Leading article: Bishops and benefits don't mix

Thursday 26 January 2012 01:00 GMT

When the Government was defeated in the House of Lords on Monday over its plan to introduce a cap on benefits, the opposition was spearheaded not by members of the Labour Opposition, nor yet by disgruntled Liberal Democrats. Out there proposing the amendment was the Rt Rev John Packer, Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, supported by four like-minded Church of England clerics. Without the high-profile campaigning of these Lords Spiritual in the days immediately before the vote, it is quite possible that the Government would have escaped defeat. The vote was 252 to 237; subtract the five bishops and their high-profile campaign, and the vote could have gone either way.

Then yesterday, in what appeared to be a belated effort to redress the balance, out came the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, with an article in the Daily Mail, arguing the case for the other side. The "greatest moral scandal", he said, was the scale of the country's debt, and a welfare system that had become "an industry of gargantuan proportions" which was "impoverishing us all". His fellow bishops, he said, were flying in the face of public opinion.

Now it is not unreasonable to ask where Lord Carey was when the team of opposition bishops was making all the moral running. And, whatever else is said, one conclusion must surely be that, on the benefits cap, the signals from On High are distinctly mixed. The bigger question, though, is whether anyone should be trying to convey any such signals from On High in what is absolutely not a spiritual debate, but a sharply political and economic one.

Of course, this particular problem begins with an established Church that is represented in the House of Lords as a matter of right – which is one of the first things that must go in the next stage of Lords reform. But it should also be asked whether those bishops who currently enjoy this – political – privilege should use the undoubted authority their ecclesiastical status commands to try to influence the political debate. We think not. They have no electoral mandate. They have their own platform, the pulpit, from which to speak. In the political arena, they would do well to hold their peace.

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