Heseltine challenged on criticism of Archbishops' inequality claims

By staff writers
January 19, 2015

A clergyman who has been a tireless grassroots anti-poverty campaigner has written to challenge Lord Heseltine over his claims that recent statements about poverty and inequality in the UK are "factually wrong" and "out of touch".

In an open letter circulated by Taxpayers Against Poverty (TAP), and republished as part of a paper published by the beliefs and values think-tank Ekklesia, Mr Nicolson highlights the government's benefit freeze, the facts of income inequality, the impact of welfare changes, the burden of the non-progressive council tax, and hunger as among the clear indicators that poverty is a serious issue in an increasingly divided society.

The letter is a personal appeal, in that Mr Nicolson used to be a member of the Bow Group with Lord Heseltine – a former deputy prime minister under Conservative PM John Major, and holder of a range of cabinet positions under Margaret Thatcher.

Mr Nicolson, who has been in court for withholding council tax in protest against the penalisation of economically deprived people in inner London, says that comments about the unacceptability of levels of poverty and inequality by Anglican Archbishops Justin Welby and John Sentamu, made in relation to a new collection of essays entitled On Rock or Sand? Firm foundations for Britain's future, are "right as far as they go, but have soft-pedalled the plight of the unemployed."

"The giant that must be slayed is income inequality – where some few have far too much and the many have too little,” Archbishop of York John Sentamu said last week, in introducing the book.

What angered Lord Heseltine, who in the Thatcher government argued for more support for Liverpool, in particular, is the assertion by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby that the regions are declining in relation to London, and that "there are now fewer readily available government resources able to support economic development in these regions."

"I think it's simply out of touch”, said Lord Heseltine of claims in the book edited by Archbishop Sentamu. "“I have spent some 30 or 40 years dealing with leaders in local authorities and the transformation, and they acknowledge this, is extraordinary”, he said.

However, in its paper Combatting the denial of poverty and inequality, published this weekend, the think-tank Ekklesia points to the analysis of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) as showing the devastating impact on local services of government cuts to local authority funding, and to the data-based research of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Equality Trust on what the latter calls "excessive levels of inequality" in the UK.

The Equality trust, in its 2014 report published A Divided Britain – Inequality Within and Between the Regions, notes that "we should not trivialise just how unbalanced the UK is towards London and the South East. But it must also be noted that the most significant and troubling inequality is ... between those at the top and the rest of us."

The point is reinforced by the charity Oxfam today (19 January 2015), which says that the combined wealth of the richest one per cent will overtake that of the other 99 per cent of people globally in 2016, unless the current trend of rising inequality is checked. (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21323)

Simon Barrow, co-director of Ekklesia, said: "The Rev Paul Nicolson is surely right to challenge Lord Heseltine and other politicians and media commentators on their easy dismissals of concern expressed by the Anglican archbishops about the unacceptable extent of poverty and inequality in austerity Britain.

"Both the facts and lived experience, including the alarming rise of foodbanks in one of the richest societies on earth, backs their claim.

"Of course the demographics and economics of regional and national inequality are complex, but this should not be used as an excuse to avoid the challenge of poverty and the massive gaps in income and wealth to which the archbishops, along with charities, other churches, academics and others are pointing.

"The need to address inequality and the suffering caused by policies that make life increasingly difficult for the poor, the vulnerable, the disabled and sick people in Britain should be at the top of the agenda for all parties and candidates in the forthcoming General Election."

The concern about poverty and inequality expressed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York follows on from similar views expressed by senior Catholic leaders, the Methodist, Baptist and United Reformed Churches, the Church of Scotland, groups like Church Action on Poverty and grassroots initiatives such as End Hunger Fast http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/2132 in addition to anti-poverty NGOs and charities.

On Rock or Sand? is to be launched officially at a London event on Tuesday 20 January 2015.

Sir Philip Mawer (Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards from 2002 until 2008 and former secretary general of the Church of England's General Synod) will chair a panel for the Question and Answer session to follow. Both Archbishops and all contributors will be present.

* 'Combatting the denial of poverty and inequality' - Ekklesia, January 2015: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21318

* Taxpayers Against Poverty (TAP): http://www.taxpayersagainstpoverty.org.uk

* Archbishops robustly challenge government on income inequality: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21305

* Research reveals huge impact of cuts on local authority services: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21313

* Richest 1% will own more than all the rest by 2016, claims Oxfam: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21323

* On Rock or Sand? Firm foundations for Britain's future, edited by John Sentamu (SPCK, January 2015) ISBN 978 0281 07174 6. Price: £9.99

* More on General Election issues from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/generalelection2015

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