MERCY, JUSTICE AND WELFARE REFORM
By Stroma McDermott
On 5th March Oxford Place Methodist Centre hosted a multi-agency workshop on Welfare Reform. The presenters offered a powerful combination of statistics on the impact of Welfare Reform, the experience of testifiers and a theology that calls out for a Christian response. The Christian witness on the day reflects concerns of the Church nationally and internationally.
Impact of Welfare Reform on claimants in Leeds
- Leeds has 55,000 working age benefit claimants and many are already affected by the reforms introduced since 1st April 2013
- Under occupation measures (Bedroom tax) affects 6,600 tenants in Leeds, and as a result 2,500 children, with an average loss of benefit of £13 per week
- Reduction in Council Tax support affects 27,000 claimants with an average weekly loss of £3.40
- Overall Benefit Cap affects 307 claimants with a weekly loss of £47. The Cap has a disproportionate effect on larger families and so 1,444 children have been impacted
As well as impacting on claimants, Welfare Reform has also impacted on the Local Authority. For Leeds City Council and other social housing providers the reforms to date have resulted in rent arrears increases and an associated decrease in collection rates for Council Tax. In addition, there are increased requests for emergency help, growth of foodbanks, homelessness, and increasing payday and high cost lending. The impact on relationships, families, community cohesion and social care is harder to determine. Welfare reform therefore impacts the whole of the District. As the roll out for Universal Credit commences towards the end of 2015 it is likely these impacts will increase.
At the workshop, the voice of testifiers from the Leeds Poverty Truth Challenge was heard. They made real the experience of Job Seekers Allowance, under occupation measures and other impacts of changes. The testifiers’ experiences are not uncommon but are often not heard, yet without hearing them we cannot know the truth of poverty, and without their voices and influence on policy society runs the risk of making things worse. The Poverty Truth Challenge strap line is:
‘Nothing about us, without us, is for us’.
The Church both nationally and locally is responding practically to the changes but also in raising its voice to speak about the reforms, for example, the recent ecumenical report Time to Rethink Benefit Sanctions. The introduction of sanctions is one of the most controversial elements of the reforms. Those applying for and in receipt of benefits have claimant commitment agreements which makes receipt of benefits conditional on completing the requirements of the agreement. Failure to meet the terms of the commitment means claimants are sanctioned and their benefits cut or stopped for up to a month. Last year nationally there were 1,000,000 sanctions imposed with 1,300,000 people potentially subject to sanctions, and perhaps most worryingly 100 people nationally with severe mental illness are being sanctioned every day.
Niall Cooper, Director of Church Action on Poverty notes:
“If you commit a crime, no criminal court in the UK is allowed to make you go hungry as a punishment. But if you are late for an appointment at the Jobcentre, they can remove all your income and leave you unable to feed you or your family”.
The report calls for an independent review of benefit sanctions to avoid what the churches are calling the ‘deliberate imposition of hunger’. The Poverty Truth Commission contrast the treatment offered to those on benefits and those in regular well-paid employment. For the latter, the laws of contractual employment provide for those needing time out for illness, maternity, paternity, adoption leave and special leave circumstances ensuring the benefits of employment provision and monthly remuneration. However, for those with no or intermittent patterns of working in low paid work, such systems of security are diminishing.
At the recent ‘Think, Pray, Vote’ conference Archbishop Justin Welby suggested that a contemporary reading of the gospel allows Christians to look at politics as the business of increasing welfare and the common good. One of the Church of England’s five marks of mission concerns tackling unjust structures and oppressive systems. This is not simply because injustice represents a failure to ‘love our neighbour’ but because tackling oppression and inequality provides an opportunity of healing for the whole community.
Concern for the common good builds upon God’s concern that societies should operate on the principle of interdependence and covenantal ethics. As Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche Community puts it
“ If you enter into a relationship with a lonely or suffering person you will discover something else; that it is you who are being healed. If you let yourself be moulded by the cry of the poor and accept their healing friendship, then they may guide your footsteps into community and lead you into a new vision of humanity… They will lead you into the kingdom Jesus speaks of.”
During his talk at the workshop in Leeds, John Battle considered welfare reform from a Lenten perspective. His challenge to us was, “What does Good Friday mean to you and who are the crucified in our society?”
John highlighted that it is the poor who are being adversely affected by welfare reform and linked this with the centrality of the poor to the Gospel. He quoted Pope Francis, “whenever food is thrown away it is stolen from the poor” and also the challenging words of St John Chrysostom that the “rich steal from the poor”. In the rebalancing of the public purse, do we recognise that money is being re-distributed away from the poor and perceive this as detrimental to society as a whole?
As I have reflected on the workshop, I have been reminded of the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18: 21-35). Peter is reminded by Jesus of the need to be extremely generous where grace and forgiveness are concerned. Many in the upper echelons of our banking, economic and governmental systems have been forgiven much over recent years: tax avoidance, expense scandals, the collapse and public bail out of the banking system, insider trading and conflicts of interest regarding second jobs and cash for access amongst other misdemeanours. Yet they have been ‘forgiven’ and allowed to continue, even retaining the grace and favour of unconditioned self-regulation.
And in response how are they repaying us? Verse 33 asks ‘should you not have had mercy on your fellows…as I had mercy on you?’
Those caught in the snare of sanctions, cuts and austerity measures are receiving a very conditioned and punitive allowance of grace that is a concern not just for them but also for society as a whole. The parable is a stark reminder that God does not broach a two-tier system of grace and mercy.