It's a brave move by the Bishops to speak out in a way that is hardly going to get much popular support - the benefits cap is likely to be a popular policy out in middle England. And why not? If Bishops don't speak on behalf of those who no-one else cares about, then who will?
But are they actually right?
What the 18 are actually proposing is more subtle and constructive than it might at first appear, something that will elude the commentators who this week will inevitably castigate the Bishops for bleeding-heart liberalism. In fact they are not opposing the cap as such, but John Packer, Bishop of Ripon & Leeds, has tabled five amendments which aim reduce the impact of the cap on families. Bishop Tim explains that they are looking to make a positive contribution to the debate, rather than just flatly oppose the policy.
All that said, and it's rather awkward, but I'm still finding it hard to agree with the Bishops here. My first and least charitable thought is that it's a shame they don't feel the same moral obligation when considering the stipends of their Diocesan clergy. Many clergy families, struggling to subsist on the stipend as a single income, would welcome the kind of income levels and generous support for children that the Bishops are proposing. But even setting that grumble aside, this feels to me like a case where the obvious argument is actually the right one. Or, to put it the other way round, speaking out for the minority argument, even in a nuanced and positive way, doesn't actually make you right.
The Government's argument all along has been that £500 a week (untaxed) is actually a pretty fair income and the state should not be subsidising above-average living standards. It's actually very difficult to argue with that. It may not look very much to the high-profile critics of Government reform, most of whom are scraping by on Politician's or Journalist's salaries, but most people would be quite happy with that kind of income. This capped benefit level would still place a family squarely within the mid-range of UK income levels; it's not really the poverty line. It's absolutely true that you can't live in central London or Bath on such an income, but as a Government spokesman rather wearily points out in the response to the Bishops, neither can most working people, which is rather the point. The Government does not want to pay to keep families in houses which are beyond their means to live in. (This, incidentally, seems remarkably similar to most Dioceses' policy on clergy housing).
It seems to be the received wisdom now that anyone who is concerned about poverty must attack the Government's benefit reforms. Perhaps the Bishops should step back and think whether this is really the answer. The benefit cap, after all, will only affect a small minority of families - most families on benefits, and a good number who are earning, are a long way below the £500 a week, in the depths of real poverty. And if we're concerned about housing for the poor, try this for an alternative criticism of current policy:
Today David Cameron will announce that the Government will be reviving the "right to buy" by increasing the discounts available to tenants buying their council houses to up to 50%. With alchemical genius, they claim that this will not reduce the amount of social housing because every one sold will be replaced. Exactly how a new house can be built for only half the value of the old one has not yet been made clear. What seems more likely is that this will simply perpetuate the reduction of the UK's once-excellent council housing stock into a tiny rump of undesirable and decrepit properties for those who have reached rock bottom, a trend for which "right to buy" has been largely responsible. If we are concerned about housing for poor families, this is where we ought to be working. Instead of trying to prop up Housing Benefit, which pours vast sums of public cash straight into the pockets of private landlords, let's campaign for a massive renewal of social housing, proper housing which provides families on low incomes with a decent home at an affordable rent.
Any Bishops out there like to take up the challenge?