These Bishops are not so Christian after all

 Published: 24 January 2012 in The Times

Among the most militant of the he Lords who voted yesterday against the coalition’s £26.000 cap on welfare benefits were the bishops. Quite rightly, you might say; Christianity is based on the sanctity of poverty and one of the main purposes of bishops in public life is surely to remind us about the poor. Anyone who disrespects the poor has to deal with the wrath of the lordly ecclesiastical appointees

 It is very Christian to give to those in need. But what if, individually and as a country, we have less to give? What if the budget we have limits our ability to give? And what if by giving you give an advantage to one group- say the non-working poor – at the expense of others, such as the low-paid?

 We know what happens when the bishops have less money to play with: they make economies. They join a number of churches together under the ministry of one priest. In the village where I live, our local vicar spreads her time across five parishes.

 If money fell like manna from heaven we would not need to contemplate a cap. But the squeeze on the economy means that the poor will have to be hit and those unable to provide for themselves will have to suffer cuts.

 Before the credit crunch when we had loads of money, we spent too much of it on allowing people who, in earlier times, would have been the working poor to live without jobs on benefits. We warehoused people on social security and watched as their expectations and aspirations atrophied. By giving something that was unearned, we lengthened people’s time in poverty and watched as life for the recipients became meaner and meaner.

And all this was under the guise of doing the good Christian thing of helping the poor

 But social security was, in reality, social insecurity; it made people dependent on the Exchequer being well stocked with taxes. And now it isn’t and a lot of grief is coming our way as work disappears. So to ring- fence one section of the community -those on benefits – at the expense of others may be less Christian than the bishops intend.

 The welfare state’ will have to be reinvented. Many advocates for the poor see benefits as a God-given right without any God-given responsibilities: but rights without responsibilities lead to dependency.

 Twenty years ago I tried, as a devout former Catholic, to tackle this overwhelming emphasis on “giving” by starting The Big Issue. Giving is all well and good for the givers, but imagine what it does to the takers? It makes them dependent and at the beck and call of all those who feel the urge to give. Equality does not come out of this kind of giving; Equality comes only through self- help. Our mission was, and still is, helping the homeless to help themselves.

 If welfare is to be fairer and more useful to its beneficiaries it will have to come with strings attached. That could mean that those who have the time and ability should help the aged and the infirm, the mentally unable and the physically incapable in their communities.

 Payback should be central to a reformed system that helps people to grow and develop and recover skills.

 We must not allow those on benefits to feel that they matter for little, or are just a drain on the working population. A just society would be one in which we never imprisoned anyone in the Bastille of benefits. That is why we cannot allow the current crass system to continue condemning the poor to never seeing their children get degrees or stopping them from moving up and joining the property-owning democracy.

 lain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, will have to grasp this issue. Limiting the hit on the taxpayer by capping benefits is onenecessary thing. But the more difficult task will be to reverse decades of indifference to the poor dressed up as concern.


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