Their support for Coalition reform is brave and bold. But can it do any good?

From time to time our English bishops have been accused of a lack of leadership. In recent days though they have bravely set out far ahead of the religious and voluntary sector pack by wholeheartedly endorsing the key means by which David Cameron hopes to ensure his personal legacy: namely, the “Big Society”. First, in an interview from Lourdes, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster endorsed the idea. Then Archbishop Peter Smith of Southwark commended the Big Society as the means by which to renew the Catholic justice and peace movement. Subsequently, at their annual gathering, the bishops as a whole – notwithstanding the northern bishops’ reservations about the speed of government cuts – launched a plan to increase Catholic participation in the public sphere. For its name the plan took the core theme of the Prime Minister’s speeches and the title of his only book, Social Responsibility. While Archbishop Nichols had once mistakenly thought Cameron was quoting Catholic social teaching when he used the phrase “common good”, there is now no mistaking who is endorsing whom. But after years of contemptuous treatment under Labour, how will the bishops make an impact for the better?

For example, to which account of the three main strands of the Big Society have they given their blessing? Is it the “civic conservative” strand represented by David Willetts, which seeks to “work with the grain of human nature” because individuals selfishly like to act together? Might it be the breakdown Britain strand, heavily influenced by the Conservative Christian Fellowship, and focused on character, morals and welfare dependency? Or is it the powerful advocacy of localism and decentralisation that provides a crossover between liberal community politics and Conservative objections to centralised targets? The question is vital because very soon the true colours of those influenced by each strand will come to the fore.

Any moment a new – and huge – Localism Bill will be announced. Underpinned by the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, it seeks to drive power and resources to the most local level and create a level playing field between the state, the market and the civic sector as to who gets to own and run society’s assets. The Bill will give churches and other voluntary organisations the legal right to save or buy a building that should not be lost to their locality, and a legal right to appeal to take over any part of local government that they believe they could run more creatively and cost effectively. Greg Clark, the brilliant Communities Minister in charge of decentralisation, has described the Bill’s potential as being to “take away the garden wall” that holds the voluntary sector back. And he is keen for churches and faith communities to step up to that opportunity.

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Concurrently, Health Secretary Andrew Lansley is seeking to drive resources to the local level too. His White Paper strips power from hospital-based health professions and gives it back to GPs. And yet just as all this influence is being returned to the lowest appropriate level, Iain Duncan Smith, the Catholic Work and Pensions Secretary, has launched a White Paper on welfare reform that promises to be among the most centralising government initiatives of the last decade. It is also unclear how it will enhance solidarity.

Duncan Smith’s reforms will strip local authorities of responsibility for housing benefit, possibly increasing the number of redundancies that authorities will have to make. They will then give central control of housing benefit, tax credits and social security payments to the already bloated Department of Work and Pensions.

The upside of this is that a single point of contact will be established for those in need. The downside is that all benefits will be controlled inflexibly from the centre. Specifically, they will be capped at £500 a week, which is the national “mean” household income of those in work. This centralised cap will potentially have myriad devastating effects.

While bringing down the huge welfare bill is essential, £500 in some neighbourhoods does not have the same purchasing power as in others. If you are poor in a leafy suburb of Leeds or in Guildford funds do not go as far as if you have been consigned to an outer area estate or an inner city ward. If you had a nervous breakdown in Ascot while running a firm and are now too anxious to work should you be moved away from family and friends? The “flat rate” in effect becomes a tax on the neediest who survive on the margins of wealthy areas and in Conservative heartlands. What is worse is that Iain Duncan Smith is outsourcing his work creation programmes in contracts so large that they shut out the charitable and civic sectors. For the Church that is a double tragedy: in Spain and Austria it has pioneered flexible, personal and local responses to help the long-term unemployed back to work and the mentally ill find fresh footholds in society.

It could be, of course, that the bishops have been advised that the Big Society is “what we have always done”. They might also have judged that engaging in this way is a small price to pay to protect our schools. And yet the only recent research undertaken to assess the scale of Catholic civic welfare contributions suggests that our role is not as great as we first thought. One well-known Catholic charity, for example, often cited during the papal visit, has a wholly Catholic client base and its volunteers are the same age and social profile as those it helps. Meanwhile, at the heart of the Big Society is a still unclear but radical reform project for educational structures that has the potential to empower parents and pupils while undermining episcopal authority at every turn.

The bishops, then, have stepped out with imperfect information into the heart of an agenda for revolutionary reform that cuts across much of what they have said before. For now we must applaud and encourage. Archbishop Nichols and Archbishop Smith are leading the Church from the gloom of Gordon Brown’s Labour into the light of a rich encounter with the detail of policy, politics, and competing principles and priorities. This audacious move ahead of the pack may stand them in good stead to unlock the potential buried in many Catholic hands, minds and hearts. Whether they can pull it off, and what influence they will have to enhance the common good by being first movers, only time will tell.

Francis Davis advises senior Westminster politicians and county council leaders and is an Associate of the Oxford University Centre on Mutual Enterprises

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