It's Sunday. So it's appropriate that the letter from the Church of England bishops condemning what the government is doing to welfare benefits should be in the news today, together with a statement from the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Welby chose to focus on children. According to the Telegraph, he said, "As a civilised society, we have a duty to support those among us who are vulnerable and in need. When times are hard, that duty should be felt more than ever, not disappear or diminish. It is essential that we have a welfare system that responds to need and recognises the rising costs of food, fuel and housing. The current benefits system does that, by ensuring that the support struggling families receive rises with inflation. These changes will mean it is children and families who will pay the price for high inflation, rather than the Government.”
On TV, the spokesman for the bishops was the Bishop of Ripon. He was pugnacious, vehement and in command of the figures. He slated the use of derogatory language like "scroungers" to describe those forced to claim benefits.
Iain Duncan Smith has had to respond. According to Sky News he is "a committed Christian"; no wonder that on TV he looked a bit hurt and bemused. But he repeated what he obviously believes, and which he spelled out in the Independent: “This is about fairness. People who are paying taxes, working very hard, have hardly seen any increases in their salary and yet, under the last government, the welfare bill rose by some 60 per cent to £200bn. That means they have to pay for that under their taxes, which is simply not fair. That same system trapped huge numbers, millions, in dependency – dependent on the state, unable, unwilling to work. What is either moral or fair about that? That’s my challenge to the bishop. There is nothing moral or fair about a system that I inherited that trapped people in welfare dependency, some one in every five households has no work, that’s not the way to end child poverty. Getting people back to work is the way to end child poverty. That’s the moral and fair way to do it.”
His argument is ridiculous. By far the largest part of the welfare bill is pensions. People are without work because they can't get work. Nothing he and his government are doing is going to help that situation, and pushing individuals and families into deeper poverty and hopelessness, dependent on charity for food and eventually homeless, is going to conjure jobs which pay wages which people can live on.
I don't want to get embroiled in religious arguments. Throughout the centuries Christians (as well as adherents of other faiths) have been able to persuade themselves that anything they wanted to do could find justification in Holy Writ. I could point IDS to Matthew chap.25 v. 31 onwards; and then he might try the epistle of James, chap.5. But I suspect that it wouldn't shake his conviction or trouble his conscience.
But thank God for the bishops.