Sometimes temptation is too great to be resisted. It is weak I know, but give a dyed in the wool Presbyterian Scot with a covenanting ancestry the chance to disagree with English bishops and he will cave in and grab it.
Last night the English bishops, 26 of whom have a place by right in the House of Lords, led the charge against the government’s proposed cap on welfare benefits. This they did in the name of holy compassion. According to the CofE the function of the bishops is supposedly to “provide an important independent voice and spiritual insight to the work of the Upper House.”
Strangely enough their position last night was based upon materialistic considerations. In the estimation of the bishops to restrict welfare handouts to £500 per week per family would be an act of cruelty worthy of Gradgrind. We heard heartrending tales of families being made homeless and cast out on to the streets.
Iain Duncan Smith, Work and Pensions Secretary, did himself no favours by claiming on radio that according to government and charity definitions it was possible to be declared homeless if children had to share a bedroom. A claim easily refuted with 30 seconds research.
This is symptomatic of discussion around this proposal. Those involved take highly emotional positions which often lose sight of what is happening. The bishops, Lib Dem Lords and the Guardian (recently described as the Pravda of public sector workers) present anguished projections of families being forced to live in cardboard boxes. The Guardian headlined a piece by the ever reliable Polly Toynbee describing this cap as “the final solution.”
If any family is forced from its accommodation because it has fallen into arrears of rent the local council is still obliged to find them appropriate accommodation. That this accommodation is all too often in property owned by rack renting cronies of councilors is something else the government should tackle. But no family will be forced to live in a cardboard box because of this cap.
The government presents this measure as an attempt to cut the deficit and forced upon them by the debts racked up by previous governments. This welfare cap will save £290 million per year, a drop in the ocean when set against the total welfare bill of £192 billion per year.
That politicians peddle horror stories and selective interpretations to back up their party position is nothing new. However, we look to spiritual leaders to have deeper insight into the human condition.
There is a moral point here, one grasped by most non-bishops: paying benefits greater than the average working wage is destructive of society. It creates resentment amongst working people who would, once deductions have been made, have to work very hard to take home the same sum. It also has a destructive effect on the lives of recipients; it encourages dependency as a lifestyle, and it condemns countless thousands of people, generation after generation, to unemployment and wasted, pointless lives.
If this cap has any useful purpose it will be to herald a complete review of a welfare system, which whilst it rightfully gives help to those in need, has also created an underclass who have no hope, no intention, no concept of ever taking responsibility for their own lives. If the bishops truly had compassion they would support a widespread examination of an increasingly heartless welfare system.
Bishops rightly denounce the rampant materialism of our age because Christianity understands that people are more than an accidental conglomeration of atoms and that there is more to life than money. Consistency would be welcome here. If any are able to understand the deeply dehumanising impact of long term and intergenerational welfare dependency it should be their pastors.
Finally it is estimated that you have to earn £35,000 before tax to take home £26,000. The average stipend for a CofE vicar is just under £22,000 plus housing, well below £35,000. Perhaps the bishops could consider their own direct pastoral responsibility for those living on less than £26,000 after tax.