Why the priests are right to take on our Government over welfare

It will be a long haul. Wage rises will go on lagging behind price rises

In taking the Government on over the issue of welfare and hunger, churches are well grounded, for their priests and pastors live where the problems are acute. They don’t commute into work from leafy suburbs, as many heads of social-services departments do. They walk the local streets. Their homes are just up the road from their churches and chapels. They do know what they are talking about.

Yesterday’s Government-commissioned report into food-bank use spelt out the extent of the crisis, and if you read the letter to the Daily Mirror signed by 27 bishops of the Church of England and by 13 Methodist and United Reformed Church leaders and by two Quakers, together with the statement made by Cardinal-designate Vincent Nichols, the Catholic leader in England and Wales, you will find the most shocking aspects of the situation properly emphasised.

First, that some 5,500 people were actually admitted to hospital in the UK for malnutrition last year. And second, some of this distress results directly from the failures of the benefits system. As the soon-to-be cardinal recently remarked: “The administration of social assistance has become more punitive. If applicants don’t get it right, they have to wait for two weeks with nothing. For a country of affluence that, quite frankly, is a disgrace.” Or, as the Church of England bishops put it: “Over half of people using food banks have been put in that situation by cutbacks to and failures in the benefits system.”

The churches rightly call for the alleviation of suffering. But it will be a long haul. Wage rises will go on lagging behind price rises. New technologies will go on saving labour. Globalisation will go on turning the world into a vast single market. And developing countries will go on bidding up food prices.