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