THE Church of England is now the Labour Party at prayer,
according to its unimaginative critics in the Conservative Party.
There is nothing like reviving an old cliché to avoid the effort of
serious thinking. But there must be better ways to deal with
welfare reform than redigging old trench- lines from the
Anglican bishops have expressed concern over the Government's
proposal to limit increases in most benefits and tax credits to one
per cent over the next three years. The plan means that, regardless
of how much prices rise in that time, poorer families with young
children will pay the price for inflation, which is currently
running at 2.7 per cent. The Archbishop of Canterbury has pointed
out, that the poorest will be hit hardest. About 60 per cent of the
savings will come from the bottom third of households. Only three
per cent will come from the wealthiest third.
This should be a matter of concern for any government. But,
instead of acknowledging this, the Work and Pensions Secretary,
Iain Duncan Smith, issued a counterblast, declaiming: "There is
nothing moral or fair about a system which I inherited that trapped
people in welfare dependency." Getting people back to work was the
way to end child poverty, he said.
False polarisations are unhelpful here. Right-wing ideologues
declare that Archbishop Welby's view of poverty is Socialist rather
than Christian. He is accepting - they say, without any evidence -
the previous Labour Government's arbitrary definition of poverty as
covering anyone whose household income is below 60 per cent of
median income. Real poverty is spiritual, and comes from the
Welfare State's having created a dependency culture that, far from
liberating the poor, enslaves them.
None of this tells the whole truth, as Archbishop Welby and Mr
Duncan Smith both know, being students of Roman Catholic social
teaching. This states that two principles - solidarity and
subsidiarity - must be at work in such issues. Solidarity requires
that we see our mutual interdependence as a moral imperative, as
well as a social reality. Subsidiarity insists that the state
should not take over what individuals or groups can do. And
Catholic social teaching sees work as more than just a right or a
responsibility. It is, as Pope John Paul II said, "the particular
mark of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community
of persons". Work is quintessential to our nature.
Yet it is a non sequitur to move from this to right-wing
expostulations that it cannot be right for some people to get more
in benefits than the average family's take-home pay of £26,000 per
year. It can be perfectly right - in circum- stances where that
reflects what a particular family needs. Need, not desert, is the
yardstick for solidarity. Bishops with experience as parish priests
know this from living among the poor in parts of the inner-city
where the clergy are often the only professionals present after 5
p.m. So dependency and perverse incentives are a moral issue; but
so is the support of the most vulnerable, especially where there
are no jobs.
We may need new incentives to spur the workshy into employment.
But these must be structured so that they do not use the
vulnerability of children as a stick with which to beat idle
parents. Other mechanisms must be devised. Children should not be
used as hostages. So the Bishops are right to be fielding an
amendment in the House of Lords targeted at those cuts that would
have the greatest impact on children.
The Government should be revisiting the minutiae, too. It is not
principles that are in conflict here. The devil, they say, is in
the detail. But sometimes that may be where God is to be found,
Paul Vallely is associate editor of The