A Better Way To Approach The Welfare Debate



Sometimes it takes the return of the grizzled, world-weary veteran, called out of retirement one last time, to show the flailing stars of today exactly how it should be done, and to save the day.

So it was when George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke out in a newspaper column, castigating his fellow bishops for their naive and fumbled entry into the British welfare reform debate.

The Daily Mail reports:

Last night, Lord Carey of Clifton said that it was too simplistic to blame the recent welfare cuts for the rising use of food banks and bishops are doing the Church no favours by entering the debate.

He said such opposition to reducing the welfare bill was ‘Canute-like’ and reflected an ‘overt left-right politicisation of Church versus government’.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury said Anglicans and Catholics share outrage at the rising levels of hunger among the most disadvantaged and that the welfare state has reached ‘gargantuan’ proportions.

Lord Carey continues:

‘All three political parties acknowledge the need for reductions to welfare spending, wastage and fraud in the system and have all talked about the dangers of welfare dependency and the need to get people into work.

‘They are not agreed on precisely where the axe should fall, but the Churches should beware of the dangers of blithely defending a gargantuan welfare budget that every serious politician would cut as a matter of economic common sense.’

This really hits the nail on the head. Reading or watching the initial intervention in the debate by Catholic Cardinal Vincent Nichols, and the follow-up letter by the Church of England bishops, one got the overwhelming sense that the key figures had not done their homework. So shallow was the level of understanding, and so absent was any sense of historical context or detailed knowledge of government policy, that the bishops may just as well have been standing at the gates of Number 10 Downing Street waving “Down With This Sort Of Thing” placards.

A strong sense that Lord Carey was embarrassed by the incompetence of his successors’ handling of what is a complex and fraught issue pervades his column.

But most heartening of all is this acknowledgement – albeit from a former rather than a current religious leader – that the problems in our society will continue for just as long as we continue to look exclusively to government to solve our problems and address human suffering rather than looking to ourselves:

Lord Carey said: ‘They are right in describing a serious problem but only partially correct in their analysis.

‘It is much too simplistic to blame these problems on cutbacks to welfare and failures in the benefits system, whether it be payment delays or punitive sanctions.

He added that the welfare system is being ‘asked to replace kinship and neighbourliness’ and is ‘never going to pass muster as the ideal vehicle to deliver aid to those in greatest need when they most need it.

This is precisely the problem. Faced with a situation where millions of people are dependent on various kinds of welfare and often kept down through a series of perverse incentives, the bishops did not stop to consider how they as leaders and their church as a community could step in and provide positive solutions. Rather, they wrung their hands and passed the ball to the government, a shameful abdication of responsibility.

It is not the Church’s job to simply take note of suffering and pass it on to the government for review – indeed, while it is clearly not in the interests of the people for whom they supposedly advocate, neither is it in their own, more narrow interests. As I wrote last year:

… perhaps it is directly because the state plays such a large part in everything that we do, from cradle to grave, that the church to which [we belong] is withering and shrinking by the year.

To a great extent, aside from the divine aspect, has the British welfare state not done away with the purpose of church, of knowing your neighbour, of being part of a community, altogether?

Telegraph columnist Cristina Odone, with whom this blog has had precious little to agree on of late, is also full of praise for Lord Carey’s mature intervention in the debate. Her distillation of Carey’s message is worth reading:

Poverty, he argues, is not caused by Coalition cuts but by multiple factors including the fragility of the family, which results in too many relying on the state. Strong kinship, a helpful community: today’s disadvantaged Briton can no longer depend on either. Stop entering the political fray, he tells his colleagues, but look beyond Left and Right to see the real tragedy of a culture that has lost its way.

Odone’s overall assessment of the debate on welfare reform, and what church leaders need to do in order to regain the right to be taken seriously on the issue, is also excellent:

Dr Carey instead is speaking sensibly and calmly from the sidelines: the analysis is more complex than you’ve allowed for, he chides his colleagues; you’re doing yourselves and our Churches a disservice by blaming the status quo on an unpopular government. Until you can offer either a true analysis of the root causes or a real alternative to the government’s proposed reform, keep schtum.

As Odone makes clear, and as this blog has previously acknowledged, the church has a potentially valuable, even critical role to play in shaping the debate. But they can only do this by temporarily stepping back from the limelight and reading up on the subject a little.

More urgent even than enrolling in Civics and Economics 101, though, our church leaders need to think about the best role of religious organisations in solving the problems of poverty, blight and human misery that they have identified. The fact that their first response was simply to flag the problem to the government and move on is deeply discouraging. Is their vision for the church really nothing more than to observe and report social phenomena to the ‘proper authorities’?

And yet there is hope. The former Archbishop of Canterbury spoke a powerful truth to today’s ecumenical leaders. They may not like being publicly admonished by their predecessor, but if they strive for wisdom they will listen and adapt.

In this important debate, which is ostensibly about welfare reform but in reality touches on everything that governs how we relate to and care for each other, George Carey – twelve years after leaving office – is offering the church a pathway away from irrelevance.

It’s time to follow the leader one last time.

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