Budget: Who will protect the weakest?

By Bernadette Meaden
March 22, 2013

The fact that the Chancellor is failing to fix the economy, even by his own measures, seems undeniable. Should we be in any doubt, the New Economics Foundation (NEF) has provided this helpful graph.

Yet perhaps the worst thing about the Budget, irrespective of whether it will be effective economically, was that people expected so little from it in terms of help for the most vulnerable in society.

Their lack of expectation was fully justified. The idea of the nation’s finances being run in a way that protects the poor and the weak seems to have been relegated to the category of ‘quaint, but outdated’.

As if to establish this in the minutes leading up to the Budget, David Cameron proclaimed in PMQs that the government wants, "a welfare system that supports enterprise, work and aspiration." Isn’t that the job of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills? It would seem the idea that the welfare state is there to provide help and support for members of society who for one reason or another cannot strive, aspire, or get on, is rapidly going out of fashion.

Increasingly the weaker members of society, particularly if they are of working age, are made to feel like an unwanted burden that is holding the government’s vision of an ‘Aspiration Nation’ back.

Traditionally, those people would have turned to the Labour Party for support and protection, and in Opposition one would have hoped that they would fight tooth and nail to protect the powerless from the full impact of Welfare Reform. But on Tuesday, the Labour party abstained on a vote which enabled Iain Duncan Smith to retrospectively change the law to deny benefit claimants the opportunity to claim back money which they had wrongly been denied.

There were some honourable exceptions, Labour MPs who defied their leadership and voted against, and the Green party, SNP, Plaid Cymru etc, but the attitude of the Labour leadership was, to many people, inexplicable and unjustifiable. There was talk on social media of Labour membership cards being torn up.

It was interesting to note that of the 40 Labour MPs who rebelled, most were from a working class background. For them, being sanctioned, deprived of Jobseekers Allowance and becoming penniless is not a theoretical possibility or an interesting case study: it is something they can see happening to people they know and respect. But there are now so few MPs in the House of Commons who have any real experience of working class life, welfare reform is an academic exercise, figures on a balance sheet. Perhaps in that case we must forgive them as they know not what they do: that is preferable to thinking that they know but do not care.

So now, where are the poor and vulnerable to turn, who will defend them? There is talk of a Coalition of Resistance and a People’s Assembly. Comedian and left-wing activist Mark Steel says:

‘The evidence suggests that wherever a community unites and campaigns to defend its hospitals, its libraries, it parks and its people, it succeeds at least in part. The aim of the People’s Assembly will be simply to tap into the vast amount of humanity, imagination and wit of those who wish to curtail the injustices swirling around us, and create a place that we all feel better for being in, and all feel better for having helped to create.’

The Churches are well-placed to make a significant contribution to this movement, as they have already done valuable and impressive work. Prior to the budget an excellent report by the Baptist, Methodist, Church of Scotland and United Reformed churches debunked the myths which underpin the government’s whole approach to welfare, myths that fuel the belief that people in poverty are largely there because of their own behaviour.

Immediately after the budget the churches responded critically, again speaking from the perspective of the poor and vulnerable.

It would seem that for people living in poverty in the UK, and for those who are unable to be aspirational and enterprising because of ill health or disability, or because they need to care for a loved one, at the moment the largest significant body speaking out in their defence is the church.

Almost 30 years ago, through the Faith in the City report the Church of England challenged the values and policies of the Thatcher government. At the time the report was dismissed by Conservative politicians as Marxist theology, but it sparked a debate on the ethics of Thatcherism and its effects.

In 2005, looking back at the significance of Faith in the City, The Dean of Norwich the Very Rev Graham Smith said: "Faith in the City began a movement which was partly political (with a small p), partly theological and partly spiritual. In all three senses, it was a beacon of hope to a lot of people: local authorities felt that the dilemmas that they faced with limited resources in the face of overwhelming deprivation were being recognised; the churches on the ground felt that the rest of the Church was waking up to the realities of inner city ministry; and, most important of all, people who were locked into the poverty trap of deprived inner city communities began to feel that perhaps there could be a national understanding of the paralysis which gripped them."

We surely now need a vigorous national debate on how we treat the weakest members of our society. It is time for the Churches to speak out loud and clear, join with people of good will, and once again provide a beacon of hope for people who are close to despair.


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

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