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In Holy Week, as the Prime Minister grew ever more vocal about his personal faith and the importance of Christian values, the Daily Express brought us the glad tidings that the PM’s colleague Iain Duncan Smith is ‘Winning the War on Benefits’. That’s a war on financial assistance to people who are old, sick, disabled, unemployed or working but paid too little to make ends meet.
We know that Mr Duncan Smith has the considerable powers of government in his arsenal, but it was not clear what weapons the benefit claimants were using to fight this war. Cunningly acquired disabilities, perhaps, or deliberately choosing to work on a zero hours contract in order to fleece the ‘hardworking taxpayer’. Refusing to die at a reasonable age, thus greedily taking more state pension and NHS care, or extravagantly using a spare bedroom for a dialysis machine.
On Easter Saturday, a caller to the BBC’s Any Answers programme had declared that single parents with more than three children should not be allowed to use foodbanks. Why children with more than two brothers or sisters should be allowed to starve was not really made clear, but it was a prospect that appeared to give the caller no cause for concern. It seemed in the War On Benefits a new front has opened up: a war on charity.
Then, the Mail thoughtfully chose Easter Sunday to bring us the shocking news that if you lie to people who are volunteering their time and energy to help people they will, through appalling gullibility and inefficiency, help you.
In a story headlined, ‘No Questions Asked’ the Mail on Sunday revealed that their intrepid undercover reporter had gone to the Citizens Advice Bureau and posed as an unemployed father unable to feed his children. When questioned about his circumstances he had repeatedly lied in response, and was as a result given a voucher for a local foodbank. The Mail then shockingly reports:
‘From there the reporter was sent to the Trussell Trust-run food bank at St Philip’s Church in Bulwell, Nottingham, where he presented the voucher to one of several helpers.
Within minutes he was given four shopping bags bursting with essentials – about £40 worth of groceries.
These included basics such as bread, sugar and pasta, as well as less essential items such chocolate pudding.
After inviting the reporter to help himself to the soap, toothpaste and hot dog rolls they had spare, the volunteers wished him a Happy Easter and he staggered out of the church with his bags.’
Apparently occupying some parallel moral universe, the Mail portrayed this as exposing a scandalously lax system, open to abuse. Apparently, the people operating the foodbanks should check people’s identities before they recklessly give away baked beans and toilet rolls.
Here’s a suggestion. Once somebody falls below the poverty line, by losing their job, becoming sick or disabled, or by simply not getting paid enough, perhaps we should have them microchipped. Or maybe they could be given some sort of a badge they could wear, to show they were genuine. Then we could be sure that nobody was getting a penny more than they are entitled to, and valuable tins of soup will not be obtained by crafty fraudsters. It’s a proposal I’m sure the Mail on Sunday will happily consider.
There is something seriously amiss here. As the Prime Minister sings the praises of Christian values, his government and sections of the media appear to have declared a war not just on the needy, but on the kindness and compassion of people who attempt to help those in need. Where will it end?
* 'David Cameron wants to preserve Christendom, not dissident Christianity', by Michael Marten: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/20445
* More on post-Christendom from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/postchristendom
© 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. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeadenTweet