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The Catholic Church was right not to join critics of Iain Duncan Smith’s benefit reforms

When Church leaders proclaim on matters of government policy they run the risk of coming unstuck

By on Thursday, 4 April 2013

Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith

Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith

It came as a relief to find that the Catholic Church wasn’t one of the churches lining up to attack the Government’s welfare reforms. Not that I think the Church doesn’t have a perfect right to opine about politics in principle: I mean, we’re all in favour of the preferential option for the poor, on good Gospel grounds. Politics is the stuff of life and the business of Christians. But it’s quite another matter to get stuck into the details of Government policy – you risk being partisan,
or just wrong.

The two cases in point were the combined criticism of Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith by the CofE, the United Reformed Church, Methodists and Baptists the other week and the letter from 43 Anglican bishops before Easter attacking the proposal to cap welfare payments to one per cent. Naturally, the church people made a great deal of noise. But I’m not sure they were right.
The problem about the one per cent cap in rises in benefits is that it’s significantly less than the rate of inflation; if prices were going up by just one per cent a year, there wouldn’t be a problem. So why not criticise the Coalition for high inflation as a burden on the poorest instead? Inflation is, in fact, the logical consequence of one of the main planks of the Government’s policy, otherwise known as quantitative easing – a title so boring, it means the subject is never really debated.

It’s the digital version of printing lots more money, and one effect is to keep interest rates low, which reduces the value of Government debt, and another is to keep inflation higher than it would be otherwise. No one, including Justin Welby, has considered church action on quantitative easing, but if the bishops have the interests of the poor at heart, they should consider lobbying the new governor of the Bank of England, the Catholic Mark Carney, to keep inflation low, rather than raising asset prices for the rich.

Incidentally, it’s not just welfare claimants who are getting the one per cent rise; private and public sector workers are, too. Another contentious element of the reforms are the changes to housing benefit. My own rent from my private landlord doubled last year, so I am a bit sour on the subject of other people having their rent paid by the taxpayer, but perhaps we should consider why it is that rents are so high in the first place, and that means looking at the demand side. One reason why there is such pressure on rents and house prices, especially in London where I live, is that lots of people have come to live in Britain from abroad. During the 10 years between 2001 and 2011, for instance, 3.8 million people came to live in Britain, mostly from outside the EU, and those are the ones we know about. There are anything up to a million people here illegally over and above that.

Of course, many of these immigrants have added enormously to British society in all manner of ways; it’s hard to know where our churches would be without them – certainly, they’d be less full.
But the fact remains that if you have four million people, and possibly five, coming to live in Britain in a mere decade, and with the same rate since – it has only started to slow this year – then of course they’ll need somewhere to live and of course the effect will be to push prices up. And lest this sounds like an attack on poor immigrants, I may say that at the better end of the housing market, Russian billionaires and Saudi princes and Greek tax exiles have dominated purchases in entire neighbourhoods in the parts of London where the middle classes used to be able to buy homes.

Yet has anyone heard a single church person complaining about immigration, even though clergy are perhaps better placed than anyone to see its effects on their own communities? The kind of large-scale immigration that took place under Labour was emphatically in the interests of employers, who could pay lower wages, and of landlords, who benefited from the upsurge in demand for homes, but the one group it didn’t benefit was working-class Brits. Yet the only time I recall the Church sounding off about immigration was to call for an amnesty for illegal immigrants, a disastrous policy which would have the effect of rewarding people traffickers at the expense of the scrupulous.

Now, as it happens I don’t expect the Church to complain about immigration, nor indeed about quantitative easing. I’m just making the point that if the welfare of the poor is your concern, it would be possible and consistent to take a completely opposite stance on these issues to those the bishops normally take. Economics is complicated; so is politics. It’s not an argument for not getting involved, just for taking a broad and sweeping approach to matters of principle rather than trying to micro-manage poor Iain Duncan Smith’s reforms.

It can’t be said I’ve actually read Diarmaid MacCulloch’s new book, Silence; a Christian History, for want of time, but I have skimmed it. And one thing I find he never quite dwells on is the actual practice of silence as in meditative, willed silence. Strange, because Prof MacCulloch is pleasingly talkative himself – though not half as much as I am – and would have some interesting things to say about the difficulties. Personally, I can never go on a quiet retreat without mentally making lists of all the things I ought to be doing once I’m back in business; silence rarely equates to proper meditation. I need monastic help with this one.

In fact, I find not talking much harder than not eating. Perhaps silence could be a new penitential practice for the laity for Lent. Given a toss-up between giving up sweets and giving up talking for minutes on end, I’ll pass on the chocolate.

Melanie McDonagh is a journalist and leader writer for the Evening Standard

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald, dated April 5 2013

  • http://adrianhilton.com Adrian Hilton

    Sorry to scupper your ‘relief’, but the Roman Catholic Church *did* join in the general chorus of disapproval. Archbishop Peter Smith wrote on behalf of the Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales:

    “Protecting vulnerable members of our society is a key precept of Catholic Social Teaching and our witness to the human dignity of each and every individual. It is unjustifiable that the poorest children, who often have no other safety net, will be left bearing the brunt of economic difficulties as a result of significant real-term cuts to social security.

    “Such critical hardship risks permanently damaging children’s life chances. It must not be exacerbated by capping increases in child-related benefits to 1%, at a time when the price of necessities such as food and heating are rising considerably faster. The poorest families should not be forced to carry the risk of inflation rises.”

    Which is basically what the Bishops of the Church of England and other church leaders were saying..

    http://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/news-views/press-release/archbishops-and-bishops-unite-charity-child-poverty-call

  • anon

    McDonagh is ‘ a bit sour on the subject of other people having their rent paid by the
    tax payer ‘- It has been suggested that IDS tries living on £53 a week for one year (accounting for the Housing Benefit shortfall ), perhaps the journalist would care to join him?
    I am certain that a freezing winter in a bedsit far from home would dampen down her current resentment.

    During the summer, a short reflection on the life of St Maria Goretti may help in considering the fate of young people now obliged to stay in multi-occupancy housing.

  • Simon Platt

    One other reason rents are so high, as any honest and competent economist would admit, is because housing benefit increases the supply of money available to pay rents, in just the same way that “quantitative easing” causes general inflation. It’s a subsidy to landlords.

  • Mitsy

    Lay Catholics are often the ones that go out to the streets of London at night to feed the homeless…Also lay Catholics, especially in the North and Scotland are being hit by the bedroom tax and other cuts. .IDS is a disgrace and a hypocrite of the highest order.

  • Mitsy

    It will mean people will need more housing benefit to pay rent if they have to move…It is the landlords that are getting rich from the tax payer not the benefit claimant. And what IDS, along with his collegues is doing to the disabled and sick is frightening…And this articule is extremely patronising about Catholics, especially the bit about silence..

  • la catholic state

    But do the Tories ever talk about cutting taxes?! We should have a low taxation system….whereby families are empowered and can fund their own community based schools and hospitals (im thinking of Catholic ones in particular).
    But we never hear about letting people keep their tax instead of passing so much of it onto Government for inept, state controlled institutions. Even the Tories are socialist in this.

  • mickfealty

    Melanie,

    You started well here, then leapt over the bleedin obvious…

    “we should consider why it is that rents are so high in the first place, and that means looking at the demand side…”

    My experience of the rented sector is that the British, like we Irish did until a couple of years ago, look upon housing as a profitable commodity rather than a place to live.

    Immigration no doubt is contributory, but you also keep prices up by keeping the product in short supply. Within that pattern you have fewer first time buyers and more buyers to let (since they are increasingly the only ones able to reach the bottom rung of the ladder).

    The Tories are ignoring the problem just as Labour was never able to crack a general inertia in the market and the nicely profitable housing shortage.

    As you know, it all changed utterly in Ireland when, suddenly, we discovered we’d developed a massive glut, whilst under the hallucinatory influence of the Celtic Tiger. Gerard O’Neill wrote a few years back (http://goo.gl/EAaTS):

    “The appetite for ownership is a function of scarcity: when ownership is effectively the only guarantee of access to the benefits of a particular good or service then other arrangements are grossly inferior. But when the supply of something becomes abundant – even excessive relative to underlying demand – then ownership becomes unnecessary.”

    Britain’s adulation of property ownership (as flight from class) is the result of a relatively recent set of policy shifts (selling of council houses, and transformation of hyperlocal mutuals into casino banks).

    It’s a self replicating dynamic, and exacerbates the engorging of London and the SE with people, wealth and resources, leaving the rest of the UK a largely unloved and unwanted appendage.

    I agree with you that it is not the church’s role to mix it with Government. Some of IDS’s intentions here were highly progressive. It’s too easy to shoot just because his party has never shown much interest in the likes of social justice.

    But if IDS is trying to do the right thing, he’s getting no help from the Chancellor who’s only response on housing has been to pump more sub prime cash into first time buyers or more likely buy to renters, pushing prices up further and exacerbating the problem even further.

    Then consider this. The cost of benefits is still rising, even as the number of people on them is dropping. And it is set to do so even as unemployment drops and people go back to work. Flip Chart Fairy Tales (http://goo.gl/W24fl)

    “The OBR predicts that the benefits bill will continue to rise even after the economy begins to recover. It’s not benefits for the unemployed that is driving this though. As the DWP/HMRC graph above shows, pensions continue to rise and the cost of tax credits stays stubbornly constant. This suggests that, even with a growing economy, there will  still be a need to support the incomes of those in low wage employment from public funds.

    “So for all the talk of feckless scroungers pushing up the benefits bill, the figures indicate that payments to pensioners and those in work are behind much of the increase.”

    So the state has to subsidise high rents for those in low paid employment. Your landlord is doubling his rent because you don’t have much choice.

    He may be doing it just because he can. Or because he wants to get you to pay for the rising cost of new acquisitions. Whichever, Houston, we most certainly have a problem. And most of it is on the supply side.

  • John Prangley

    Rent controls, an insistence by government that firms pay the minimum wage and that the rich pay fair taxes would solve most of our problems. LAndlords have been allowed to raise rents so that the state pays huge amounts in housing benefit. By not insisting on the minimum wage the state is miked again as it has to pay benefits to the working poor.

    Melanie’s and IDS’ complacency in seeing children fall into deeper poverty is sad to see. Catholic social teaching is indeed a neglected treasure.and worse is the refusal to look at the detail of suffering being inflicted.

  • mickfealty

    Yes John. That could be part of the solution. But scarcity and falsely high value of the market is the biggest problem. Worth noting that the measures on the so called bedroom tax will cost rather than raise money in Northern Ireland where the private market is not over heated like it is in London.

  • anon
  • leo

    Iain Duncan Smith to live on £53 a week for one year petition on http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions

    Only 400,000 signatories,so far…

  • $40858710

    Bishops? Bishops? What’s this about ‘Anglican bishops’? This is a Catholic newspaper. You could not have got off this in the good old days.

    Not living in social housing myself and rarely watching the news, I have not followed this story at all, so I can’t tell you anything about it. What follows is an opinion on the general ideas, not on this one incident.

    I think Miss MacDonagh makes a severe blunder. Of course it is the place of the Church to ‘meddle’ as I suppose the liberals would have it, in politics. The opposite view was condemned in the Syllabus of Errors of Pope Pius IX.

    It is not deplorable that the Church is involving itself in politics – remember, as Fr. Denis Fahey (he of Maria Duce) said, the Church must not conform or adapt to the world but the world to the Church.

    However, the Church has a plainly defined social teaching (vide Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno) which Catholics are obliged to follow. What IS deplorable is the fact that many priests – and Bishops – of the Modernist persuasion abandon Catholic social teaching and careen into Socialism (usually under the specious disguise of ‘justice and peace’), which has been condemned many times, when they do involve themselves in politics!

  • http://twitter.com/Ranmore Ranmore

    The current housing shortage plays into the hands of private landlords – and we can blame this on the poor provision of social housing.

  • http://twitter.com/Ranmore Ranmore

    If the Church has so much time and energy to put into its campaign against secular same-sex marriage between non-Catholics you would have thought it could spare a little to express concern about how the poorest in our society are going to be affected by these changes in a time of severe unemployment.

  • Dr Falk

    Sometimes the Church should follow and adapt to the world. The 1861 Italian goverment rightly abolished the horrendous practice of castrati – a practice supported and blessed by the highest authorities in the Church. Pope St Pius X got rid of it finally in 1903 – 40 years after the world. The world ( the goverment ) was right when the church was wrong in blessing and supporting this institutional abuse of children for years.

    if the world should adapt to the Church what happens when the Church is wrong such as in the Galileo case – is the world to follow in the wrong teaching too?

  • Brian

    There is and remains one central flaw to the benefit system, to the economic policies of the day and to the impact of immigration and that is jobs! The lack of. When you are struggling to cope because you have a family that you want to care for and you DON’T have access to work unfortunately you are dependent on the state. Most benefits are paid to working people who don’t earn enough to cope.Pity this article wasn’t better researched.Quantitive easing easing won’t be discussed because it exposes the hole in the economic policy ie lack of growth.So take a few billion invest in house build and our public services and get the economy moving. It will be a few billion the real rogues,bankers,won’t be able to get their hands on it and we won’t notice it.Then say to those scamming the system your only choice is work. So should the church comment on Iain Duncan Smith ? Yes from the rooftops loudly ,he has made a cynical attack on the poor and without jobs positively destructive.Pity there wasn’t more shouting about bankers and the second homes of MP’s for which we pay!

  • Dr Falk

    Thank you for this.

  • RuariJM

    THAT hits the nail on the head.

    While I believe it was right for the Government of 30 years ago to give long-term public sector tenants the right to buy their own homes, I am firmly of the opinion that it was absolutely WRONG to prevent local authorities building new public housing stock.

    The policy of deliberately strangling the public sector has helped no-one. House prices are way, way above their long-term average, which means there will be an adjustment sometime – and the longer it is delayed (by measures such as the recently-announced ‘help for housing’), the worse it will be and the more people will suffer. Landlords as well as ordinary people struggling on mortgages.

    Rents in the private sector are artificially high, because of an artificially-imposed shortage.

    Rather than give ‘help for purchase’ – which only compounds the problem – the government would allow local authorities to engage in rebuilding, and join in itself. As well as easing the housing shortage, it wll help stimulate the economy as well.

  • RuariJM

    Don’t worry. The supply of silly bandwagon-jumpers is pretty close to inexhaustible. I expect the total of self-proclaimed herd-following buffoons to continue to increase.

  • RuariJM

    Don’t worry. The supply of silly bandwagon-jumpers is pretty close to inexhaustible. I expect the total of self-proclaimed herd-following buffoons to continue to increase.

  • anon

    responding to Dom’s petition, because ” ‘ we are all in this together ‘ ”
    464,918 supporters and rising!

  • James M

    The bishops ought to keep to what they are ordained to do, and leave economics to Catholic economists & politics to Catholic politicians. If they paid more attention to the work their priesthood & episcopal graces fit them for, we might have Catholics who can be left to work on economics & politics as Catholics. For bishops to barge in on the mission of the laity all the time, rather than provide what God gives only through the bishops, simply leads to aborting the mission of the laity, and to a sickly Church.

  • James M

    Interesting to see Your Grace here LOL

  • paulpriest

    You ought to be ashamed of yourself…

  • Bellarmine

    And the people getting rich off the benefits are the multiple landlords, most of them Tories, who charge exorbitant rents. They are able to do so because the Tories sold off council houses, forbade councils to invest the money in building more, and then encouraged low wages. Of course the Church should step in and criticise. Thank God for the church of England and the “Faith in the City” report.

  • gaffers

    Im not proud that we havent criticised this policy, however made a huge fuss over same sex marriage. Once again the Catholic church comes across and sex obsessed while children are forced into poverty throughout the UK

  • $46579571

    The Catholic Church strives to be above party politics; if only the Catholic Herald did !