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The Church should be employing its moral outrage to greater effect

19 February 2014

Part of the role of the Church is to give the poorest in society a voice. It should be front and centre of the public debate about welfare reform, but the most recent intervention by Archbishop Nichols seems directed at the wrong target.

The current disincentive for work in the welfare system is indefensible. It is telling that no voice has been heard in the debate on any side suggesting that it is a good idea to have a situation where people can earn more than the average wage on benefits or that moving to Universal Credit (a simpler system with a reduced disincentive to work) isn’t, at least in theory, a positive step.

Welfare spending in the UK is now up around 40% of government spending (depending on what you include in the measure – this includes health). The debate around whether that needs to be reduced cannot be divorced from that of the general state of the public finances. The national debt stands to hit around the £1.5 trillion mark by the end of the Parliament. We will spend nearly as much this year on servicing the interest on that debt as we do on the education budget. There is substantial academic literature that points to the economically damaging effect of high levels of public spending.

Given the state of the economy is inextricably linked to our ability to help those struggling to get by there are a few points that Archbishop Nichols should consider.

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There are some on welfare who are unable to work and, as a society we should ensure they have not just an adequate but a decent standard of living. But critically, to have the resources to help those in need, we need a prosperous economy.

There are some people who are poor but able to work. We need a growing economy to create jobs and a more personalised approach in local jobcentres to help people find work to support themselves and their families.

There are some who are poor and are in work but paid very little. We need to find ways to increase wages – a prosperous economy is, again, a vital element in enabling people to earn more. So is funding the kind of training and investment that enables people to undertake more well paid jobs; but that also depends on economic success.

That is the broad context, but what about the detail of the welfare reforms themselves? Are the changes perfect? Of course not. No centralised welfare system is ever going to be able to wrap itself around the myriad complex and unique situations people find themselves in, that’s why civil society will always be needed and indeed why we will never live in a world without food banks.

At Policy Exchange, we are examining the role that sanctions play in encouraging people to find work. It is a far from perfect system needing to be more punitive in some cases, but also more flexible in others, especially given the high rates of appeals that are won. We are considering how the Work Programme can be improved and whether there may be elements of reform possible to restore some kind of link between contributions made into the welfare system and what is taken out.

The ideas we will be proposing will not be perfect either, but at least they will be constructive contributions to the debate that will hopefully help in incremental ways to make things better. It would be great to hear more from Church leaders about how they think Universal Credit could be made to work more effectively for those in greatest need.

Ruth Porter is Head of Economic and Social Policy at Policy Exchange.

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Show comments
  • Dirk Hazell

    It is commendable that this article opens by
    expressly recognising the duty of Christian leaders to speak for the

    The article also makes a very interesting
    point on economic competence: government spending is indeed high and of course
    the economy needs to generate gainful employment and to do so in a globalised

    In practice the current government is the
    most callous since the War and is also economically feeble.

    On callousness, no other government sent vans
    into the street urging migrants to go home. No other government since the War
    created a need – and it is a real and pressing need – for soup kitchens, a need
    particularly abrasive in the context of co-existence with extraordinary

    On economic effectiveness, a “boom” of housing
    and imports bought with (foreign) borrowed money is no substitute for failing
    to correct either the public spending or balance of payments deficits: an
    economic record that does not compare so well to recent corrections achieved
    within the eurozone.

    Despite their Christian roots, all three of
    the main parties are now dominated by materialism: a sort of Marxist triumph in
    terms of underlying analysis, albeit with different parties promoting different
    segments of the population.

    The EPP’s values are underpinned by both
    Christian and Enlightenment values: much too One Nation, especially perhaps
    with our commitment to the social market economy, for what has now so heavily
    infiltrated the Tory party. The EPP’s view is that the economy is ultimately
    the servant of humanity and not our master: we want a strong economy as a means
    to the end of the greatest possible fulfilment for the greatest possible

    Politics obsessed with materialism not only
    fails to recognise that man cannot live by bread alone but also – precisely
    because it commoditises people rather than reflect the unique value of every
    person – fails to ensure that those who need it receive their daily bread even
    in the presence of plenty.

    Dirk Hazell

    Chairman, British Committee, European People’s

  • Fergus Pickering

    The rol of the Church is to spread the word of God. The poor you have always with you.

  • Mynydd

    I quote ” people can earn more than the average wage on benefits” Simple increase the average wage. Oh maybe not, the price of a cup of coffee and burger may go up by 1p, and that will never do.

    • Ron Todd

      How do you increase the average wage? We know that the socialists want to dictate a ‘living wage’ to private companies not all private companies could afford a big jump in their wage bill. The government could increase the wages of the state sector Miliband was making noise about a higher minimum wage for essential workers presumably meaning labour voting state employees. That would not help those like me working in the wealth creating sector. (though it is not creating much wealth for me)

  • Mark McIntyre

    Who cares what these Fantasists think ?
    They spend their pathetic little lives proselytizing about the unproveable – and expect to be taken seriously when spouting about reality !
    Stick to the pulpit – next to no one wants to hear them.
    Reason and Reality – the only things in life !

    • Steve Wilds

      You could just as easily be talking about ideologically motivated political parties. Which is to say any of them.

  • Diogenes

    I do not believe bishops have any right to talk in the public arena about anything to
    do with politics. Charity, concern for the poor and other assorted non-specific inoffensive warm fuzziness are perfectly acceptable.
    Criticising government policies should be totally out of the question.
    Meaning well is not sufficient. You have to know what you are talking about.
    Churches have zero democratic legitimacy and only slightly more attendees.
    If priests and bishops want to get into politics then they should start a political party
    and get elected. Providing right on quotes for left wing media is beneath contemptible.

  • Steve Wilds

    Most of the welfare budget goes to pensioners and those on wages which are too low to meet the ever increasing cost of living.

    As for the unemployed, much is made of the “disincentive to work” in the benefits system (not something I experienced in the year I was stuck on the dole), but very little is ever said about the disincentive to employ that goes with all the vilification and stigmatising of the unemployed that goes on in the press and on TV programmes like Benefits Street.

    Long term unemployment is a problem that employers share some responsibility for. After all, they are the ones who chooses whether someone works or not. All the unemployed can do is apply for jobs, hundreds and hundreds of them, while receiving very few replies, even fewer interviews and battling against the prejudice that has been nurtured against them over the past decade or so.

  • drydamol1


    Is Cameron getting his due deserts whilst still in office
    unlike the smiling assassin Blair .41 Bishops are writing to him regarding his
    stance on Austerity Measures causing Poverty whilst Cameron Defends them by
    pontificating about them giving People Hope .

    Cameron and Blair show they both have the same lack of
    morality concerning their ‘quatuor ‘ with Brooks and Murdoch .

    It was published in the Media and shown on the News Brooks
    attending Downing Street each morning at 10 am for her Briefing from Blair
    .Private Meetings with Blair Associates
    were more frequently held than Cabinet Meetings ,so where were those
    still in the Labour Party today when this practice was going on .

    Since Libya now has a Government and not Gaddafi’s sole rule
    Cameron promised Blair he would repress incriminating evidence that Blair and
    Straw gave up Gaddafi non supporters here for Business Deals .Cameron in return
    was to have Blair’s backing within Political Circles to be the next PM .

    As we know Cameron is no Friend of the UK by his Draconian
    Reforms Welfare ,Employment ,NHS ,Post Office all of which Blair instigated
    .The Media are Briefed by Downing Street on different issues so what gets
    reported is the same Spin we read .Media not controlled Politics not Dirty .

  • roma1950

    but the vast majority of these claimants are working families.they get paid the minimum wage.they then claim working tax credits.yes they got an increase in tax allowance.but the tax credits were reduced.they also get housing benefit.again reduced.if the companies paid a living wage.the treasury gains,the tax payer gains.but the clergy are right.they see what is happening.i have’nt seen a Food Bank in the town i have lived for 28 years.but to take it out on these families does nothing
    to help them at pushes them further towards loan effects their health,and family life.fairness and social justice they need.not this.

    • Aarash UK

      companies dont have money trees. when they earn, they pay more, when they cannot earn, they cannot employ more and pay more. it is very simple and no one in history could have ever increased living standards by forcing the companies to pay or employ more. business are looking to increase the profit and one key for that is to employ the best and to employ the best you should pay the best. When an employee is worth £6/hr for a company why on earth they should pay him £8? the only outcome of increasing national minimum wage is making hundred thousand unemployed. Compare France and USA. The first with a pro-labor employment law and second with pro-business employment law. In which one the workers are more prosperous and have a better life style? No doubt in USA and France has a bankrupt and diminishing economy. I am shocked when I see such leftist comments and analysis in a so-called right wing magazine

  • Pootles

    Clearly, the churches can, and should, make commentary on social issues – it is perfectly in line with the Gospels. However, it is very, very difficult to hear anything from the Roman Catholic Church given its continued inability to really face up to the abuse that it sanctioned, in one form or another, in living memory. Much has been, and is being, said in Ireland (now the North, as well as the Republic), and in the USA, but, in England, there is silence. My late father was brought up in two RC orphanages – one run by the ‘Little Sisters of Mercy’, the other by the ‘Christian Brothers’. When I say ‘brought up’, I should really say ‘beaten up’. Children, very small children, vulnerable, orphaned, split up from siblings, and treated infamously. Actually, I’ll stop now – FTP and his dam’ churchmen.

    • Daniel Maris

      You might add that in all the 40 years of the Troubles with the excesses of murder, torture, maiming, killing of innocents, the RC Church never got round to excommunicating anyone. Maybe they were looking the other way…

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Mother Church was always a little slow to excommunicate its members. Unless of course they married a Protestant.

  • allymax bruce

    “At Policy Exchange, we are examining the role that sanctions play in
    encouraging people to find work. It is a far from perfect system needing
    to be more punitive in some cases, … The ideas we will be proposing will not be perfect either, but at least they will be constructive contributions to the debate” (Ruth Porter).
    Incredulous! So, Ruth, the welfare payment is calculated to give the bare minimum of what a person is thought able to live on, without forcing that person into poverty, then ‘sanctions’ are deducted also! Are you serious, Ruth! Is this artice only your excuse, for more cuts to benefits? Are you the messenger of doom? You can spin it any way you want, but all you are doing is trying to con us that you care, but all the blame for your evil polciies are the fault of the Church! You obviously learned your ‘dark arts’ trade under Tony Bliar!

    • HJ777

      “…the welfare payment is calculated to give the bare minimum of what a person is thought able to live on…”

      It isn’t. There are so many overlapping benefits and different types of means testing that it certainly can’t be said that it was ‘calculated’ be to any such thing. That may have been the intention, but it’s not what has transpired.

      In some cases benefits are clearly too little to live on (just ask many people who only qualify for JSA), in others, as we have seen, some families were getting way above the average wage in benefits.

      • grutchyngfysch

        This. The longer you are dependent, paradoxically, the more likely you are to qualify for the more extensive benefits. Whilst I understand the rationale behind trying to stop people who are unemployed spiralling into debt or going to the loan sharks, at some stage there needs to be a mechanism whereby the people who have no intention of working are held to account and not simply bought off.

        • HJ777

          I don’t disagree with you.

  • 2trueblue

    Perhaps members of the church should also remember the parable of the talents.

    • allymax bruce

      The Church doesn’t ‘deal’ in parables, Jesus does. The Church only picks up the pieces of what the State does to us, and tries to guide us. As far as the ‘parable of the Talents’, I think you may have misinterpreted it; it’s not about the Church giving us moral authority to seek & invest in God (Talents), we must do that ourselves. (Matthew 25:14) “For the kingdom of heaven [Jesus], is as a man that going into a strange country [Resurrection-to-Judgement Day], called his servants [Mankind], and delivered to them his goods [The Gospels]. God has given us all we need to come back to Him; it’s not the role of the Church to drag us ‘there’ against our ‘will’. And those that do ‘invest in God’, are ‘rewarded’ in His Master’s Joy. Those who don’t, well!

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Jesus saves, Moses invests.
      The old ones are the best, so they say.

  • London Calling

    The message of Christ is to love one another, but many here have sharp tongues and are quick to judge…………..try living on benefits and then form an opinion……….wages are low and trap many, who also receive benefits in the form of working tax credits…..

    The church has a responsibility to speak out and is right to do so…………..:)

    • Makroon

      The church certainly has a right, but it doesn’t have a responsibility. Most of the world, rich and poor countries, has no access to lavish welfare, only Europe persists with this model.

    • grutchyngfysch

      Ok London Calling, I’ve lived on benefits alone before. Now can I have an opinion?

      It’s blooming hard, soul-destroying stuff, but somewhere along the line you have to face up and bite the bullet and go to work instead of relying on the labours of others. If you can work, you ought to.

      Yes, it stings earning less once tax is taken into account, and from experience it is far harder financially to be on a low income than it is to reside on benefit money. But if you ever want to get out of that trap, it’s what you have to do. I am in complete agreement with attempts to reform the “disincentives” at work – but there is a cultural malaise that needs to be addressed too.

      “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.” (2 Thess. 3:10-12)

      • allymax bruce

        Pauline philosophy is not the tenet of The Gospels.

        • grutchyngfysch

          Well, I hope you’re snipped then mate, because it’s the Gospel to the Gentiles.

  • jason green

    A few figures that might help. Of a total welfare budget (2013) of £62.7bn, excluding pensions of £139.1bn, unemployment accounted for £5,6bn. £29.6bn was spent on Social Exclusion and £4.1bn on Social Protection :-

    Unistat: Explanatory note
    – Provision of social
    protection in the form of cash benefits and benefits in kind to persons
    who are socially excluded or at risk of social exclusion (such as
    persons who are destitute, low-income earners, immigrants, indigenous
    people, refugees, alcohol and substance abusers, victims of criminal
    violence, etc.);
    – administration and operation of such social protection schemes;

    cash benefits, such as income support and other cash payments to the
    destitute and vulnerable persons to help alleviate poverty or assist in
    difficult situations;
    – benefits in kind, such as
    short-term and long-term shelter and board provided to destitute and
    vulnerable persons, rehabilitation of alcohol and substance abusers,
    services and goods to help vulnerable persons such as counselling, day
    shelter, help with carrying out daily tasks, food, clothing, fuel, etc.

    £4.2bn was spent on housing, and £18.8bn on families and children.

  • telemachus

    A flawed analysis
    A flawed analysis designed to deflect thought on the injustices highlighted by our nascent cardinal
    Your policy exchange would do well to inject provisions for social fairness into the IDS doctrinaire views

    • Ron Todd

      Fairness is that when I go to a job I hate every day and earn less even before tax that some can get on benefits?

      • telemachus

        But think of the service you do to the poor and disadvantaged

        • grutchyngfysch

          Keeping people in perpetual dependency where they are able to sustain themselves is not a service, it’s a calumny, and one which the left is perfectly happy to cynically exploit for its own electoral purposes.

          • telemachus

            Not perpetual
            There is a difference between not throwing folks out of their houses and encouraging them back into work

            • grutchyngfysch

              Well, it’s certainly true that nobody is obligated to remain on benefits and people are able (as I was) to accept a real cut in order to be employed: but that’s rather the point, telemachus. The people who *want* to work will do just that, and precisely because they have that drive they will work hard, and pay taxes, and support those with no motivation, no inclination towards hard graft, and all the while smug lefties stand over us (most of them having reduced their own tax liabilities) telling us how good we should feel and elevating the feckless and the idle to some kind of saintly status where any suggestion that they should get off their backsides and stop relying on others is treated as the most outrageous heresy.

              Because those *are* the people who you keep in perpetual dependency.

              • telemachus

                You need a safety net
                Osborne has taken many below this

                • grutchyngfysch

                  Yes, a “safety net” – a means of preventing those who fall down from being unduly injured, with the expectation that having been “caught” one is in a position to begin climbing up again.

                  Not a hammock.

              • TruthBeatsLies

                “From Each According to his Ability, to Each According to his Need” – AMEN to that…!!!

                • Fergus Pickering

                  What you quote is not Christian doctrine. And I’ve always thought it flatulent and meanningless. Whois taking FROM and giving TO. Why The State of course. The state is God walking on earth. Who said that? Not Christ.

        • David Booth.

          Making cheap flippant remarks at the people who are in Ron Todd’s situation is no joke. Lots of people struggle on the minimum to keep going, paying tax, and rubbing their nose in is not on.

          • Andy

            Ah yes but you see the scum telemachus has sussed that Ron Todd is unlikely to vote for the Fascist Labour Party. Now those on benefits more than likely will. It is a bit like buying votes, but using our money.

            • telemachus

              All’s fair..

          • telemachus


    • Andy

      Only thing that is ‘flawed’ around here is you.

  • Rosa

    excellent article, Ruth. I am a member of the Anglican church, who have been conspicuous by their absence in this entire debate. However I wouldn’t hold your breath. The church leaders seem unable to approach this issue from any place but the Left. But I can assure you , there is plenty of support for your position in the pews.

    • Makroon

      Oh really ? I must have dreamed all those half-baked “edicts” from that Welby chap.

    • TruthBeatsLies

      From where else on earth but the Left could such an approach be made…?

      • Fergus Pickering

        Such an approach would be made from a Christian perspective. The Church is not a department of the Socialist State.

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