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Motion reminds Government of bias to the poor

12 July 2013

Welfare reform

"Light of truth": the Arch­bishop of York

"Light of truth": the Arch­bishop of York

THE Government's welfare reforms were the topic of a debate on Sunday evening.

The Synod expressed concerns about their impact and the use of the word "scroungers", but declined the opportunity to condemn the reforms as based on ideology rather than sound financial policy.

Introducing the debate, Philip Fletcher, who chairs the Mission and Public Affairs (MPA) Council, said that the impetus for the debate had come from the members of the Synod - the "clergy and laity in touch with local communities across the country and closely associated with the pastoral problems and practical responses that arise daily in parish ministry".

It was "no accident" that churches had played a significant part in the establishment of food banks and helping rough-sleepers, he said. "The Church has authority to speak about social welfare because we are present on the front line.

The debate was "not a simple 'Bash the Government!'," he said; "nor do we refuse to face economic facts. We are certainly not against the principle of reforming the welfare system, because no such system can be the final word about human flourishing. We do not claim, either, that the whole responsibility for the welfare state should fall on the shoulders of the state.

"Simply opposing cuts, whether to welfare or any other area of expenditure, as if some retrenchment was not necessary, would be irresponsible," he said. "I hope that our debate . . . will demonstrate to wider society that the Church acknowledges the problems which our nation faces, and which government has no option but to struggle with."

He concluded: "We have a vocation to speak up for the poor, the vulnerable, and the unfortunate, and I hope we will . . . say very clearly that the trajectory of reform currently being pursued should be urgently revisited."

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, said that so-called "scroungers" provided a "convenient scapegoat". It was an "insult" to say that poverty was caused by people choosing unemployment. They needed to remember who caused the economic downturn: "Was it unemployed people, or wealthy bankers compounded by reckless lending, and millions borrowing beyond their means, including Government?"

The Church was called to "shine the light of truth" on the debate about welfare, and to resist the rhetoric that said that people chose a life of welfare dependence. Dr Sentamu, who is to chair the Living Wage Commission, continued: "Until we have a proper living wage for a proper day's work, we'll always have the problem of some people being unable to provide for their families."

The Bishop of Ripon & Leeds, the Rt Revd John Packer, who speaks for the Lords Spiritual on welfare reform, said that he would vote for the motion, but was "uncomfortable that it is not more strongly worded". The Government needed to ensure "that the burden of austerity falls on those who can afford it rather than those who cannot", he said.

The Church had a "rich theology of all humanity made in the image of God and God assuming human flesh. It is in that context that we need to judge the effect of cuts on children through reduction of child benefit; on the disabled by the loss of disability living allowance; or on families forced to pay high rents who suffer through the benefit cap."

The balance between wealth and poverty in the UK was not right, Bishop Packer said; "and it's there that our primary efforts need to be made. Justice for those in need has to be our clear priority."

The Revd Dr Clare Herbert (London) spoke of steps that St Martin-in-the-Fields, in London, had taken to address the needs of disabled members of the congregation, and visitors. One particular member, who had a debilitating neurological disorder, had suffered six different cuts to her income. This might result in her not being able to attend church. Dr Herbert requested that the Synod lobby the Government to publish cumulative impact assessments, and to state the combined financial impact of different reforms, among other things.

Moving the first of a number of amendments, Sam Margrave (Coventry) said that the unamended motion "does very little, and seems to affirm that taking welfare away from the most needy is right". His amendment expressed concern that the planned reforms would have an impact on the nation's poorest, and suggested that "the cuts agenda is ideological rather than based on a sound financial will to reduce the deficit."

His amendment suggested that the necessary funding could be found if "companies paid their moral share of taxation", and asserted that there was no such thing as "the undeserving poor".

The amendment was resisted by Mr Fletcher, who described it as "effectively a whole new motion . . . entering the party-political fray in party-political terms. . . We are not a political party: we are a Church." The amendment fell.

The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, said that the motion as it stood was "a series of aspirations that cost us nothing". He said that, as a national Church, "we need to contribute something substantial to the debate," and his amendment asked the MPA Council to bring recommendations to the Synod by July next year.

Mr Fletcher welcomed the Bishop's amendment, and said that the MPA Division was already working in this area. A report on the Church of England and community action would be launched shortly at Lambeth Palace, with speeches from Nick Herbert MP, the Minister for Civil Society, the Labour MP Steve Timms, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. This was one example of numerous conversations across the political spectrum that the MPA Division had been involved with for some time.

The amendment was carried without debate.

The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd John Goddard (Northern Suffragans), moved an amendment calling on the Government to have "a bias towards the poor". He cited research by Sheffield Hallam University, which showed that every working adult in receipt of benefits in Blackpool would lose £900 a year as a result of welfare reforms. This would affect 12,000 households, 20 per cent of the population. "It's not all razzmatazz in Blackpool," he said. "There is deep poverty behind the golden mile." He said that benefits reform had taken £82 million out of a very deprived local economy.

Mr Fletcher was "very sympathetic" to the Bishop of Burnley's amendment. In drafting the motion there was a deliberate avoidance of any call on the Government. This was "to avoid any implication we are just dumping the issue on the Government's lap", and to make it clear that Synod was "committing ourselves as a Church to action". He wanted to underline the Bishop's point about heating allowance: "A bias to the poor means a bias away from the well-off." He concluded: "I think, if we pass this amendment, we are saying that the triple-locked inflation-linked pension needs to be looked at again."

The amendment was carried.

Gavin Oldham (Oxford) described the "perilous state of UK public finances". Over the past few years, public expenditure "has hardly been dented". The "graphic failure" of the French government's attempt showed that it "simply does not work" to increase taxes on the rich. The problem, he said, was universal benefits, "where the Government finances all kinds of services on behalf of people perfectly able to pay for them themselves". He spoke of bus passes, free health and education, and the triple lock on pensions. This was a political rather than a gospel issue, helping politicians hang on to votes.

Universal benefits had "bankrupted several European nations, and are diverting resources away from the poor and needy". They were "becoming the enemy of targeted benefits". Through his amendment, the Church could help politicians to realise that a cross-party agreement was needed to tackle "universal benefits run wild".

Mr Fletcher invited the Synod to accept this amendment, which would "make it even clearer where Synod stands".

Peter Collard (Derby), who had stood as the Labour candidate against Tony Blair in a school election, asked the Synod to consider "whether it should not be trying to get people out of the gutter".

The amendment was carried.

The Archdeacon of Nottingham, the Ven. Peter Hill (Southwell & Nottingham), spoke of the importance of community organising, describing his own experience in Nottingham, the poorest city in Britain. The initiative was "transformative for the common good. It is a deeply practical response to this motion."

Patricia Callaghan (Deaf Church) expressed "grave concern" that the welfare system may be overlooking the most vulnerable: the minority of adults in society who are deaf. Mrs Callaghan gave the example of a friend who was deaf, and had mental-health issues, who would have to move from her three-bedroom house because of the so-called bedroom tax. She was now living below the poverty line.

Zahida Mallard (Bradford) said that she had worked in welfare rights for 20 years. Last year, however, she had been made redundant because of public-sector cuts. This made her feel on the margins, and vulnerable. "I want to wholeheartedly support this motion, and ask the Church to stand with the poor."

The Bishop of Hull (Northern Suffragans), the Rt Revd Richard Frith, said that the "bedroom tax" had affected thousands of people in Hull. It was based on four false assumptions: that there was a flow of suitable housing; that families were stable; that people could move without trauma; and that jobs were available. In a climate in which people were removed from their networks, and in which the poor were increasingly blamed for poverty, a time bomb was ticking, he said.

The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Sir Tony Baldry MP, said that he had been listening carefully to the debate, and would report back to colleagues at Westminster. Sir Tony noted that there was now "something of an agreement or consensus" at Westminster about the need for welfare to be capped. He said that the Church of England should agree with the Government a settlement to deliver welfare support, much as it had with education. He also suggested that an Archbishops' Commission on Welfare be set up, building on the work of the Fairness Commission in York, chaired by the Archbishop of York.

The motion as amended was carried by 331 to 1 with 7 recorded abstentions. It read:

That this Synod, recognising that in times of austerity hard choices must be made between competing priorities, and acknowledging that reform of welfare systems is essential:

(a) affirm the need for a renewed settlement between the state, the churches and civil society in pursuit of social solidarity and the common good;

(b) invite the MPA Council to consider how the Church of England can better contribute to this new settlement, making recommendations to the General Synod by July 2014;

(c) encourage Her Majesty's Government to found such reform on the principle of a bias towards the poor;

(d) call on politicians to pay close attention to the impact of welfare cuts on the most vulnerable, and call for support for those not in a position to support themselves and, in doing so, to consider whether the ring-fenced provision of universal benefits may be becoming the enemy of targeted benefits;

(e) decry the misleading characterisation of all welfare recipients as "scroungers"; and

(f) commend those across the churches who are working to support those most in need.


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