Welfare reform, impiety and the ruin of the state

“A dog starved at his master's gate, predicts the ruin of the state”. These lines from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence go beyond the obvious cruelty they describe. They remind us of the destruction which follows when power abdicates responsibility, care and compassion.

The government's Welfare Reform Bill, which will cap benefits at £500 per week, has been opposed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and by 18 other bishops of the Church of England. It is heartening to hear that these prelates have signed an open letter criticising the changes which they condemn as "profoundly unjust" to children in the poorest families, adding that they have a "moral obligation to speak up for those who have no voice".

It will not be difficult for the government to stir up a degree of popular support for this austerity measure. A great many families earn less than £500 per week and some of them will be struggling. But for those families who have perhaps three or four children and live in areas where house prices and rents are high, this cap will cause immense difficulty and distress. Some of those families will be criticised for “having more children than they can afford”. But whether their difficulties are the result of misfortune or lack of forethought does not alter the ultimate outcome, which is children being thrown into poverty and made subject to massive disadvantage.

Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who is hardly a champion of the poor and disadvantaged, has warned the government that its measures could lead to 40,000 families being made homeless. This should horrify us all. And that dismay must surely be deepened by recognising that the administration which is willing to inflict this level of pain on its own citizens, is also determined to press ahead with the renewal of the Trident missile system – a project which is already forecast to cost £75 billion and could easily rise higher.

Trident is morally indefensible and - as many senior military commanders have admitted - strategically useless. When all the pointless rhetoric about 'rogue states' and 'not knowing what's round the corner' has been discounted, the appeal of Trident to our government is that it maintains our status as a world power and gives the UK “a seat at the top table”. That our leaders are willing to put this vanity project of unimaginable destructive power ahead of protecting the basic needs of vulnerable families is quite simply wicked.

The opposition of the bishops is therefore right and just. But they must go further. Many of us deplore the fact that the only spokespeople of faith groups in our Upper House are male representatives of one denomination of one religion. However, we must start from where we are. And if the opposition of the bishops is to amount to more than rebuke and hand-wringing, however sincerely intended, they must now vote against the Bill which begins its progress through the Lords tomorrow (21 November).

This cannot and should not be left to this small group of frankly unrepresentative religious figures. All who are connected to the teaching of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets should speak out and lobby our legislators for justice and compassion.

And that includes people of no faith and of good faith whose ethics will to some degree, have been formed by, or share in, the tradition of the monotheistic faiths. To remain silent is to be complicit and none of us can afford to shrink from recognising that.

I headed this blog with a quote from one religious radical and will end it with another. William Penn warned the government of his own time in these words: “Gross impiety it is that a nation's pride should be maintained in the face of its poor.”

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

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