Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Politicians and the poor. A sliding scale of respect?

I listened to the proposals for Welfare reform last Thursday seething with anger. A one stage my heated discussion with the BBC Parliament Channel was loud enough to wake my 6 month-old baby in the next room – something any sleep deprived parent will avoid in all but the most extreme circumstances.
The announcement talked again and again of those who refuse to work, while refusing to address the question of where that work will come from. A Spending Review that leads to between 1 million and 1.5 million job losses has just been announced and welfare proposals talk of threats to the work-shy and preparing the willing for the job-market. How can this circle be squared?
More importantly as Job Seekers Allowance is less than £3500pa to cover every expense but rent, who can seriously think that people on this standard of living are not already well motivated to seek additional income?
Church groups from Joint Public Issues Team to Rowan Williams (possibly a greater authority – I will ask Faith and Order) are clear that forcing the long term unemployed people to do “manual work” for the equivalent of £1.73 per hour on pain of losing all their income is not a serious way forward. The proposals will unhelpfully merge the worker employed to do the valuable job of cleaning our public spaces, the enforced worker who is doing this to keep his/her benefits - working for 1/3rd of the minimum wage, and the person doing community service who has committed an offence.
Recent government announcements would lead the casual observer to believe that the coalition values people a similar sliding scale - Private Sector wealth creator, Public Sector worker, unemployed and then offender. The government’s repeated exaggeration of benefit fraud statistics is just one example of this stigmatisation of the least well off.
For the avoidance of doubt the Church’s position is simple: - all are equally valuable, all do not suffer the same level of need and assistance should be provided on the basis of need. And to my surprise in a meeting with Phillipa Stroud, Ian Duncan-Smith’s special adviser, last week it would appear to be her position too.
While I personally disagree with her and the Government’s position on Welfare Reform, and I believe the Church will take a negative view of many of the proposals, it was clear she is a concerned, intelligent and committed Christian working to do what she feels will improve the lives of the poorest. The lesson for me is to listen even when I don’t want to, to respect the views of those I disagree with and to avoid personalising arguments about policy. The people who do not agree with me, the Methodist Church or even Rowan Williams about an issue central to social holiness as welfare reform are still as worthy of respect and consideration as the poorest who we should all be fighting for.