Church launches a fresh crusade over the jobless

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The Independent Online

Economics Editor

Ten years ago, the Church of England incurred the wrath of the Thatcher government with Faith in the City. Yesterday the Rt Rev David Sheppard, Bishop of Liverpool, launched an inquiry into unemployment and the future of work which is also likely to cause a stir when it reports in early 1997 - almost certainly in the run-up to the election. Its potential political significance will be all the greater given the role of Christianity in shaping Tony Blair's thinking and the influential role that Frank Field, also a committed Christian, is expected to have in formulating policy on welfare should Labour win the election.

Bishop Sheppard said that the spur for the inquiry came from the mounting concern felt by Christians about unemployment. The churches had "an obligation" and also "the freedom" to test ideas and to come up with fresh proposals.

The inquiry itself will face a test in that the international economic consensus about unemployment has shifted markedly against the European "welfarist" model and towards the US free market approach, which has been much more successful in generating jobs.

If the inquiry is to win respect it will therefore have to come up with some hard answers to the hard questions it identifies. These include whether life on benefit should be made more or less comfortable, whether low pay is a price worth paying to increase employment and whether full employment is anything more than a slogan.

An inter-denominational initiative, the inquiry's key working party, will be chaired by Sir Geoffrey Holland, former permanent secretary to the departments of employment and education, and now vice-chancellor of Exeter University.

Speaking at the launch in London, Sir Geoffrey contrasted the current level of claimant unemployment of 2.3 million with the level of 250,000 in the early 1960s. "The desperate rise in youth unemployment had completely changed the outlook of a generation," he said, and there was "the growth of that feeling you're too old at 50".

Unemployment was "arguably the biggest social and economic problem facing the European Union", Sir Geoffrey added. If you lined up the EU's unemployed one yard behind the other, the line would stretch 11,000 miles, he said. He will be joined on the group by Andrew Britton, executive secretary of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.