The shrinking welfare state: how can churches respond?

434Nick Waterfield, chair of our local group in Sheffield, shares some thoughts on a recent event in South Yorkshire. (This post originally appeared on Nick’s ‘Pioneer Thoughts’ blog.)

On Saturday I attended an event called ‘The Shrinking Welfare State’ organised by CTSY (Churches Together in South Yorkshire). Presentations gave us an up-to-date overview of how government policy had already affected many of the most vulnerable in our society, and at the same time had systematically reduced and eroded social housing and social housing tenants in particular. These include the latest provisions around:

  • Pay to Stay. Forcing social tenants with a household income over £30,000 to pay higher ‘market’ rents than their neighbours.
  • An end to lifetime Secure Tenancies. Tenancies will instead be limited to between two and five years, creating a more transitory feel to communities with high proportions of social housing.
  • Enforced sales of “higher value” council properties, with the monies from this being used to fund the Government’s right-to-buy schemes for social housing.

We also heard about the further plans put forward by this Government to cut the ‘welfare budget’ by an additional £12 billion in the name of austerity, plans that include:

  • Further reductions to the ‘benefit cap’
  • Full roll-out of Universal Credit
  • Removal of Family Premiums on Housing Benefit
  • Changes to Pension Credits
  • Limitations on the backdating of unclaimed Housing Benefit
  • Benefit sanctions for parents of young children for failing to adequately prepare for a return to work

All in all, the picture painted was pretty  depressing.

In response to all this ‘bad news’, we then heard from Ian Rutherford of the Yorkshire JPIT (Joint Public Issues Team) who talked about the important research and campaign work they had been doing.  Ian posed for us the question “So where is God in all this?”

JPIT has discerned the need to focus on four things in response to austerity and shrinking of the welfare state:

  1. Tell the truth about poverty.
  2. Express our faith (through food banks etc)
  3. Rethink sanctions
  4. Reinforce our shared responsibilities

Jesus, commented Ian, said “The poor will always be with you…” Jesus didn’t go on to say  “… so that’s OK then.” Although we are living through a time when the post-war Welfare State is under serious threat of reduction or complete dismantling, it does not give Christians permission to stand idly by and watch. JPIT’s publication Enough (2015) concludes by quoting Archbishop William Temple who, speaking in 1942, said of the Beveridge Report, the founding document of today’s welfare state :

“This is the first time anybody had set out to embody the whole spirit of the Christian ethic in an Act of Parliament”.

Temple said it, not because of the details of how the system was to be operated, nor because benefits provided were set at a particular rate, but because of the principles which underpinned it. Under the system that was envisaged, everyone should have enough to develop to their full potential, and be able to do so within communities which provide everyone with the necessary security and opportunity.

In the discussions that followed these presentations, we followed some very interesting and thought-provoking lines. Although I can’t possibly do justice to everything we touched upon, here’s a summary of some of the points made.

  • The Church has echoed neo-liberal ‘individualism’ for too long, at the expense of the ‘collective’. The ‘Body of Christ’ is a collective expression and does not allow us to live out a purely individual focus to our faith – or to use the language of Methodism, ‘there is no Holiness but Social Holiness’.
  • There is perhaps a need to understand and accept that the post-war consensus around the ‘Beveridge Settlement’ has been broken by the neo-liberalism that took root in the UK after 1979.  We perhaps therefore need to move beyond fighting merely defensive battles, and instead move towards developing a new vision, based again on a collective consensus, and that we as Christians could help lead a path towards this as Temple had done in the 1940s. It perhaps is time for a paradigm shift.
  • If indeed a ‘New Settlement’ is to be found, based around collective, communitarian and (we would hope) foundational Christian values – we should not necessarily expect that change quickly. We were reminded it was 100 years from the Rochdale Pioneers to the post-war Welfare State.
  • One final thought: the great Methodist Evangelical Revival brought about and was part of massive social change, and its by-products included the growth of working-class organisation. Maybe Revival of the church (of Methodism even) in the 21st Century is likewise linked to developing new ways of being and doing, ways that will in turn lead to a New Settlement  with compassion, fairness, inter-dependency, community and collectivity at its heart.

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