I have often been critical of the Church of England’s leadership for being slow to speak out on issues of economic justice. I’m therefore delighted that 43 CofE bishops have criticised the coalition for cutting benefits (or technically, for raising them by one percent, which is below the rate of inflation and therefore a cut in all but name).
It’s good news that Justin Welby has backed their stance, in one of his first high-profile acts as Archbishop of Canterbury. I am hoping that this is a sign of how he means to go on.
Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, has responded to the bishops with a statement that (while not containing any direct lies) gives a very misleading impression of the welfare budget.
“This is about fairness. People who are paying taxes, working very hard, have hardly seen any increases in their salary and yet, under the last government, the welfare bill rose by some sixty percent to £200bn. That means they have to pay for that under their taxes, which is simply not fair.”
There are several things that Iain Duncan Smith knows to be true but is not mentioning.
He knows that the majority of the welfare budget goes on pensions and other benefits for older people that the government is not, in any case, proposing to cut.
He knows that many benefits, such as housing benefit and disability living allowance, go to people who are employed as well as people who are unemployed. Some of those “working very hard” are among the beneficiaries of the welfare budget.
He knows that unemployed people, as well as working people, pay taxes. They do not pay income tax, but they pay VAT. Even homeless people pay VAT.
He knows that a major reason for the rise in the welfare budget is that tax credits are subsidising poverty pay, while housing benefit is going into the pockets of landlords at a time of rising private sector rents. But it’s not landlords and employers who will lose out from the coalition’s cuts.
Iain Duncan Smith knows all these things. But he’s not going to mention them. The bishops – and the rest of us – need to proclaim them loudly and clearly.