THE Archbishop of Canterbury has launched a scathing attack on the tax system in the UK. He said that it had failed to reprimand tax-evaders, drove working families into destitution, and fostered vulnerability and hatred.
Archbishop Welby was delivering a keynote speech on the final day of the 150th annual Trade Union Congress (TUC), in Manchester, on Wednesday. In remarks that lauded the history of the movement and its “profound Christian roots”, he argued that there must be “a new unionisation, or . . . there will only be a new victimisation”.
He was highly critical of corporations that shirked paying tax. “Not paying taxes speaks of the absence of our commitment to our shared humanity to solidarity and justice. If you earn money from a community, you should pay your share of tax to that community,” he said, to applause from the floor of congress.
“When vast companies like Amazon and other online traders — the new industries — can get away with paying almost nothing in tax, there is something wrong with the tax system.
“They don’t pay a real living wage, so the tax payer must support their workers with benefits; and, having leeched off the taxpayer once, they don’t pay for our defence, security, stability, justice, health, equality, education. . . Then they complain of a lack of skilled workforce without an education they have not paid for, and they end up not paying for apprenticeships.
“Those are only a fraction of the costs of aggressive tax management.”
It was the poor and vulnerable in society who had suffered the most, he said. “Five years ago, I said to the chief executive of Wonga that I wanted credit unions to compete him out of business. Today, I dream that governments, now and in the future, put church-run foodbanks out of business.
“I dream of empty night-shelters. I dream of debt-advice charities without clients. When justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, the food banks close, the night-shelters are empty, families and households are hopeful of better lives for themselves and their children, money is not a tyrant, and justice is seen.”
His speech came less than a week after he helped launch a report by the Institute for Public Policy and Research’s Commission on Economic Justice, of which he is a member, that proposed to tax capital gains and income at the same rate, as part of a radical reform of the UK economy (News, 7 September).
Another of its more than 70 proposals was to trial auto-enrolment into trade unions in the gig economy.
TUCArchbishop Welby, with Sally Hunt, TUC president
“There must be unions in the gig economy,” the Archbishop said on Wednesday. “There must be unions in industries being automated, unions wherever workers are vulnerable. There must be a new unionisation, or, president, there will only be a new victimisation.”
The TUC had been “instrumental . . . in reducing inequality, challenging injustice, and speaking up for the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed,” he said. Unions were “crucial to achieving real living wages”.
The speech drew on his time as Dean of Liverpool, where, he said, “the bitterness of the docks remained. . . Today, there are some that view the oppression of the employed as a virtue. The zero-hours contract is not new, simply the reincarnation of an ancient evil.”
In a preview interview with the TUC Congress guide this week, he said that the Church would seek to “form new partnerships — with the TUC and with other areas of national life right across the political spectrum”.
He expected his speech to Congress “to be received with a certain amount of scepticism”, he said.
The president of the TUC, Sally Hunt, said in her opening address that the conference would focus on building its industrial strength; growing members; and expanding its political influence.
Defending his engagement in politics, the Archbishop began and ended his speech by quoting the Magnificat, which he described as “revolution in immortal verse”.
He quoted: “[God] has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”
“That is political, but not party political,” he expounded. “The Bible is political from one end to the other. But we step into dangerous territory when either Left or Right claim God as being solely on their side. Jesus was highly political.”
The Archbishop warned: “Where inequality and profound injustice seem entrenched, insurmountable, it leads to instability in our society, divisions between peoples, vulnerability to the popularism that stirs hatred between different ethnicities and religious groups, the rise of ancient demons of racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and Xenophobia, and the rise of extremism.”
He went on to quote the poem “First they came” by the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller, and continued: “It would be wrong of me to stand before you and not to speak of my Muslim and Jewish friends who are concerned by the language used in political discussion and debate. In both left and right in recent times, we have seen language which has been insensitive to the very real vulnerabilities of those who are too often talked about, much less often talked with.”
The Archbishop told the TUC: “We know that when any group is objectified, trolled on social media, dismissed, then all of us are diminished. Such things are not worthy of our country, of its great Christian heritage, of its possibilities as a just and righteous society.”
Unions were not perfect, the Archbishop said. They needed “imagination, flexibility, and seeking the good of the worker, not just the power of a union”.
The last Archbishop to address the TUC was Lord Carey, in 1997, who said that employers had a “moral responsibility” to work with unions. The first was Archbishop Campbell Tait, in 1879. He had done so, Archbishop Welby said, “at the urging of a number of Christian leaders, to begin the process of changing the Church of England’s scandalous hostility to unions”. One of the Tolpuddle martyrs, had, he noted, been “betrayed by their local vicar”; but bishops had later been involved in mediating between mine owners and mine workers.
Thanking Archbishop Welby for his contribution, Ms Hunt said that she hoped that it would not be another 150 years before the TUC was supported by an Archbishop in this way.
Last year, the union that acts for the clergy reported a 16-per-cent rise in membership (News, 15 December).