Room for everyone: investing in a different future

By Virginia Moffatt
September 12, 2014

When I was young, my father often used to repeat a saying his mother had told him, “To whom much is given, of them much is expected.” It was long time before I realised that this early version of “check out your privilege” was in fact quoting Jesus in the Bible (Luke 12:48), but I have never forgotten it, and I always try to live by it.

I was reflecting on that saying when out running this week, because for me, it encompasses the spirit of the founders of the welfare state. The post-war politicians knew only too well that a civilised society requires a robust system to support to people in need, and they responded accordingly. Sadly, the majority of today’s MPs appear to have forgotten this message. The Liberal Democrats were only to keen to side with The Conservative Party to pass the Welfare Reform Act 2012, and the Labour Party has done little to oppose it.

Welfare should be something we support as a nation, if not to be compassionate to others, out of self interest. After all, we could all become disabled, or sick or lose our jobs one day, and find ourselves in need of a helping hand. Yet thanks to the ideology of successive governments, the prevalent belief is that spending is out of control; the country is full of benefit cheats and the majority of people claiming disability benefits could be working. Time and time again these myths are busted, and yet welfare has become a poisonous word.

As a result, a system that should be supportive and enabling has become punitive and harmful. From the disasters of the work capability assessment to the harsh sanctions applied to job seekers, the people who most need help are being pushed into penury. This is resulting in great hardship, including negative impacts for people with health problems a rise in homelessness and in the use of food banks.

As a Christian think tank, Ekklesia is committed to “new ways of thinking” that are rooted in the message of the gospels. As a result, we have been analysing, critiquing and posing alternatives to current UK welfare policy since 2009, often collaborating with those most affected. In 2012, we co-published the Spartacus Report “Responsible Reform” that challenged the government’s proposed Disability Living Allowance (DLA) reforms. Earlier this year, we co-published another report by disabled people 'Beyond the Barriers' which provides creative solutions to how the Employment Support Allowance can be improved. A ‘Rethinking Welfare’ paper is in the pipeline and we continue to develop working partnerships with organisations such as the Centre for Welfare Reform, led by Dr Simon Duffy. In addition, we provided assistance to the WOW campaign which resulted in a House of Commons debate on the cumulative impact of welfare cuts on disabled people. In Lent, Ekklesia’s support of our associate the Rev Dr Keith Hebden’s 'End Hunger Fast' initiative, helped disseminate information about rising food poverty. We were also able to publicise the Free Churches’ report on lies about poverty which was picked up in a Guardian leader and elsewhere.

Alongside this we publish regular news briefings and blogs from our associates Jill Segger, Savitri Hensman and Bernadette Meaden on welfare. Before I worked at Ekklesia I found these invaluable, as they often articulated the issues far more clearly than I could. I know at firsthand how Ekklesia’s work can inform, educate and influence debates which was a significant factor in my decision to apply for the post of Chief Operating Officer. And I am confident that it is work like this that will help us change the conversation around welfare from “spot the scrounger” to “social security for all”.

One of the cruellest aspect of the reforms has been the so called 'bedroom tax' a measure that seems particularly hypocritical when you look at the lives of the politicians who created it. Having cared for a disabled son, David Cameron, of all people, should know the importance of spare rooms for storing equipment, or providing a bed for an overnight carer. Whilst the fact that Iain Duncan Smith and Lord Freud, the two architects of the Act, live in large houses with plenty of spare rooms, seems to imply the only people entitled to a spacious home, are those with money. So I was delighted when I was returning from my run last Friday to receive a text from my husband Chris with a piece of good news that spurred my tired legs home. Thanks to an alliance of Liberal Democrats and Labour, and 70 Conservative MPs absenting themselves in defiance of the whip, Andrew George MP’s Bedroom Tax Bill had passed its second reading in the Commons. It’s not a perfect bill, but it feels to me an important turning point. Because when one of the parties that wholeheartedly supported the tax two years ago recognises they got it wrong, and a significant proportion of the other party don’t show up, it suggests the pendulum might be swinging. It suggests too that politicians are beginning to recognise that voting for measures that hurt the poor is becoming as toxic as the word 'welfare'.

I’m just over halfway through my training this week, and at the most intense point, which means longer and faster runs are in the offing. My knees are beginning to hurt a lot, and I often feel exhausted (Monday’s nine miles in intense heat almost did for me). Nonetheless, I’m not complaining. Because, every time I go for a run, I am aware of how lucky I am that my body is still able to clock up the miles. I am lucky to be fit and healthy and that when I finish I can return to a safe comfortable home I am in no danger of losing. Much has been given me, which is why I have chosen to work for Ekklesia, and to use this run to raise funds for our work. Because here, I can be part of an organisation with a commitment to promoting visions of better ways for all of us to live.

One of those visions is a fair, just and compassionate social security system, with room for everyone to live in the home of their choosing with the right level of financial support. We had it once, but because politicians have chosen to ignore their privilege, and work for their own interests, we lost it. It isn’t going to be easy getting it back. It will take many papers, blogs, reports, conversations, many campaigns. I’m realistic enough to know that we might not achieve it in the immediate future. But we have to keep trying, for, as Bertolt Brecht put it, “We plant trees for those born later.”

If you would like to support the work of Ekklesia, please do make a donation through Paypal here, marked 'run'. Alternatively please send a donation to the Ekklesia office, Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 235 Shaftesbury Avenue, London, WC2H 8EP making it clear that your donation is in support of my run. You can follow my progress on @run_ekklesia and see previous blogs here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/blogs/virginiamoffat .

Next week’s focus will be Iraq, Syria and the importance of Remembrance.

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© Virginia Moffatt is chief operating officer of Ekklesia. Her blogs can be found here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/blogs/virginiamoffat

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.