THE House of Bishops has issued a wide-ranging critique of the welfare system, in a discussion paper that refers to the system’s inability to tackle an “enemy which threatens the well-being of our people”.
Starting from the “Five Giant Evils” identified in the 1942 Beveridge report, on which the welfare state was based — Want, Disease, Squalor, Ignorance, and Idleness — the Bishops’ paper adds “a giant which all can see around them, which most experience at some time in their lives, but which few will name. It is the Enemy Isolation.”
The 17-page paper, Thinking Afresh about Welfare: The enemy isolation, has been produced by the Director of Mission and Public Affairs, the Revd Dr Malcolm Brown, in association with the Bishops of Norwich, St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, and Truro. It contains echoes of the House’s pre-election pastoral letter of 2015.
A preamble states that the paper “does not try to set out a central policy for the whole Church”. It was written at the Bishops’ request to inform their responses to individual pieces of welfare reform, particularly in the Lords.
“There’s nothing here that the Bishops haven’t been saying for years,” Dr Brown said on Wednesday, “but it puts it in a robust and thought-through context. It makes it clear that, when a bishop comments on a piece of welfare legislation, it is not simply a kneejerk reaction but comes out of a deep theological commitment to community.”
The paper begins with a description of how isolation frustrates attempts to create a mutually beneficial society, and goes on to consider the principles, theology, and delivery methods of welfare.
In particular, the paper seeks to challenge the narrowing definition of welfare, from a sense of interdependence — “We are all in this together” — to a word used solely to describe financial support for those of working age who do not fully support themselves by earned income, and thus require state help to survive.
On isolation, it describes lives without the “support, friendship, and sacrifice of others”; the isolation that many face in old age; the lack of childcare options for mothers; the loss of neighbourliness; the rapid loss of self-confidence among people made redundant; the breakdown of marriages; and the lack of trust between strangers.
Seeking remedies, people turn to agencies, such as GPs, even the police, “which were never intended to address this basic need”. And with this “drift toward greater isolation . . . the burden on the state has become unsustainable”.
The paper confounds attempts to paint it in party colours. It states that Universal Credit “deserves support” in its attempts to simplify the benefits system; it argues that “there is nothing wrong with trying to design a welfare system which seeks to change human behaviour”; it agrees that welfare policies should create incentives to work; it puts family stability high up its list of necessary conditions for improvement; and it suggests that voluntary enterprises could deliver welfare better than “the dead hand of bureaucracy”.
On the other hand, it challenges the view that better welfare inevitably leads to higher national debt: “there are other ways of reducing debt (like higher taxes) and so welfare cuts are a political choice”; gives short shrift to the involvement of the private sector, which “usually” achieves efficiency “by driving down wages and introducing worse conditions for staff”; expresses the view that the state should bear the bulk of the responsibility for the welfare system; and attempts to break down what it perceives as a “harder line” between those who claim benefits and those who benefit from the state in less obvious ways.
The paper criticises the 1985 report Faith in the City, produced by Archbishop Runcie’s Commission on Urban Priority Areas: “Just as Faith in the City failed to see the moral vision that informed Margaret Thatcher’s administrations, and therefore failed to engage coherently with that vision, so we must avoid the trap of seeing present policy direction as motivated solely by economic concerns.” Instead, it states, “recent welfare policies, whilst sometimes clumsily implemented or ill-communicated, are not without moral purpose.”
Welfare report: Isolation
TODAY, there is another enemy which threatens the well-being of our people and which frustrates efforts to address Beveridge’s agenda. It is the Enemy Isolation.
Like many wicked enemies, it goes by numerous aliases. It is Loneliness, Estrangement, Friendlessness. It may be born from the conviction that each person is an island; that the individual can form his or her personhood through choice and will power, and make a life without the support, friendship and sacrifice of others; that our responsibilities begin and end with ourselves and that the good of others is purely their own affair. It may start with the dangerous implication that personal freedom is threatened by caring about other people.
Its effects are seen in the isolation that many face in old age; in the lack of childcare options for working mothers; in the loss of neighbourliness and family ties which cuts off the housebound from contact and conversation, even allowing some to die unnoticed and undiscovered for weeks. It is seen in the rapid loss of self-confidence and resilience among people who are made redundant and, with the loss of a job, lose the sense of belonging among their peers. It is seen in the way that homelessness can reduce people to invisibility and disability throws people onto their own, often inadequate, resources. It is seen in the erosion of trust between strangers. It is seen in the breakdown of marriages, the estrangement of families and the impermanence of close relationships.
Isolation is not just a characteristic of individual lives – whole groups within society may be, either intentionally or through the laws of unintended consequences, isolated from each other and from the mainstream. Groups with little political influence, groups of people who don’t fit some widely-held social perception of “normality”, can be rendered invisible.
Isolation has grown as the structures of neighbourhood and community have weakened. This is the shadow side of growth in individual freedom and mobility.
We now know that, whatever the achievements of the welfare state, it has not arrested the drift toward greater isolation and the loss of connections. And so the burden on the state has become unsustainable, outstripping the willingness of the people as a whole to pay for it. Nor is uniform state welfare always efficient or effective.
As the informal structures of neighbourliness have diminished, the structures of state welfare have had to carry greater and greater demand. When people appear again and again at a doctor’s surgery because it is the only place where they are guaranteed a chance to talk to another person, something vital is missing from the fabric of the community around them.
Identifying isolation as an evil does not mean that Want, Ignorance, Squalor, Idleness or Disease are no longer spectres haunting Britain. They continue to wreck lives and stunt people’s development, and the struggle against them is constant, for individuals, communities and government, despite all that has been achieved since World War II.
Beveridge himself recognised that a welfare state would only defeat the Five Giant Evils if strong social bonds, viable communities and a clear commitment to voluntary action were also prominent in the nation’s life. Today, those characteristics are not dead — but they are fragile and often desperately attenuated, allowing social isolation to corrode lives in ways which no state system can adequately address.