On 7 June 2016, the Church of England’s House of Bishops published a discussion document called ‘Thinking Afresh About Welfare’. This is Church Action on Poverty’s response to that document. We have also shared it with the bishops who produced the document.
‘Thinking Afresh About Welfare’ says it wants a “thoughtful debate on a subject which should concern all Christians”. Church Action on Poverty welcomes this, as we are also working to promote that same debate with our own research and campaigns.
It was therefore very disappointing to find that the document, far from “thinking afresh”, bases a significant proportion of its argument on myths about poverty and benefits which others in the churches have been working to demolish for some years now – most notably in the 2013 joint report of the Baptist Union, Methodist Church, Church of Scotland and United Reformed Church, The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty.
This shows why the Anglican contributors to our recent Church of the Poor? report all expressed a similar frustration with their own Church. Philip North, the Bishop of Burnley, put it most bluntly:
“We are deaf to the cries of the poor because we have effectively left them out of our decision-making processes.”
That deafness to the cries of the poor is very apparent in ‘Thinking Afresh About Welfare’. It contains no reference whatsoever to the actual experiences of people supported by benefits, nor any evidence of having engaged with anyone with such experience in the drafting of the report.
It is hard to imagine anyone in the Church reflecting on disability without speaking to disabled people, writing a report on race or ethnicity without consulting anyone from the BME community, or putting forward a position statement on gender without speaking to women. Yet people in poverty are always ‘othered’ – never in the room where they are being discussed.
The absence of their voices is most apparent in the section on ‘Welfare and wellbeing’:
- A whole section is based on the idea that the benefits system has created a ‘dependency culture’ – despite the fact that research has shown this to be a myth.
If the author had actually spoken to some people supported by benefits – as we did for our Real Benefits Street project – he would have found that the vast majority want to work.
- The idea of ‘dependency’ is also a distraction from the real issues, since the vast majority of benefits expenditure goes to people who are retired or unable to work due to disability or sickness. Suggesting that people who are genuinely unable to work are somehow victims of a ‘dependency culture’ is unhelpful at best, and demeaning at worst.
The Office of National Statistics has produced a very helpful graphic which highlights the fact that whilst the public think 17% of welfare spending is on unemployment benefits, the real figure is just 1%, or £3 billion.
- The paper bizarrely suggests that ‘received wisdom’ about benefits makes us too wary of distinguishing between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. But all you have to do is pick up any newspaper to see that ‘received wisdom’ in our society labels growing numbers of people in poverty as ‘undeserving’ – ‘scroungers’, ‘skivers’, layabouts’.
The paper also says that we are only uncomfortable with labelling people as deserving or undeserving because of ‘a contemporary aversion to moral norms’. The author is apparently unaware of the powerful biblical arguments against the ‘myth of the undeserving poor’ which have been put forward by JubileePlus and others.
- Another major strand of the paper argues that the benefits system should be designed to influence people’s behaviour. It not only implies that poverty and unemployment are people’s own fault, but also reduces the question to an abstract, theoretical discussion.
There is no recognition that in reality, here and now, the benefits system is already explicitly seeking to change people’s behaviour, via work conditionality (the so-called ‘claimant contract’) and by punishing those who fail to comply with frequently petty or onerous conditions with extended periods of destitution (disguised via the opaque language of ‘benefit sanctions’).
- People who are unable to find work are described by the paper as “muddled, timid and confused.” This language shows a curious willingness to label and judge people without any supporting evidence whatsoever. Sadly, it is itself an example of the ‘othering’ of people in poverty by making moral judgements about their character, in a manner which would be considered unacceptable of other sections of society.
- As Mind have demonstrated, the reality is that people with mental health problems (perhaps what the author means by “muddled and confused”?) are likely to have those problems exacerbated by benefit cuts and unemployment, and are disproportionately likely to have their benefits stopped as a result of a benefit sanction.
- The paper even says that we should support “the principled option of using [benefit] sanctions where they are demonstrably effective in changing irresponsible behaviour.” The author appears unaware that a consortium of five other denominations have shown that sanctions are not only immoral but ineffective – and that the Department for Work and Pensions’ own advisers agree.
- The analysis presented in the paper is entirely at odds with the view taken by the Church of Scotland, Church in Wales, Baptist, Methodist and United Reformed Churches in their joint report Time to Rethink Benefit Sanctions:
“Churches are concerned that the imposition of sanctions, in the way that is currently experienced by many, undermines human dignity and threatens the underlying philosophies of the Welfare State to which British citizens contribute through taxation. There are foundational Christian principles that call into question the sanctions system in operation today.”
All of this reflects a wider problem in the paper – none of its arguments are actually backed up with proper evidence. It is very unusual to see a document coming from a national Church’s public affairs team which contains almost no footnotes, references or evidence drawn from any research or other independent source. Without any evidence base, the paper amounts to a series of unproven and unsupported assertions:
- The paper’s central argument, that social isolation is the ‘Great Enemy’ of modern society, is not backed up with any evidence at all. Whilst evidence collated by the Campaign to End Loneliness does present a powerful case for ‘loneliness’, it is principally a problem for people in older age, rather than necessarily across the population as a whole.
- Others have argued recently that the most pervasive and urgent problem facing modern Western societies is in fact insecurity:
“It permeates the lives of not just the marginalised but also the reasonably well off. Fewer and fewer people feel ‘comfortable’. This is not only about money. Our lives feel beyond our control. Whether through the state or the market, someone else is making the big decisions that affect us. Forces such as globalisation, terrorism and climate change impact on us and there is nothing, it seems, we can do about them.”
- In this context, Church Action on Poverty last year undertook research into the extent to which the social security system currently exacerbates, rather than reduces, insecurity. In the preparation of this report, we heard many stories of real hardship caused by failures in the benefits system, often leaving people penniless and hungry. These stories were corroborated by evidence collected by the Trussell Trust food bank network, the Church of England and others, which points to the fact that over half of the people who turn to food banks do so due to delays or errors in, or removal of, benefit payments. Yet none of this research finds its way into the ‘Thinking Afresh About Welfare’ document.
- Our purpose here is not to say that isolation is more or less important than insecurity – but rather that the paper provides no evidence or explanation to back up its rather bold claim that social isolation is ‘The Great Enemy’.
- Similarly, the closing section seems disconnected from reality when it says,
“Recent welfare policies, whilst sometimes clumsily implemented or ill-communicated, are not without moral purpose … we must avoid the trap of seeing present policy direction as motivated solely by economic concerns.”
Whilst it is true that Iain Duncan Smith, Minister for Work and Pensions, articulated a “moral purpose” when he began the process of benefit reforms in 2010, he resigned in May this year precisely because the Government’s fiscal priorities undermined that moral vision, saying:
“I am unable to watch passively whilst certain policies are enacted in order to meet the fiscal self imposed restraints that I believe are more and more perceived as distinctly political rather than in the national economic interest…There has been too much emphasis on money saving exercises.”
The paper finishes by saying the Church of England’s Faith in the City report in the 1980s “failed to engage coherently” with Margaret Thatcher’s moral vision. But Church Action on Poverty would say that Faith in the City showed the Church of England at its very best – listening to the cry of the poor, showing the unique strengths which flow from its presence in every parish in the country. Those strengths are conspicuously absent from this discussion paper, which says we should have “empathy for the dilemmas which politicians face”, while showing no empathy for people in poverty, whom it labels as “muddled, timid and confused”.
As a result, the paper was welcomed by the Daily Mail, one of the newspapers most responsible for stigmatising and excluding people in poverty. But it provoked angry and disappointed responses from clergy working at the ‘coalface’ of poverty – including Revd Al Barrett, who said on his blog:
“This paper does not deserve to be dignified with any pretence to Christian theology if it rests content with what currently appears ‘politically possible’. Where is its prophetic voice to seek to change the terms of the political conversation?”
Sadly, the paper’s approach is out of step with most of the UK’s churches, whose leaders are increasingly willing to speak out prophetically about the injustices that trap people in poverty. Churches in local communities are on the frontline of the hunger crisis, hearing the stories of people forced into destitution, and eager to speak out for a better world.
If we’re going to “think afresh”, let’s think about how we can respond to Pope Francis’ challenge to build “a poor church, for the poor”.