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Beyond the old political trenches

15 March 2013

The bishops are right to query the impact of benefit cuts, says Paul Vallely

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 Thatcher/Runcie era.

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, too.

Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.

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