Time for a name change at the Centre for Social Justice?

By Bernadette Meaden
January 30, 2012

Is the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) correctly named? If social justice means all people or all sections of society being treated fairly and equally, then it’s time for a rebrand. The CSJ does a lot of work on social issues such as family breakdown, mental health and drug addiction etc. It has virtually nothing to say about the unfairness of income inequality, low pay, or the taxes that go unpaid by rich individuals and corporations. All its emphasis is on the responsibility of poor people to get themselves off benefits and into work.

We now know that more than half of all children living in poverty have at least one working parent, but the CSJ appears fixated on ‘worklessness’ and irresponsibility as the main causes of poverty. Its most recent press release was headlined, ‘Benefit cap opponents fail to tackle worklessness’, says CSJ Director’ Rather than challenging injustice, the CSJ would seem primarily to have been set up to formulate, advocate, and facilitate the enactment of the Conservative party’s plans for welfare reform. The CSJ’s Advisory Council seems to be dominated by figures from the Conservative Party and the City of London.

It seems that others have similar misgivings. In ‘The Myth of ‘Broken Britain’: Welfare Reform and the Cultural Production of Ignorance’ Tom Slater of the University of Edinburgh suggests:I trace the attack on the British welfare state by the current Coalition government back to the emergence of the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) think tank, founded in 2004 by current Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan-Smith... Despite wide-ranging social scientific evidence challenging the numerous policies on work, welfare and poverty that that have been set in motion by the Coalition (heavily influenced by the CSJ), a familiar litany of social pathologies …is repeatedly invoked in a strategic deployment of ignorance with respect to alternative ways of addressing poverty and social injustice. Powerful structural forces that involve major political and economic institutions have been conflated into a single behavioural and cultural explanation – ‘Broken Britain’.

Mr Slater believes that the CSJ prepared the ground for the government by creating the rhetoric of ‘Broken Britain’, and a climate in which those on benefits could be seen to be largely responsible for their own plight: that poverty was largely a result of irresponsible behaviour rather than economic injustice. It is much easier to cut benefits if the majority of the public can be persuaded that those receiving them are undeserving.

As if to confirm Mr Slater’s view, in a press release on the day the Welfare Reform Bill was announced, the CSJ said, "The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), one of the country’s most influential think tanks, commends the Government’s introduction of the Welfare Reform Bill today. Through its analysis and policy recommendations …the CSJ has heavily influenced the coalition Government’s reform agenda."

In fact, it is rare to find the CSJ differing from the government’s views, but when it does it is usually complaining that because of the need for compromise with the Lib Dems, the coalition government hasn’t gone far enough in some of its reforms.

It is urging, for instance, that Free schools should be allowed to be profit-making. The CSJ seems to believe that for many people living on benefits is a lifestyle choice, and the only way to incentivise them to work is to cut benefits. But if it believes everybody deserves a decent life, why does it not put its considerable weight behind the Living Wage campaign, which calls for ‘every worker in the country to earn enough to provide their family with the essentials of life.’ This would seem an obvious step for any organisation motivated by a desire for social justice. But on the issue of low pay, as on other matters of injustice, the CSJ is strangely silent.

© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is a regular contributor to Ekklesia.

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