Faith & Reason: Bishop and boffin crack the curate's egg

The Church has not yet fully come to grips with the reality of the market - but its report on unemployment shows it is moving in the right direction, argues the Rev John Kennedy.
You remember the old Punch cartoon:

Bishop: "I'm afraid you've got a bad egg, Mr Jones!" Terrified curate: "Oh no, my Lord, I assure you, parts of it are excellent!"

Church reports on social issues are so often rubbished by the press that it seems churlish to join in, which is why this ageing Methodist curate has got used to claiming that they are "good in parts". But on Tuesday the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland published their report on Unemployment and the Future of Work and it is rather a good egg.

The working group includes serious entrepreneurs as well as advocates of rights for the poor. At the centre of the enterprise was a remarkable partnership between David Sheppard, Bishop of Liverpool, and Andrew Britton, who left the National Institute for Economic and Social Research to head the work - the Bishop and the Boffin.

It was certainly the Bishop's passion and persistence that created the thing. But Andrew Britton has made this a remarkably coherent and professionally competent report. Its case is simple. The argument is complex.

The case is this. The Churches claim that comfortable Britain has left the poor behind, most of all in the area of work. There are less than two million people claiming unemployment benefit, but that number doubles when those who have dropped out of the labour market altogether are counted. Worse, politicians who hope to govern have to reassure those who are still comfortable. A new commandment have they given unto us - Thou Shalt Not Frighten The Floating Voter. So the Churches have stepped into a moral void which political necessity has created. The Churches' report calls for a massive increase in satisfying, dignified work. It will not settle for a simple statistical decline in unemployment, which consigns millions to a sweatshop economy. They want "good work for everyone".

Many of the report's recommendations have been dismissed as clapped-out corporatism. And yes, it does want a public programme to eliminate long term unemployment, the recognition of trades unions, a national minimum wage, voluntary restraint on top salaries, and higher taxes if necessary. Yet the report argues cogently from a basis of orthodox market economics for these claims - but emphasising that the market will continue to fail the poor, and that poverty cannot be addressed without more public money.

But the most vital section of the report, which has received scant attention in the press to date, argues over 20 pages for job creation in the private sector. It is sharply critical of European reliance on the public sector, and the heavy non-wage costs which destroy jobs. It insists that successful job creation depends on "the courage and hope in the future shown in the action of large numbers of individuals and managers. The economy will flourish only if these qualities are nurtured and supported by public opinion and public policy."

This is new. It signals that the Churches have abandoned that self-righteous, complacent anti-Thatcherism which paralysed thought. This document is different. It is much bolder in asserting the virtues of the competitive market. The report's careful, technical argument shows how the market, the state and the people can work together to create more jobs, and more dignified work.

Even so it does not go far enough. It is still more at home in the poverty lobby and the community project. Yet most Christians live in the world of business, making money and creating jobs. The report has little feel of what it's like to meet a payroll or get a product to market. Nobody quite asks the question "Please, Bishop, where do jobs come from?" in case the answer should sound too smutty.

The Churches are right to demand that the next government should create a more inclusive society - but at last they are doing so in language that is both moral and realistic. Not before time. Over the past decade our society has shown itself prepared to sacrifice the weakest on the altar of the market. The Churches are at last replying effectively, not least with this shrewd assessment of the virtues and vices of the modern economy, and its capacity to create good work.

Faith & Reason is edited by Paul Vallely