare Intervention

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If you want to start playing in the big leagues, you first have to do the necessary preparation – no ifs or buts – unless comprehensive defeat and embarrassment are an acceptable outcome.

But with each additional intervention in the growing row over the coalition government’s welfare reforms, it becomes increasingly clear that the Church (first as represented by the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster and now a large group of Anglican bishops) did not do its homework or due diligence before plunging into the complex welfare policy debate. Worse still, people are starting to notice.

As government indignation grows following the Church’s public accusation of dismantling the social safety net, the Telegraph sardonically notes:

Unlike Jesus, the Treasury cannot work miracles when it comes to funding the welfare budget.

This zinger is just the prelude to a more comprehensive rebuttal of Archbishop Vincent Nichol’s accusation that the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government has deliberately and completely destroyed the social safety net for poor and vulnerable Britons. Charlotte Leslie, Conservative MP for Bristol North West, is not having any of it:

Much as we would like it to be otherwise, politics and the treasury are bound by the prosaic principles of miracle-free finance. Christ may be able to produce endless amounts from a couple of loaves of bread and a tin of sardines, but to date, neither the Treasury, nor, must if be said, the Church of England, managed to replicate this, and it seems unwise at best to base a welfare policy upon such a proviso.

Given that is the case, the Bishops’ criticisms would have carried more weight if they had accompanied their foray into welfare policy with some kind of hint as to how they might secure the future of our nation’s low borrowing rates, and continue with a one-third deficit reduction plan, (which of course is essential if we are to have any chance in spending enough on welfare) whilst doing better in helping the poorest. This would have been an extremely welcome contribution to a dreadfully difficult challenge.

By not doing so, they cheapen the essential point they are making about how we care for our vulnerable, in the long term.

This is sadly very accurate, and closely echoes what this blog said on the matter only yesterday:

For all of the noise generated in the wake of the Archbishop’s interview we are no closer to understanding what the Church would prefer to see in place of the coalition government’s reforms.

How much stronger would Archbishop Nichols’ intervention have been if he had proposed something radical to replace Iain Duncan Smith’s incremental reforms? Some might argue that it is not the Church’s place to propose new policy, but if an organisation as large and respected as the Catholic Church disagrees with current government policy on welfare, it would only benefit the country if they made public their best thinking as to how to move forward with reform given the current economic constraints.

The Catholic Church is deeply embedded in communities throughout the entire United Kingdom. What if they were to use that proximity and understanding to propose some better reforms, rather than engaging in fruitless hand-wringing from the sidelines?

It is also heartening to see a Conservative MP taking the church to task for belatedly weighing in on the welfare debate only now, in the year 2014, and for directing their admonition only at the coalition government and not at failed policies of the previous Labour government who laid the groundwork for so much of the human suffering that is now taking place. Leslie writes:

Finally, if such an unprecedented attack was going to be made, the Bishops would have had more credibility if they had acknowledged some basic truths: That food-bank use increased ten-fold under the last Labour Government. That the Labour Government was so worried about the image that food-banks would create, that it prevented Job Centres from referring needy individuals to them (that’s got to rate pretty badly on the New Testament test) and that that the increase in food-banks will also partly be due to this added referral rate.

The facts are that we have a dreadfully difficult task: to bring the country back into economic health so that we are able to continue to support a welfare state whilst at the same time reducing what is simply an unmanageably large current welfare bill.

While it is true that the buck stops with the government of the day in terms of specific policies, anyone wanting to be taken seriously when speaking about welfare should be able to demonstrate an awareness of the political reality going back before 2010, to a time when the last Labour government made so many more people dependent on government benefits or tax credits, and vulnerable to necessary cuts in public spending. Pretending that everything was fine until 2010, and that the fault lies with the people attempting to clean up Britain’s ruined public finances rather than those who brought them to ruin in the first place, is either evidence of extreme left wing partisanship or a very simplistic and immature understanding of welfare policy in general.

This is a time for serious debate, and as this blog has already stated, an intervention from the Church was both important and timely. Unfortunately, the intervention that the Church provided was not the one that the seriousness of the subject deserved. Hyperbolic talk about the destruction of the social safety net is not becoming to a serious organisation, and is more at home in one of Ed Miliband’s talking points than coming from the mouths of consecrated bishops.

A real, worthwhile intervention from the bishops would have acknowledged the competing demands for limited financial resources when it comes to government spending, and would have acknowledged the various faults and missteps that led us to the current place as well as chiding those who are currently trying to dig us out of the hole. It might have brought up the fact that politicians of all parties are doing the country a disservice by focusing only on welfare but ignoring pensions and the retirement age when it comes to tackling deficit reduction. A statement on the continued wisdom of universal benefits, the pros and cons of means testing or the extent to which the burden of spending cuts should be re-calibrated between the young and old in our country – all of these would have been welcome interjections.

What we got instead was alarmist, hyperbolic talk about the end of the social safety net from a group of men who appear to have only tuned in to the debate this month, and received most of their information in that time from Labour Party HQ.

The Church diminishes herself by making such blatantly one-sided forays into national policy debate. Faith groups are  capable of making a much more mature and valuable contribution to the national conversation, and the British public deserves the best of their efforts, not the dregs.

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