Christians criticise budget for imposing austerity on the poorest

By staff writers
June 23, 2010

Policy experts and commentators from the churches and Christian organisations have criticised the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government for a budget which hits the most vulnerable hardest.

In spite of Chancellor George Osborne's claim that his was a "progressive budget" by a "progressive coalition", and Deputy PM Nick Clegg's claim that it was in line with "core liberal values", analysts looking at its prescriptions and likely outcomes from the perspective of the poorest say that the burden of structural debt reduction is being imposed on some of those least able to pay or cope.

Paul Morrison, a member of the Methodist Church’s Joint Public Issues Team, said yesterday the taxation burden should have been put on the people who could afford it, rather than those who could least afford it.

“Sadly VAT hits the bottom 10 per cent of society twice as hard as it hits the top 10 per cent of society, so those people will be hurt and the Church is entirely against the poorest being targeted in that kind of way,” he observed.

Mr Morrison said it was too early to tell what impact the spending cuts would have, not least because many details will not be revealed until the October 2010 Spending Review.

But he joined anti-poverty campaigners in pointing out that poorer people on housing benefits would find it harder to pay their rent and be left in “an awful position” if house prices go up or they become unemployed.

This prognosis was confirmed by the CEO of the Chartered Institute of Housing on BBC Radio 4 this morning. The CIH is currently meeting for its annual conference in Harrogate.

The Methodist's Paul Morrison went on to raise concern over the government’s plans to conduct medical checks on all people currently claiming disability living allowances.

“We have no problem if people who are claiming it don’t deserve it, but we do have a huge problem if the people doing the medical checks are under huge pressure to reduce the numbers on disability living allowance,” he declared.

“We want to make sure that these medical checks are done fairly because, certainly, the ones who shouldn’t be paying for the nation’s financial crisis are the disabled. That would be appalling.”

Morrison went on: “The Church has a concern for the poor and a concern for the vulnerable. Governments should change the balance of taxation and spending but they should also protect the poor and protect the vulnerable and we are very concerned that this Budget has not done that.”

Meanwhile, Frank Kantor, the United Reformed Church’s Secretary for Church and Society, said he was disappointed that the government had not sought an alternative to raising funds through an increase in VAT.

The URC is among the wide range of churches, civic groups and welfare organisations that have been campaigning in recent months for the new administration to raise new funds by implementing a financial transaction tax.

Kantor explained: “Such a tax could raise billions more in a way that would not impact on the poor or the average person on the street. Even a financial transaction tax of just 0.05% could raise a significant amount of money for the deficit or international development, climate change and poverty, both domestic and international. Instead, the VAT rise is going to have an impact on those who are least able to afford it.”

He said the URC was “very disappointed” that the Chancellor had opted for a “piddling” bank levy of just £2 billion instead of £20 billion, calling it a “missed opportunity”.

Mr Kantor added that there had been a “degree of fairness” in the taxes and cuts, particularly the changes to income tax, but added that cuts to welfare and pensions would be “particularly severe” and “impact negatively on the poor”.

“The poorest members of society will be hit by these cuts,” he declared.

Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society thinktank Ekklesia, commented: "A budget is not simply a set of statistics, it is a moral document with tangible impact on people's lives. The government has to address significant deficit and borrowing problems, but in policy terms it is disingenuous to claim that its specific decisions on how to allocate the pain, and its fundamental choice to do so through public spending cuts that hit the unemployed, those in housing need, low income families, the disabled, poor children and other vulnerable groups, is somehow being being 'forced' upon it."

Barrow added: "The government is saying that 'all must suffer equally'. But Christians and others who recognise that social justice, environmental sustainability and the needs of the most vulnerable are the true measure of the morality and efficacy in public decision-making will say that no-one should suffer. Not the poorer, because they should be supported; and not the richer, because they are prosperous anyway. The idea that all are equal confuses equality with sameness. In reality, however, all are not equal and all are not the same. The Chancellor has not recognised this. The wider general retreat of all the mainstream political parties from notions of equalisation, sharing and redistribution of resources, means that systemic injustice is going unaddressed. In this sense, the Coalition government is a continuation, as well as in some respects a deepening and worsening, of what has gone before."

The Ekklesia co-director concluded: "There are always alternatives: the issue is what choices are being made, by whom and for (or against) whom. The government could have addressed the problems we face through different tax options, through cutting the wasteful and unnecessary Trident replacement, and through a wholesale restructuring of economic priorities and investment towards the creation of investment, employment and selective growth towards a zero-carbon settlement - along lines outlined in detail by the New Economics Foundation, the Centre for Alternative Technology, and others - including ourselves - who advocate a 'Green New Deal'. That the Chancellor did not do so is a matter of political choice, not economic necessity."

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.