Stop Building Palaces While The People Suffer

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At a time when the Catholic and Anglican churches on either side of the Atlantic have been parading their advocacy on behalf of the poor and the powerless, they might have bothered to put their own houses in order first. But, once again, through acts of bad timing and breathtaking bad taste, they have shot themselves in the foot.

In the UK, a Conservative MP hit back at the twenty-seven Church of England bishops who signed an open letter condemning the British government’s welfare reforms and labeling them “punitive”. Charlotte Leslie MP rightly pointed out that the church has considerable assets of its own that it could deploy in service of the poor before it becomes necessary to start badgering the government to redistribute more income between private individuals:

They say charity starts at home. Lambeth Palace [the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury] is a rather nice home.

If you are invited to a reception there, you pad up richly carpeted stairs, along corridors of gold-framed paintings, before being treated to quails eggs with a delicate celery salt dip, and freely flowing wine. It’s rather a long way away from the local churches with crumbling roofs, serving damp biscuits and coffee in cracked mugs after the service.

One can’t help but think that this luxurious, and historic Palace might not be put to better use, more in line with the New Testament , if it was rented out to those who would pay dearly for such luxury, and the operation of the Church of England were to decamp to an industrial estate, outside Slough.

Just think of the number of church roofs that could be repaired from the income, and indeed the number of hungry people who could be fed.

The church’s ill-advised foray into campaigning for the Labour Party is encountering much-deserved resistance because the views of twenty-seven relatively coddled bishops with little recent experience of real life are not in tune with the sentiments of the people, and because they displayed a fundamental misunderstanding of the government’s own policy and its application.

Not very impressive from a large faith organisation seeking to influence the public debate.

Father Ted's Bishop Brennan - not a role model for the Church leadership
Father Ted’s Bishop Brennan – not a role model for the Church leadership

 

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports on the attempts by the Archdiocese of Newark to lavish over $500,000 on upgrades to a residence for the bishop – not his primary residence, but his separate vacation home:

John J. Myers, the archbishop of the Newark Archdiocese, comes to this vacation home on many weekends. The 4,500-square-foot home has a handsome amoeba-shaped swimming pool out back. And as he’s 72, and retirement beckons in two years, he has renovations in mind. A small army of workers are framing a 3,000-square-foot addition.

This new wing will have an indoor exercise pool, three fireplaces and an elevator. The Star-Ledger of Newark has noted that the half-million-dollar tab for this wing does not include architects’ fees or furnishings.

The expansion of the bishop’s vacation home will be funded by the sale of other properties owned by the archdiocese, they claim, as though this detail somehow makes the outrage more palatable. It does not. Either the sold buildings served an important purpose for the archdiocese which was suddenly ripped away in order to provide a little more luxury for the bishop, or they were unused and deserved to be sold so that the equity can be released in service of the church’s core mission.

A just reward for a job well done?
A just reward for a job well done?

 

Neither is the lucky beneficiary, Archbishop John J. Myers, a particularly lovable figure whose flock would be particularly thrilled to see treated in so generous a way:

So many leaders of the church have served it so badly for so many decades that it’s hard to keep track of their maledictions. Archbishop Myers provides one-stop shopping. He is known to insist on being addressed as “Your Grace.” And his self-regard is matched by his refusal to apologize for more or less anything.

It was revealed last year that a priest seemed to have broken his legally binding agreement with Bergen County prosecutors to never again work unsupervised with children or to minister to them so long as he remained a priest. When next found, he was involved with a youth ministry in the Newark Archdiocese.

Parishioners in Oradell, N.J., also discovered that the archdiocese had allowed a priest accused of sexual abuse to live in their parish’s rectory. A furor arose, and last summer the archbishop sat down and wrote an open letter to his flock. He conceded not a stumble. Those who claim, he wrote, that he and the church had not protected children were “simply evil, wrong, immoral and seemingly focused on their own self-aggrandizement.”

It is hard to see how frittering away scarce diocesan resources in order to build an MTV Crib-style McMansion for a mediocre bishop on the verge of retirement constitutes good stewardship of the church finances. And it is equally regrettable that given opportunity after opportunity to rehabilitate its battered image and start practicing humility and restraint, the hierarchy of the American Catholic church is unable to do so, and – worse still – feels no need to do so.

The church seeks to add its voice to important political debates on both sides of the Atlantic – concerning freedom of religion and abortion in America, and on welfare reform in Britain. In both countries, church leaders seek to portray themselves as spokespeople for the poor, the voiceless and the powerless.

This message would be slightly more credible if church leaders could somehow find it within themselves to stop building swanky palace extensions for their hedonistic bishops.

 

Image – a palace fit for a mediocre, hypocritical bishop. The new extension being built at the vacation home of Newark Archbishop John J. Myers.

 

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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.

The Government Must Be Smart, Not Vindictive On Welfare

dwp

The Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government is already waging a war on two fronts when it comes to welfare reform, with the combined forces of the Catholic and Anglican churches having just taken up one flank and Ed Miliband’s Labour Party menacing from the other. Given this state of affairs, some people might reasonably believe that they had bitten off about as much as they could chew, having now taken on God in addition to David Miliband’s politically fratricidal brother. But apparently not this government.

Already under fire for paying insufficient regard to the suffering of those living on welfare, the Department for Work and Pensions is now plotting to charge people for appealing the rejection or cancellation of their benefits claims. The policy is packaged together with a number of others which collectively manage to do very little to solve a real welfare or fiscal-related issue while sounding very tough and decisive.

The Guardian reports:

Critics said the proposal, contained in an internal Department for Work and Pensions document leaked to the Guardian, would hit some of the poorest people in Britain, who have been left with little or no income.

In the document about the department’s internal finances, officials say the “introduction of a charge for people making appeals against [DWP] decisions to social security tribunals” would raise money.

Other ideas include selling off child support debt to “the private sector to collect”, though civil servants remark that the government would be unlikely to raise more than 5-7p in the pound from the £1.4bn currently owed to the DWP. The department currently collects arrears.

It is depressing indeed to see the government obsessing over the smallest and most insignificant line items in the budget whilst ignoring the parade of elephants in the room. Why look at the billions upon billions of pounds that can (and must) be saved by means-testing pensions and increasing the retirement age when one can look very busy and important (but much less politically brave) saving scraps of money here and there by implementing a pay-as-you-go benefit appeal process?

Of course it would save money to charge people for appealing their adverse benefit claim decisions – by definition, most benefit claimants don’t have much money to splash around taking the government to court. And the only precedent in existence for charging for this kind of appeal would see claimants having to pay in the order of £250 to have their case heard:

Last year the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) which sets policy in the area, brought in charges for employment tribunals of up to £250 to lodge a claim, depending on the kind of case being brought. The union Unison asked judges to review the policy, saying the number of claims had dropped by more than half after fees were introduced. High court judges declared the policy lawful this month.

This smacks of government simply hoping to bully and intimidate people into not pursuing legitimate claims. If a short term claimant for Jobseekers’ Allowance is denied their claim, it will hardly be worth their while appealing the decision, no matter how egregiously wrong it may have been. If the claimant can reasonably expect to return to work within a month, the value of the benefit claim in question would barely cover the cost of making the appeal. At best (if the application was approved on appeal) the claimant would break even, and it would be as though they had done nothing at all. And at worst (if the rejection was upheld) the claimant would be £250 in the red.

With the claimant’s potential options so skewed against them, it would create an enormous incentive for the authorities to reject as many applications as possible out of hand, knowing that only a small fraction would likely make it to appeal. The government might accomplish its goal of drastically reducing the welfare rolls, but at what price?

Regardless of whether the majority of decisions end up being upheld or overturned, making people with no money pay to appeal decisions can only hurt some of the poorest people in Britain.

Those people who are generally supportive of the coalition government’s attempts to tackle the ongoing British budget deficit and make meaningful reforms to the welfare system can only be immensely frustrated by this development. The introduction of the Universal Credit and other associated reforms are proving contentious enough, and their implementation has been beset with difficulty. The government has not successfully implemented a new IT system on time or on budget since the days of 5.25 inch floppy disks, and this track record shows no sign of imminent improvement.

The scale of the task already underway was challenging enough, and faced enough opposition, so why was there such an urgent need to make its progress even more treacherous? True, the plans only came to public knowledge because an internal document was leaked, but at some point these proposals would have seen the light of day and been formally announced. When was the government saving this kick-the-poor-while-they’re-down announcement for? One year before the general election? Six months? Just before the start of the official campaign, as a surefire way to help Ed Miliband win back power for Labour?

Now is the time when the coalition government needs to circle the wagons around welfare reforms that are coming under increasing attack from the Labour Party and the more hand-wringing, less cerebral ranks of the church.

Finding out, instead, that the DWP has essentially been writing another six months worth of unfavourable headlines for the government in The Guardian and The Daily Mirror was not the decisive response that welfare reform proponents were looking for.

When David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith have finished giving the bishops remedial lessons in economics and social policy, they would also do well to bring the DWP to heel. Self-inflicted wounds of this kind are not helping to advance their agenda.

The Church vs Welfare Reform

The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal-designate Vincent Nichols, has inserted the Catholic church squarely into the centre of the debate about welfare reform and deficit reduction.

The accusations that he makes are serious, and are directed squarely at the current Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government – namely, that the social safety net has been ripped up in the period following the 2010 general election:

 

The Telegraph reports on their interview with the Archbishop which launched the story into the news cycle:

Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic cleric has accused the Coalition of leaving increasing numbers of people facing “hunger and destitution”.

Cardinal-designate Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, said that while the need to reduce spending on benefits is widely accepted, the Government’s reforms have now destroyed even the “basic safety net”.

Archbishop Nichols, the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, said the welfare system had also become increasingly “punitive”, often leaving people with nothing for days on end if they fail even to fill a form in correctly.

He said it was “a disgrace” that this was possible in a country as rich as Britain.

The Guardian follows up with a report detailing the extent to which Archbishop Nichols has been ‘inundated’ with messages of support:

In his Telegraph interview, published on Saturday, Nichols accused ministers of tearing apart the safety net that protects people from hunger and destitution. He said since he made those comments he had been “inundated with accounts from people … saying there are indeed many cases where people are left without benefits, without any support, for sometimes weeks on end”.

The criticism has clearly rankled the government, and not just the Work & Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith (himself a practicing Roman Catholic). Indeed, the rebuke was such that David Cameron himself felt the need to respond to the church’s criticism. Writing in The Telegraph, Cameron made a convincing argument in support of his government’s welfare reform:

For me the moral case for welfare reform is every bit as important as making the numbers add up: building a country where people aren’t trapped in a cycle of dependency but are able to get on, stand on their own two feet and build a better life for themselves and their family.

Let’s be clear about the welfare system we inherited. It was a system where in too many cases people were paid more to be on benefits than to be in work. A system where people could claim unlimited amounts of housing benefit – in London there were people claiming truly astonishing sums of £60,000, £70,000, £80,000 a year. A system where hundreds of thousands of people were put on Incapacity Benefit and never reassessed, essentially taken off the books and forgotten about. None of these things is defensible. And it is right both economically – and morally – to change them.

The founders of our welfare system believed in the principle of responsibility – and so do we. As I said on the steps of Downing Street on my first night as Prime Minister, “those who can should, those who can’t we will always help”. Those who can’t work will be always supported, but those who can work have the responsibility to do so. The welfare system should never take that responsibility away.

In all of this, one gets the sense that the two sides are talking at cross purposes with one another. The government is eager to stress the need to work pay for the majority, while the Church is more keen to focus on any potential iniquities in marginal cases, stemming from welfare reform. And while these marginal cases often deserve full attention and consideration, there is never any real acceptance by the Church that the welfare system requires fixing of any kind in the first place. 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?

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If the Church feels that it is the right time to make a contribution to the debate about welfare spending, then this should be welcomed and taken seriously. But it becomes harder to do so when the intervention is so piecemeal and one-sided in nature, failing to look at the historical context of the welfare problem or proposing alternatives when specific policies are to be attacked. The Church has a responsibility to pay attention to the debate from the start and to at least attempt to gain an understanding for the reasoning behind government policy, and not just to repeat Labour Party talking points.

A sense of missed opportunity now pervades the coverage of the entire debate.

It is certainly the case that living on standard benefits – Jobseeker’s Allowance or Employment Support Allowance – is practically impossible in many parts of the country, particularly for those who unexpectedly fall on hard times and who are unable to trim their expenditures with the same brutal speed at which their income evaporates. This is worthy of discussion, and sensible changes could be made along lines previously suggested on this blog.

It is also true that new measures recently put in place can make benefit claimants subject to sanctions for failing to comply with what are sometimes confusing and arbitrary procedures. This too could have been discussed seriously and in detail. Nichols goes so far as to call this a ‘disgrace’:

[Archbishop Vincent Nichols] said the welfare system had also become increasingly “punitive”, often leaving people with nothing for days on end if they fail even to fill a form in correctly.

He said it was “a disgrace” that this was possible in a country as rich as Britain.

While it is true that such sanctions do exist, what is missing from Nichols’ interview is any acknowledgement of the problem that the sanctions exist to counter – the number of claimants who do (or did) not make sufficient efforts to find new employment. If it is the Church’s position that those who do not make reasonable efforts to find work should never be penalised for their inaction, this is something that should be explicitly admitted.

In short, it is all well and good to attack the impact of austerity on welfare recipients here and now in 2014, but one wonders where was the Church’s criticism when Gordon Brown and the Labour Party made so many millions more people dependent on state assistance and more vulnerable to the cuts in government spending which would always have been inevitable in the event of recession?

There is a strong sense – at least from Archbishop Nichols’ first intervention in the debate – that the strategy of the Church will be to attack the people now trying to fix the budgetary mess left by the last government, and to accuse them of cruelty and neglect, while turning a blind eye toward the misguided politics and personalities of the people who did so much to make the poorest Britons more vulnerable and dependent on the state.

It will be a shame if the Labour Party really is to get a free pass in this debate, as the Conservatives are not the only ones who stand to benefit from the guidance and prompting toward social justice potentially offered by the Catholic Church. In the past, too many from the Labour Party have been content to parade around loudly talking about how compassionate they are (and that the other side is heartless by virtue of their lack of faith in government provision by default), and so are given a free pass when their badly conceived ideas inevitably go wrong during implementation.

On this, though, the Cardinal-elect is absolutely right:

He concluded: “The moral challenge roots back to the principle that we have to regard and treat every single person with respect. That’s one of the great geniuses of Pope Francis – that he manages in his gestures to show that respect to even the most unlovely of people.”

Absolutely. And where the welfare system or the austerity programme is helping rather than hindering this effort, it is absolutely right to point it out. It is all too easy to begin reducing human lives and human suffering to statistics, to black and white numbers on a  pre-budget report or a policy paper, and if nothing else, Archbishop Nichols did service to the debate by pointing this out and giving voice to some of the unheard suffering.

But if there is a war on poor people currently underway in Britain, it has been waged just as much by those on the ‘compassionate’ left who sought to make more and more people dependent on government benefits and tax credits as it has been by the new coalition government which had the unenviable task of repairing the economic damage wrought by thirteen years of Labour rule. If the Conservatives are to be blamed for undermining the social safety net, why should Labour escape censure for vastly overfilling it in the first place, causing the weight of the full net to threaten the buoyancy of the whole ship?

One cannot help but feel that the voice of the church – a serious and valued voice in our national debate – would have a lot more credibility on the topic of if, when they spoke, they gave the slightest indication that they had been paying equal attention to the plight of welfare recipients before David Cameron entered 10 Downing Street.