The fact that the prime minister, David Cameron, has felt the need to respond to Cardinal-designate Nichols’s criticisms shows they have stung. But he has made the mistake of responding politically to what was never a political attack.
When the Archbishop of Westminster gave an interview to the Telegraph last Friday, he said that increasing numbers of people were being forced into destitution by the “punitive” ways in which welfare reforms were being implemented. He did not question the reforms themselves, nor the need to reduce spending on benefits. But he criticized as a “disgrace” that in a wealthy country such as the UK more and more people should have recourse to food banks. He said:
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. 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.
The substance of the critique was that the old idea that the very poor should be protected from destitution can no longer be relied on. He never said that welfare had been scrapped or that benefits have ceased to exist. He was pointing out that British people can no longer assume there is a “safety net” to catch the neediest; because of the punitive way benefits are now allocated, it has been “torn apart”. A safety net that has large holes in it is not, obviously, a safety net. In that sense, “it no longer exists”.
When Cardinal-designate Nichols speaks of these matters, he does so as the visible head (as leader of the nation’s principal diocese, and as president of the bishops’ conference of England and Wales) of one of the largest non-state actors in civil society. Through the Church’s parishes, schools and charities, it has its ear close to the ground of virtually every community in Britain — and especially of its poorest, for the Church is disproportionately made up of, and concerned with, the vulnerable in UK society. It speaks with credibility, in this area, not because of any claim to moral authority, but because of its direct, empirical knowledge. As he told a press conference yesterday:
I accept a reform of the welfare system is necessary. It is a complex, difficult thing to achieve. I accept that these things were unintended consequences of reform. My concern is to echo the voices that come to me of the circumstances today – people are hungry, destitute. There must be something wrong with the administration that has that effect on so many people’s lives. I believe that is an issue that can be tackled.
And in case that wasn’t clear, he said: “I didn’t say the Government’s policies were a disgrace. 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.”
This is not a superficial or sudden critique. The Archbishop of Westminster has in the past two years made it a priority to inform himself about the effects on the poorest of the recession and the shrinking of the state. He has organized and hosted a series of consultations, surveys, and reports. He has sought from charities hard evidence, both anecdotal and statistical, about the conditions of the poor. And he believes it is not just his right but his duty to bring that evidence of what he sees to the attention of the wider public.
The Government’s response has badly misjudged this, failing to respect the thoughtfulness and careful nature of the critique. Instead they have responded to it as an ignorant, ill-judged attack that requires a political defence. The first reaction, from a spokesperson for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), was to say the Archbishop was “wrong to talk of removing a safety net when we’re spending £94bn a year on working age benefits and the welfare system supports millions of people who are on low incomes or unemployed so they can meet their basic needs.” But the Archbishop never said the state no longer supported the poor. He said the net was no longer safe.
“There is nothing moral or fair about the system I inherited that trapped people in welfare dependency,” riposted Iain Duncan-Smith, architect of the welfare reforms. But the archbishop never said the old system was moral or fair, or that being trapped in welfare traps was desirable. He said people were suffering destitution as a consequence of trying to correct those ills.
Astonishingly, Chris Skidmore, a Conservative MP and member of the No 10 Policy Board which advises the Prime Minister, said senior Church figures should not “lecture from on high”, as if the cardinal-designate was somehow adopting airs and graces, or claiming an authority he didn’t deserve.
Yet this was precisely the opposite of what Archbishop Nichols was doing. He was stating the reality, very simply and with great humility (as the Telegraph‘s sketchwriter describes), on the basis of what he sees and hears. As he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, “Priests of mine tell me that every now and then they put some food in front of a woman and she bursts out crying. She hasn’t eaten for three days. It’s stories like that that are part of the reality of this country today.”
Yesterday the prime minister took over an op-ed page in the Telegraph to make a classically political response — a defence of the purpose of the welfare reforms, and the principles which underlie them: the need to get people working, to curb fraud, and to instil a sense of responsibility in the recipients of benefits. These principles, says David Cameron, are moral ones. “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,” he writes.
Yet the archbishop wasn’t criticising those policies or criticizing the morality behind them. It is the PM, not the archbishop, who wants the discussion to be about principles and policies. Cardinal-designate Nichols is not interested in that discussion. He is pointing to the effects on the poor of the changes to welfare and is saying, simply, “that’s not right. We should fix this.”
The prime minister would be more credible if he simply replied honestly that some destitution was the necessary price of fixing a broken system — a matter which voters could judge for themselves — or, if he does not believe that, then he should say: “this should not be happening, and we’ll look into it.”
Instead, Government spokespeople have blustered indignantly, trying to deflect attention onto abstract principles of policy away from the empirical evidence to which the archbishop has been gently, insistently, with great credibility, pointing. What has been exposed, in this confrontation, is how distant are the Government from the world of the poor, and how close, conversely, is the Church.
And where the prime minister has been revealed as defensive and moralistic, Cardinal-designate Nichols has demonstrated firmness, courage and humility.
One might call it the triumph of experience over dogma.
(See also: ‘Britain’s top Catholic slams politicians over immigration’)