Archbishop Nichols Sparks Debate Over Welfare Reform in the UK

As Archbishop Nichols prepared to take off for Rome to receive his red hat he came out politically last week with a vengeance (having over the years been admirably discreet about his political attitudes), with an attack on his fellow Catholic Iain Duncan Smith’s policy on welfare reform—a policy whose alleged effects he described as “ a disgrace.” Now, there’s nothing wrong with a Catholic bishop going against the grain of public opinion, if there’s a moral case for him to do so. But he might have reflected that there could be a good reason (rather than a bad and merely populist reason) why the government’s policy on benefits reform has the overwhelming support of public opinion.

Speaking from the heart is one thing. But social and economic policy is a complex area; and he did acknowledge that “the need to reduce spending on benefits is widely accepted.” In a press conference a few days later, he seemed to row back from his attack: “I didn’t say the Government’s policies were a disgrace,” he said. “I said the fact of people left for weeks on end without any support, and having to have recourse to food banks in a country as affluent as ours, was a disgrace.” He also acknowledged that the welfare system had been in need of reform. What he had actually said in his Telegraph interview was this:

I think what is happening is two things: one is that the basic safety net that was there to guarantee that people would not be left in hunger or in destitution has actually been torn apart.

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It no longer exists and that is a real, real dramatic crisis.

And the second is that, in this context, the administration of social assistance, I am told, has become more and more punitive.

So if applicants don’t get it right then they have to wait for 10 days, for two weeks with nothing—with nothing.

For a country of our affluence, that quite frankly is a disgrace.

“I am told,” he says. “I am told.” By whom, exactly? Who is the source of this information? What is happening is “punitive,” he says: in other words, the government is PUNISHING the poor. The safety net for the poor has “actually been torn apart,” he says. “It no longer exists.” (My emphasis.)

But it DOES exist, it massively and demonstrably still exists and will not cease to exist under this or any other government. I am not, as my readers know very well by now, an enthusiastic supporter of this government or of the Conservative party. But even this government has had its ministerial success stories: one of them is Michael Gove and the other most emphatically is Iain Duncan Smith (who founded, remember, the widely respected Centre for Social Justice, and who cares as much—and probably knows more—about the poor as Cardinal Nichols does). Before sounding off, did our new Cardinal pick up the phone and ask to speak to HIM about all this? The answer is, undoubtedly, that he didn’t. It has to be said that to accuse Iain Duncan Smith of tearing apart the safety net for the poor is not only ill-informed, it is a gross injustice.

The traditional “source close to” Iain Duncan Smith (in other words Iain Duncan Smith himself) replied that “the Archbishop seemed to be ‘ill informed’ ”:

He’s entitled to his own opinion but there are some parts where he is just wrong. It is nonsense to say that the safety net has been eroded when we spend £94 billion on working age benefits every year.

There is no evidence of a link between welfare reform and increased use of food banks. The idea that we stop people’s benefits because they get the paperwork wrong is mad.

Sanctions are in place for a very good reason—if people claim benefits, but don’t play their part in trying to get a job, there should be consequences. I would think that as a churchman he would be supportive of … transforming a cruel and bloated system that often trapped people in poverty on benefits to improve people’s life chances.

But on the subject of the terrible spiritual imprisonment of welfare dependency, the Catholic Church in this country, including our new cardinal, is now, and ever has been, totally silent. The Centre for Social Justice rightly concludes, in its eloquently entitled report Signed on, Written Off, that “Economic dependency and worklessness are amongst the most destructive forces in our society. Wherever long-term worklessness is found, so too is social breakdown. Successive governments have failed for decades to tackle a chaotic welfare system that has trapped generations of people in poverty and left them unable to realize their potential.”

The report also tells us that the number of people in the UK who are dependent on at least one out-of-work benefit rose slightly during the recession but has hovered between four and five million for more than 15 years; and that 25 percent of local authorities actually saw working-age dependency on benefits rise during the economic boom.

What has the English Catholic Church ever said about that? What about the imprisonment in a state of absolute personal hopelessness, suffered by somewhere between four and five million people whom Iain Duncan Smith is actually now doing something to help: what about THAT, your eminence? And do you not think that this good man deserves something better from the leader of his own Church than ill-informed abuse?

When Benedict Brogan interviewed the archbishop last week, “he made a point of admitting that a briefing from ministers on the ‘complexities’ of what the Government is trying to do might come in handy.” It might have “come in handy” before he launched his attack: but he didn’t ask for one. Brogan comments that “Something tells me he won’t have long to wait” for an invitation to such a briefing.

When he gets back from Rome, he would be wise to accept it if it comes: and to ask for one if it doesn’t.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared February 21, 2014 in the Catholic Herald of London and is reprinted with permission. Pictured above is Work and Pensions Secretary and former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith.


  • Dr. William Oddie

    Dr. William Oddie is a leading English Catholic writer and broadcaster. He edited The Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004 and is the author of The Roman Option and Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy.

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