The Government's Welfare Reform Bill is to be debated in the House of Lords today, which is why more than a dozen Church of England bishops, supported by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, published an open letter yesterday calling for a more flexible approach to the proposed cap on benefits. They warned that setting a £26,000-a-year maximum that any household received from the state "could push some of the most vulnerable children in the country into severe poverty". They said the Church of England had "a commitment and a moral obligation to speak up for those who have no voice".
Which all sounds very like the Church doing what it is expected to do, representing the disadvantaged and forgotten. Yet the message may not be heard quite as clearly as the bishops hope. This is partly because the particular provision of the Bill they are objecting to – the annual cap on benefits equivalent to the approximate average household income – was widely aired long before the Bill started its passage through Parliament, which itself is nine months ago. Senior bishops can, of course, vote on the Bill in the House of Lords, but if they had spoken out before, their influence on its contents might have been greater.
But their message risks being muffled largely because of recent events. It is hard to see this démarche as anything other than compensation, perhaps overcompensation, for the Church's embarrassing institutional silence over the Occupy protest at St Paul's. Even the cathedral hierarchy was unable to offer a united response, amid accusations that it was more interested in a quiet life and City money than addressing poverty and inequality.
In its detail, the bishops' letter supports changes to the Bill as already proposed by the Children's Society, which would soften some of the effects of the proposed cap, rather than abolish it. And today's Lords debate is expected to be fierce – which is a good thing; legislation is the better for being contested. What the bishops have to recognise, however, is that the Church's claim to represent the moral high ground has been compromised. And it will take more than one open letter to put that right.