The babies in the river and a stain on our national conscience

By Jill Segger
December 25, 2013

It's a good day for a story about babies. The parable of the babies in the river tells of a settlement on a riverbank whose inhabitants began to notice infants floating downstream. As each one came by, someone would jump in and rescue it. As the days went by, more and more babies were pulled from the water, fed, clothed and taken care of to the best of the villagers' ability.

Eventually, the number of children became too great and the village was overwhelmed. The community was divided between those who deplored the situation and others who recognised the need to go upstream to find and address the cause of the unfolding calamity.

This tale has presented itself vividly to my mind over recent days. Conversations with two government MPs and the public statements of ministers, have reinforced the belief that the best of them belong to the diving into the river camp. A good constituency member told me of cases of benefit sanctions in which he has laudably intervened for a just outcome. But it was evident that he perceived these as isolated and random phenomena. At worst, they were “stupid” incidents where bureaucrats had failed to act with common sense.

When I offered him some cases of sanctions reported by other MPs and well-attributed information from a DWP 'mole' which put beyond reasonable doubt the fact that there is a wider official, if concealed, policy of sanctioning, he was obviously unsettled. But he showed no willingness to admit or investigate the possibility of an upstream cause. The other MP with whom I spoke (and neither of these politicians are from the wilder reaches of Conservative ideology) did not seem to even have noticed that babies were floating down the river. And of course, what you do not see, you may be inclined to dismiss as fantasy when someone else reports seeing it. Apparently, there could be no question of a policy or targets in relations to sanctions because Iain Duncan Smith had denied it and a minister “just couldn't get away with lying like that”.

Mr Duncan Smith belongs in yet another category. He appears to believe that both the river and the babies are an invention of malevolently inclined opponents of his policies. The minister has justified his refusal to meet with the Trussell Trust to discuss the connection between the growing use of foodbanks, welfare cuts and sanctions, by accusing the organisation of “scaremongering” and “seeking publicity”.

Taking their cue from this exemplar of scornful dismissal, many government MPs sank to a new low in the Commons last week. During the debate on foodbanks and hunger in the UK, triggered by a petition launched by campaigner Jack Monroe with the support of the Trussell Trust, they jeered as Opposition members recounted the suffering of many of their constituents.

Admittedly, this was an Opposition Day Motion brought by Labour and it has been argued that it would have been better not to have framed the motion so as to seek to make party capital from the debate. But that does not alter the simple fact that in one of the world's wealthiest countries, a growing number of people cannot afford to feed themselves or their families.

Today (25 December), the Archbishop of York John Sentamu called this “a stain on the conscience of our nation”, while the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams castigated Iain Duncan Smith for his comments

There are many of us who will not yet have decided who will get our vote in 2015. We are unlikely to give support to politicians who are unable or unwilling to acknowledge that their policies could be wrong or have unintended consequences. It is probable that we will be reluctant to cast a ballot for those who lack the rationality and moral intelligence required to weigh evidence with integrity – particularly when that evidence points to inconvenient truth. It is certain that few of us will vote for men and women who mock the hardship of others for political gain. The bishops are speaking out. In this season of revolutionary love, let us, as citizens, voters, people of faith and of good faith, “try what love can do.”

* Christmas on Ekklesia:


© 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: You can follow Jill on Twitter at:

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.