The great wel­fare de­bate

The Church of England - - LEADER & COMMENT - Paul Richard­son

Three quar­ters of Angli­can church­go­ers think the wel­fare state cre­ates de­pen­dency, ac­cord­ing to a poll car­ried out for the West­min­ster Faith De­bates. Half of all mem­bers of the Church of Eng­land think that the wel­fare budget should be re­duced and only one in five think it should be in­creased.

These re­sults are ac­tu­ally more hard­line than those for the pop­u­la­tion as a whole and show a ma­jor di­ver­gence be­tween the views of or­di­nary Angli­cans and those of church lead­ers.

There is a sim­i­lar di­ver­gence on mat­ters of sex­ual moral­ity but while the Arch­bishop of Can­ter­bury has sug­gested the church needs to take note of the wide­spread re­jec­tion of its teach­ing on sex­u­al­ity he has not voiced sim­i­lar fears about a fail­ure to fol­low the bish­ops’ lead on wel­fare.

Lord Carey, who has shown no in­ten­tion of mod­i­fy­ing his views on sex­u­al­ity, is closer to the pop­u­lar view on ben­e­fits, say­ing it is ‘sim­plis­tic’ to blame in­creased use of food banks on the cuts.

An all-Par­lia­men­tary in­quiry chaired by the Bishop of Truro and Frank Field has been set up to look into the causes for the in­creased use of food banks. It is likely that the use of penal­ties to force ben­e­fit claimants to look for work or the late pay­ment of ben­e­fits will be shown to be fac­tors driv­ing people to them. If this is proved to be the case, it may have some im­pact in sway­ing pub­lic opin­ion but it will not be de­ci­sive.

A sur­vey un­der­taken by Theos shows that 87 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion think the wel­fare state is fac­ing se­vere prob­lems. As two con­trib­u­tors to a Theos collection of es­says, The Fu­ture of Wel­fare, put it, we have ‘fallen out of love with wel­fare’.

What has gone wrong, ac­cord­ing to many of the con­trib­u­tors to this collection, is that we have moved away from Lord Bev­eridge’s vi­sion of ‘so­cial in­sur­ance’, where people on ben­e­fits re­ceived back from the money they have paid in to one of means-tested wel­fare where ev­ery­one is el­i­gi­ble for pay­ments based on need. This is seen as un­fair for a num­ber of rea­sons. Some­one who has been in work for many years and is then un­em­ployed re­ceives only a very small pay­ment that lasts for a short pe­riod be­fore sav­ings over £16,000 have to be spent.

At the same time there is anger at a sys­tem that, rightly or wrongly, is seen as en­abling people who do not want to work to live on state sup­port. Im­mi­gra­tion and the growth of a more plu­ral­ist and less co­he­sive so­ci­ety has meant the de­vel­op­ment in Bri­tain of at­ti­tudes com­mon in the US where racial di­vi­sions have been a fac­tor be­hind op­po­si­tion to wel­fare. In Bri­tain a strong sense of na­tional iden­tity in 1945 helped the cre­ation of the wel­fare state.

Un­for­tu­nately mov­ing to a so­cial in­sur­ance model will be more dif­fi­cult than some ad­vo­cates ac­knowl­edge. Many people need help who have not been in a po­si­tion to work. Youth un­em­ploy­ment is a ma­jor prob­lem and there are people suf­fer­ing from dis­abil­i­ties who have never been able to con­trib­ute to a so­cial in­sur­ance pol­icy.

It is in any case ques­tion­able from an eth­i­cal stand­point whether we should at­tempt to set up a wel­fare sys­tem that only pays back the people who have con­trib­uted. A wel­fare sys­tem should give ex­pres­sion to so­ci­ety’s ded­i­ca­tion to help­ing those in need. What can fairly be asked of those in re­ceipt of ben­e­fits is that they ac­knowl­edge an obli­ga­tion to pay back to so­ci­ety for the help they have re­ceived. In this way the com­mu­nity can go on sup­port­ing those in need even at a time of fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties.

In prac­tice this means that those in re­ceipt of ben­e­fits should be ready to un­dergo train­ing or take part in so­cial or char­i­ta­ble pro­grammes. In the case of young people, a paid work pro­gramme would be bet­ter than ben­e­fits. This would help them to form the habits nec­es­sary to con­tinue in em­ploy­ment and en­able them to start mak­ing con­tri­bu­tions.

In some ways present rules are not tough enough. Checks should be made to en­sure hous­ing ben­e­fit is paid to land­lords and not sim­ply spent by the re­cip­i­ent who then ends up with a poor credit rat­ing.

Sev­eral years ago I drove through the Lake District and no­ticed that at ev­ery cafe or cof­fee bar I stopped I was served by friendly young Poles. When I pointed this out to friends and drew at­ten­tion to high youth un­em­ploy­ment rates in White­haven and Mary­port on the edge of the Lake District I was told it was un­rea­son­able to ex­pect young men whose fa­thers had gone down the mines to work in ho­tels and restaurants. Young people from all over Europe are pre­pared to up­root them­selves and seek work here. We do our young people no favours if we pro­tect them against so­cial change.

Bish­ops are right to protest against a wel­fare sys­tem that leaves too many people in need but the churches need to throw their weight be­hind at­tempts to re­design the wel­fare state so that it com­mands more sup­port and so that it en­sures ev­ery­one will be bet­ter off work­ing than re­main­ing on ben­e­fits.

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