The Norfolk and Norwich Christian community website

Welfare reforms: a matter of politics or faith?

IainDuncanSmithJune2007Rev Mark Fairweather Tall reflects on the recent changes to tax and welfare benefits introduced by Iain Duncan Smith and asks whether we should assess these changes to be fair or unfair based on our understanding of the Christian faith.

On April 1st a series of measures were introduced in a radical overhaul of the welfare state. Unsurprisingly, it has caused great debate with feelings running high on both sides of the argument.

Whilst the government hopes that the changes will initiate dramatic savings that will run into billions of pounds, they state a different principle behind the changes. Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary (pictured right), who is responsible for the policy says the aim is: “to get control of the welfare bill and make sure it lowers in a way that we can be as fair as possible – without actually slashing or attacking people but trying to reform it and change it.” 

Others see it very differently.  Speaking on the Today programme, Liam Byrne, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: “Today is a day of big winners and big losers – you’ve got millionaires who are getting a whopping great tax cut of £100,000 per year and everyone else is taking a hit to tax credits. We think that basic strategy is unfair.” So are the changes fair or unfair? How do you come to a conclusion? Is this just a matter of your political persuasion or should we seek to bring our faith and Scripture into the whole argument?

Let me nail my colours to the mast straight away – I believe that Christians should seek to apply their faith to all aspects of life and therefore welfare reforms are not simply a matter of politics. However, it is important to acknowledge two provisos before going any further. Firstly, it is difficult to be sure that it is faith influencing your political and economic viewpoint and not the other way around. You can decide whether or not I achieve this.

Secondly, there is no definitive passage of Scripture that tells us clearly what to think about these welfare reforms. That means it is possible for very sincere and committed Christians to strongly disagree with one another. So, bearing all this in mind let me share some thoughts that shape my understanding, based, I hope, on my faith...

The importance of work
In the book of Genesis we read how God created the world and that on the seventh day he finished his work and rested. We should note that God is described as ‘working’ and we are made in God’s image. Furthermore, when God created man it was intended that he was not idle but productive: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15)

The New Testament builds on the ethos of work: one example of this is as Paul challenges the people in his letter to the Thessalonians with these words: “We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:11-12) We can conclude that there is a Biblical principle: If you can work, you should do so.  

I believe Iain Duncan Smith has worked very hard to look at the welfare system and has genuinely seen a number of failings of the previous system. The complexities of the list of benefits and tax credits can add significantly and unnecessarily to the cost of administration. It seems to me that it is a good principle to seek to encourage people to work by ensuring that they are better off ‘in work’ than if they were ‘out of work’ and on benefits.

Work has many plusses apart from the obvious financial remuneration. Those in work tend to have a higher sense of self-worth and also enjoy greater social interaction. Any system where people are put off from working because they cannot afford to is ripe for change. And as a Christian I can support that.

However, there has been a worrying rhetoric alongside these changes that have been highlighted in the report ‘Truth and Lies about Poverty’ commissioned by the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church. (You can download the report here.) Certain sections of the media and the government are very happy to give the impression that it is typical that those on benefits are idle and that their life of leisure is supported by those who are working hard.

Let me give you an example from the Daily Mail headline published on 3rd April. It read: “Vile product of Welfare UK” Below was a picture of Mick Philpott (the man found guilty of starting a fire that killed six of his children) with some of his family. The article explained how he had ‘milked the benefit system’ to earn £60,000 a year. George Osborne added fuel to the fire by suggesting that there are questions over whether the state should subsidise the lifestyle of such people.

Last year, David Cameron spoke about the huge resentment the welfare system causes for hardworking taxpayers and in one speech said: “Quite simply, we have been encouraging working-age people to have children and not work, when we should be enabling working-age people to work and have children.” 

A concern for the poor
Of course, there are examples of people for whom this is true but there seems to be an agenda to suggest that this is the majority. The cynic in me suggests that to do so makes it easier to justify the cuts. The report ‘Truth and Lies about Poverty’ tells us that the majority of children in poverty are from working households and that ‘in work’ poverty is now more common than ‘out of work’ poverty.

Foodbank, the Christian charity that seeks to provide emergency food for those who would otherwise go hungry, expects the welfare changes to lead to an increase in demand. Estimates suggest 300,000 will be fed in this financial year, double that of the previous year. In the light of such figures, is it not right to question whether the below-inflation cap on working-age benefits and tax credits of 1% is justifiable?

Some estimate that two million low income households will pay more as a result of changes to council tax benefit - is this fair? At a time when budgets are already stretched, such changes can have a major effect. All this takes place at a time when costs of food, heating and housing are all rising. Over 100,000 children have been fed by UK Foodbanks in the last 11 months and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has raised concern that these reforms could lead to another 200,000 youngsters being displaced into food poverty.

At the same time as the squeezing of the income of the poorest, high earners will see their rate of tax reduced on earnings over £100,000 from 50p to 45p. The rich become richer whilst the poor become poorer. Of course, the economic argument for this tax cut is that the boost to the entrepreneur will mean that they will invest more heavily, creating more jobs and ultimately making everyone more wealthy.

In both the Old and the New Testament there is a call for God’s people to take seriously the care for the most vulnerable in society; for them included foreigners, widows and orphans who did not have the means to support themselves. In Deuteronomy 15:11 we read: “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.”  Jesus makes it clear in his teaching the importance of caring for the poor – for one example read Matthew 25:31-46, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.

The question I have is whether these reforms and tax changes are showing enough concern for the poor and the needy? And is there enough concern about the actions of the rich? I would love to hear the government and media speak more about the scandal of tax avoidance. Research from the Tax Justice Network suggests that this costs the UK £69.9 billion a year. A clamp down on this would mean that the poorest do not need to be hit through welfare reforms in the same way.

Wouldn’t it be good to hear the Prime Minister speak about how the hard working tax payer who is taxed at the source of income has huge resentment towards those who avoid tax? And what about the Chancellor highlighting the lifestyles of some of the super-rich whose companies are known to avoid tax and question whether the state should subsidise their living standards?

So as I finish I am left with more questions. Have I failed in my aim not to be political? Have I managed to bring my understanding of faith to the issue? Is it right for Christians to stand up for what they believe on such contentious issues as these? Are there other verses of Scripture that should be brought to light on the issue?

Over to you...What do you think?

Photo: By Flickr user Steve Punter (Iain Duncan Smith MP on Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Rev Mark Fairweather Tall is a Minister of Norwich Central Baptist Church
The views carried here are those of the author, not of Network Norwich and Norfolk, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate between website users. 
We welcome your thoughts and comments, posted below, upon the ideas expressed here. 

Click here to read our forum and comment posting guidelines.

To submit a story or to publicise an event please email: web@networknorwich.co.uk