THE Archbishop of Canterbury has said he is “very anxious” about the Government’s spending cuts, and that politicians “have not really thought through” aspects of the Big Society programme. He was speaking after a private meeting with the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street last week.
In a radio interview on BBC West Midlands on Sunday, during a visit to the Lichfield diocese, Dr Williams said that he had “a lot of worries” about plans to force the long-term unemployed to work unpaid in order to receive benefits. “I don’t immediately think it’s fair,” he said.
Ex-offenders, for example, needed “a period of adjustment, a period of care” when they came out of prison: “they don’t need too much pressure to get to work straight away.” If pressure of this kind was exerted, people “who are struggling to find work [can be] driven into a sort of downward spiral of uncertainty, even despair”.
Dr Williams also expressed concern about plans to cap the level of housing benefit at £400 a week. This “could lead to a kind of social zoning: middle-class areas get more middle-class, and other people are pushed out on to the edge”.
Writing in the Daily Mail on Tuesday, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, disagreed “that people who have been out of work for a long time would be driven to despair by changes to the welfare system”.
He wrote: “It is the current system which has locked people into despair. . . Asking someone who has been out of work for a long time to get involved in a programme of work to boost their self-esteem is not a recipe for despair, but a way to repair their shattered lives.”
Last Friday, Dr Williams warned against cuts to rural mental-health services. At “Faith and the Future of the Countryside”, a conference held in Swanwick to mark the 20th anniversary of the report Faith in the Countryside, Dr Williams said that conversations he had had in Westminster last week “suggested that a number of people driving the Big Society have not really thought through what the implication might be for the rural setting”.
The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, warned that the halving of capital investment in affordable homes “could have a serious impact on the 474,970 households in rural England on local-authority waiting lists”. “At the proposed new rate of building of an average of 37,500 new affordable homes in England, to cover both rural and urban areas, rural households are unlikely to be housed in the next quarter of a century.”
The conference proposed that “affordable rural housing schemes. . . proceed where needed on the basis of a parish plan and not require complex and expensive referenda . . . requiring a majority of 75 per cent of voters”, a Church House statement said on Tuesday.
The Bishop of Bath & Wells, the Rt Revd Peter Price, speaking in the House of Lords last week, said that plans “to end the ‘council house for life’ will be a real problem in rural areas, where there is simply not the flexibility and availability of housing for people to move on in a way that they can in urban areas”.
The Methodist Church announced last week the creation of “a new interactive website for Christians engaged in rural mission”. The Methodist Church’s national rural officer, the Revd Graham Jones, said: “Whether it’s setting up community cinemas or hosting local post offices, the opportunities for rural churches to serve their communities are endless.”
Proposed spending cuts were also criticised by the Children’s Society last week. The charity said that it was “incredibly disappointed” at the “decision to scrap the extension of free school meals to all primary schoolchildren who are below the poverty line”.
Its spokeswoman, Penny Nicholls, said: “This will impact on an estimated half-a-million children, and flies in the face of the Government’s commitment, enshrined in law, to end child poverty by 2020.”
The Bishop of Ramsbury, the Rt Revd Stephen Conway, who will be translated to Ely early next year, said in his farewell diocesan-synod address that “the spending cuts so far described will not have an equal impact across society. Those who are already poor will get poorer.”