Sunday, 23 February 2014

Getting back to the purpose of welfare

This last week has seen quite a lot of activity about welfare with comments on the affects the changes are having on the poorest in our country.  First, the now Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster challenged what he called punitive changes removing safety nets and causing difficulties.  He was joined on Thursday by 27 Church ofEngland Bishops signing a letter making a similar challenge.  By chance these coincided with the Christian think-tank Theos publishing a collection of thoughtful essays on the future of welfare, written by men and women covering a broad spectrum of thought and perspective.  It provided an opportunity to go back to the beginning and look at what welfare is for and what its basis is.  It’s only when we have that clear that we can think about how it should be shaped; put the pounds and conditions in place.

Welfare is a toxic subject.    There is broad agreement on three aims: to get the cost down so that it is affordable and sustainable, to target the resources so that they meet the need and for it to provide incentives and encouragements to get people working and not breed dependency; to build a sense of connectedness and participation.  This is being referred to as the welfare trilemma and getting all three sorted is proving to be an intractable problem.

Our interest in this as a church comes from the first pages of the bible and everything that follows.  We heard this as our first reading (Genesis 1:1-2:3).  Human beings are created in the image of God.  That gives us all a fundamental dignity.  We are made for friendship, participation and interdependence and this is to be reflected in how we live in community.  Human beings are persons in community, they do not stand alone.  This means that we belong to one another and when we make moral decisions we are exercising responsibility for ourselves and for others.  Concern for the welfare of all creation is hardwired into who we are.

It is not long before the biblical writers bring in concepts of justice.  This is defined as how we provide and share the basics for life, how we enable everyone to contribute to and participate in our communal and political life so that the fundamental dignity is respected and honoured, enabled to flourish.  This is the ‘why’ of welfare and there is a need to restate it so that we are clear about it.  The ‘how’ is much more problematic and we are in a very different place to where we were when the welfare state was invented in 1940s.

In the collection of essays from Theos, the Labour MP, Frank Field, widely recognized as an expert in this area, points out that for 50 of the last 64 years there has been a budget deficit.  This is not a recent thing.  This deficit has arisen because successive governments have promised more than they could pay for.  This has created expectations that are now difficult to change.  We also live with the fantasy that we can have what taxes fund and yet long for lower and lower taxes.  The two don’t fit together.  Any transition in what we provide for – be it pensions, unemployment or for the sick – has to be carefully managed and where I agree with the bishops is that there are large gaps down which many seem to be falling.  That said, I also welcome the Bishop of Truro chairing an investigation into the rise of foodbanks and their use.  In short, how much is new hunger and how much is hunger we’ve just not addressed previously.  Five thousand people being admitted to hospital in this last year for malnutrition, which was reported this week, is a worrying development.  I know teachers who have added breakfast cereal to their weekly shop for years so that they could feed hungry students before beginning to teach them.  That is not new.  But we need good evidence so we can assess the extent to which we are now seeing a new scale, which seems to be the case.

Our General Synod debated welfare and the cuts being brought in through austerity last year in July 2013.  The background report for this debate offered three principles to judge or test our direction of travel in this:
  • ·      Is it fair? Does it look after the vulnerable;
  • ·      Is it generous? Does it embody our obligation to share our resources with the less well off;
  • ·      Is it sustainable? What are the medium and long-term implications of what is being proposed?

These remain good questions and ones to keep in front of us.  Cutting the costs is not the only test for welfare reform, but it’s not irrelevant either.

We are a rich country.  It is a shame on us that so many people are calling on foodbanks for emergency help.  The stories are repeated: benefits failures, low pay and debt, along with unexpected changes in circumstances.  There are injustices in the system and some of the fixes for old ones are producing new problems.  What we need is a new Beveridge or cross party, multiple agency commission to go back to the beginning and start again with welfare.  It has to be fair, it has to be sustainable and it has to encourage participation.  This should not be an insurmountable problem.  With the will the way will follow.  I actually think deep down that our elected politicians, when they stop posturing and scapegoating, care enough to sort this.  It is worth us all reminding them that it matters to do so because the basis for it comes from page 1 of the bible.

Our Gospel reading this morning doesn’t look very helpful at first (Matthew 6:25-end).  It shows that there are dangers in taking passages out of context.  The point of it is to trust God and the God of the Bible we are to trust requires justice, compassion and dignity.  So it does not offer any easy release from the obligations.  However it also asks what we really need and that is an important question when assessing the levels that welfare should be set at if it is to be just.

Welfare is a broad term.  It covers pensions, sick pay, health care and the safety net for those without work and those unable to work.  This all comes under the umbrella of ensuring fair access to sustenance and the basics for life.  But the basics of life are more than food and shelter.  We are persons in community and so access to participating in the community is also an important part of welfare and was in the minds of the original architects of the welfare state which is also the state’s welfare.  Handouts should foster connections between us too, otherwise alienation follows and that is destructive.

This is not a blue print of a new welfare scheme (the how), detailing what should be provided and what should not, but I have found myself being taken back to the foundations on which welfare provision is built (the why).  That takes me back to the first pages of the bible.  God made us in his image and we reflect that in fairness, justice, compassion and when we participate in the communal bonds that connect us.  For welfare to be welfare it must reflect and foster those.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 23rd February 2014

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