Britain’s poorest are suffering terribly. But clerics have no special authority in political debates about their welfare

David Cameron has got the bishops back to front

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When Britain’s most senior Catholic left for Rome on Wednesday – ahead of his elevation to the College of Cardinals this morning – he left a storm behind him. Vincent Nichols’ criticisms of government welfare policies, earlier in the week, prompted a supporting chorus of opprobrium from other religious leaders.

According to the cardinal-to-be, the Coalition’s “punitive” changes to the benefits system are destroying society’s “basic safety net”. “For a country of our affluence, that is, quite frankly, a disgrace,” the Archbishop of Westminster concluded. Justin Welby, his Church of England counterpart, echoed the sentiments. And within days, 27 Anglican bishops and 16 other faith leaders wrote to the Daily Mirror blaming “cutbacks and failures in the benefits system” for a “national crisis” forcing 500,000 people to food banks.

Cue much talk of clerics tempering politicians’ excesses, with the lambasting of Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies and Tony Blair’s invasion of Iraq as examples. Even the Prime Minister, while rejecting the substance of the criticisms, defended the “moral mission” that entitles the Church to such interventions. The Independent disagrees on both counts.

First, there is little reason to doubt that there are more people struggling to get by, and more people accepting food handouts, than there were. Indeed, a government-commissioned report only this week contradicted the claim that visits to food banks are up simply because there are more such facilities available.

Equally, however, University of Warwick researchers concluded that, while there is some evidence that changes in welfare policy are playing a role, the link is far from unequivocal. Unemployment, squeezed wages and rising food prices are also significant factors.

If the facts are undeniable, though, the right of the Church to meddle in politics is absolutely not. Not only do religious leaders come by their public podia by dint of a historical influence at odds with modern secular democracy, but their claims of moral authority are also hardly as absolute as they seem. It is difficult for an archbishop’s remonstrances on the subject of the poor and hungry to be anything but the final moral word, and yet they are subject to the same limitations as any other political perspective.

Is the pursuit of policies that are supported by the majority of the electorate of no value, for example? And would it be a more moral course to fail to tackle our dysfunctional welfare system and even more dysfunctional public finances, risking not only the standard of living of all but also the taxes out of which benefits are paid?

Here is the nub. A shake-up of Britain’s costly, Byzantine and often unfair welfare state would be painful in any event; at a time of economic upheaval, recession and a straitened Treasury, it is trickier still. What it is not, however, is a luxury. Those hit hardest should, of course, concern us. But anecdotal evidence metamorphosed into an unassailable moral position via an institution that no longer represents more than a tiny fraction of the population does more harm than good. David Cameron’s assessment is back to front. The bishops’ facts are fine. Their belief in a divine right to be heard is not.

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