Have the Bishops got it right on benefits cap?

18 Church of England Bishops have signed an open letter criticising the Government's proposed cap on benefits. The 18, who all sit in the House of Lords apart from Truro's own Tim Thornton, who is Chair of the trustees of the Children's Society, say they have a "moral obligation" to speak out.

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?


Perpetua said…
Charlie, I agree with every word, especially welcoming your point about social housing. That truly is an area the Bishops could helpfully speak out on.
Claire said…
I think you are right, we definitely need more social housing. Housing is becoming unaffordable.
Anonymous said…
Well, the first two thirds is pretty much what I tweeted yesterday, so I'm with you there!

I think the last bit the most interesting, because, while I agree with you, I don't know how to reverse the (peculiarly Anglo-Saxon??) culture / cult of home ownership which seems to me a bigger issue than simply the social housing one. How can we, bluntly, have good affordable, rentable housing, when home ownership is seen almost as essential to a good life??
Charlie said…
Doug, I'm sure you did tweet most of this before I thought it. AH has no great pretensions to originality :)

Home ownership is always going to be desirable in our economy, but surely the problem is that it is no longer affordable for many? The Government's preferred solution is to get more houses built - that being the case, it seems to make more sense to earmark this new build for social housing - this would not make private ownership cheaper, but it would increase the amount of affordable rented homes.
Anonymous said…
There are so many aspects to this that I don't know were to start.

The problem with capping benefits, is which one do they pick? Housing benefit is paid via councils, tax credits are paid via HMRC and Social Security benefits via the DSS. With cuts already being made to tax credits, housing benefits and children's benefits, the only thing left to cut is the income support given as the basic subsistence allowance for people to live?

I can't actually see any justification for a further cut, whether or not the weekly income is £500, or £600.

I agree that £500 a week appears a substantial amount, but it's not if you're paying high rents. Rents even in social housing are rising to commercial levels. This seems to be a deliberate policy of local government and housing associations to raise commercial rents. This is being done in refurbished properties and as an example the installation of double glazing in social housing near us, resulted in a 15% raise in rents to the occupants, who promptly claimed additional housing benefit.

The vicious circle of reliance on state benefits is only reinforced by such actions.

I can see the argument about the Clergy stipend, particularly living in urban area's with higher living costs, or rural area's where the car is vital, and I believe that Clergy need larger, transport just through the sheer variety of roles they use it for. Clergy with families must be finding it as difficult to manage as those on benefits.

I don't see the provision of rent and rate free accommodation, and assistance with utility fees, where the vicarage is also the Parish Office, as being an excuse for the payment of a lower stipend, but I can see the difficulty of actually paying the 'market value' for the role. It would become simply unaffordable - we struggle to raise parish share as it is.

In my diocese the cost of clergy along with all diocesan support is estimated at £40,686, which is how they worked out the budget. These count in the costs of accommodation, council tax and repairs and maintenance.

In addition, we have a curate, whose costs are borne by diocese, but shared across all parishes. The cost of a curate is probably higher than the Vicar, due to the additional training costs involved with KME, but these costs are not broken down to us in the parish. But our parish share is increased by a further percentage for this and diocesan costs.

I think that the bishops have a moral duty to intervene in these areas, otherwise, I ask the question, what are bishops for? They are the pastors of their dioceses and must know and understand the demographic, if they don't, they shouldn't have been appointed in the first place.

I note a comment in the Daily Mirror today that "The Church of England is no longer the Tory Party at Rest". And about time to!

In the interests of things, I'm a pensioner, not claiming any benefits whatsoever, paying income tax on my pension, paying a mortgage and all other associated costs. This leaves me about £100 a month to survive on. I am comfortable, and surviving. Unexpected bills are an unwelcome surprise, and I have to save to buy anything. Christmas this year will be a thinner one for our grand children, because we aren't able to be as generous as we have been in the past.
Anonymous said…
I only tweeted the opinion: you've supplied the argument. And stuck you head above the parapet if your bishop's reading. I was offering my more timid support!

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