It is sometimes said that the Church should not get involved in politics. I disagree. Many of the great political questions of our time are also moral questions – we should not be surprised, and nor should we be dismissive, when members of the clergy make their views known.
But neither should political leaders be afraid to respond. Last weekend on these pages [article featured in The Telegraph], the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, offered a critique of this government’s welfare reforms. I respect his view but I also disagree with it deeply.
Archbishop Nichols essentially made 3 points. He suggested that our reforms were based primarily around saving money, that the safety net against hunger and destitution no longer exists, and that our reforms are not working.
Let me address each point in turn.
First, our long-term economic plan for Britain is not just about doing what we can afford, it is also about doing what is right. Nowhere is that more true than in welfare. For me the moral case for welfare reform is every bit as important as making the numbers add up: building a country where people aren’t trapped in a cycle of dependency but are able to get on, stand on their own 2 feet and build a better life for themselves and their family.
Let’s be clear about the welfare system we inherited. It was a system where in too many cases people were paid more to be on benefits than to be in work. A system where people could claim unlimited amounts of housing benefit – in London there were people claiming truly astonishing sums of £60,000, £70,000, £80,000 a year. A system where hundreds of thousands of people were put on Incapacity Benefit and never reassessed, essentially taken off the books and forgotten about. None of these things is defensible. And it is right both economically – and morally – to change them.
The founders of our welfare system believed in the principle of responsibility – and so do we. As I said on the steps of Downing Street on my first night as Prime Minister, “those who can should, those who can’t we will always help”. Those who can’t work will be always supported, but those who can work have the responsibility to do so. The welfare system should never take that responsibility away. Whatever your religious or spiritual perspective, I believe very firmly that it is wrong to penalise those who work hard and do the right thing while rewarding those who can work, but don’t.
Second, Archbishop Nichols’s claims that the basic safety net no longer exists are simply not true. Let’s get the facts straight. Yes, we made the difficult but correct decision that benefits should not go up faster than wages. But the safety net remains in place. If you’re over 25 and looking for work you receive £71.70 a week in Jobseekers’ Allowance – £6.25 a week more than at the last election. If you’re under 25 the figure is £56.80 a week – £4.90 more per week than at the last election.
We are working through everyone who used to be on Incapacity Benefit to see who is capable of work – but those who can’t work will still get the help they need. The safety net remains, too, for Britain’s families – child tax credit for the poorest families has increased by £420.
Third, our welfare reforms are not just right in principle, they are right in practice, too. As well as providing a safety net, a key test of a welfare system is whether it supports people into work.
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The number of workless households is steadily coming down – a quarter of a million more children in our country have a role model who gets up in the morning, goes to work and provides for them. There are more people in work than ever before – 1.3 million more since the last election who are able to count on the security and stability of a regular pay cheque.
Of course, we are in the middle of a long and difficult journey turning our country around. That means difficult decisions to get our deficit down, making sure that the debts of this generation are not our children’s to inherit. But our welfare reforms go beyond that alone: they are about giving new purpose, new opportunity, new hope – and yes, new responsibility to people who had previously been written off with no chance.
Seeing these reforms through is at the heart of our long-term economic plan – and it is at the heart, too, of our social and moral mission in politics today.