Bishops mixing in politics seem to upset the Daily Mail and assorted secularists in equal measure, albeit for very different reasons. And for that reason alone they deserve a big cheer.
I’ve been pondering my own reaction to yesterday’s letter from 43 bishops to the Telegraph (an interesting choice of destination) on the proposal to cap benefit increases.
I think the archbishop’s measured defence of his colleagues and his own views gets it about right in saying that this is a question about one little bit of a programme which needs some rethinking, not an attack on the whole programme, far less an attack on Iain Duncan Smith’s moral seriousness.
I also thought our own suffragan in these parts, the Bishop of Dudley, did a pretty good job of putting forward the case on the news programmes yesterday, and I’m generally persuaded this cap is not the best way forward.
However, I am a little concerned that fighting this particular battle may make it rather harder to fight for changes to what I think is a more important issue coming up. That issue is the payment of universal credit.
While there’s a lot to be said for the overall proposal, I worry about two specific parts of the plan as stated by the DWP:
- claimants will receive just one monthly payment, paid into a bank account in the same way as a monthly salary
- support with housing costs will go direct to the claimant as part of their monthly payment.
However much the Mail and its friends on the Tory right might exaggerate the problem of feckless scroungers, not everyone in receipt of benefit is going to direct their childcare to their children or their housing costs to their landlord. For some families, paying the whole benefit monthly to the claimant is going to feed drinking, drug and smoking habits with money intended for food, clothing and shelter.
At the very least weekly payment (even if it costs more) will be better, and paying rent to the housing association or landlord almost essential if people are not going to be put into significant debt or made homeless quite unnecessarily.
(I note there’s a problem with housing benefit probably creating higher rents all round. I think part of the answer must lie in rent control. To those who think the latter distorts the market, I would say housing benefit has already done that and rent control is about correcting the market.)
To put it generously, some people need much more help to get to a point when they can budget.
Putting all the benefit money monthly into some people’s hands will, in my view, do more to hurt children than a below inflation cap on increases. And part of me is worried that by focussing on the cap, attention is being drawn away from a more serious problem we’re in danger of creating for ourselves.
But I’m no expert (and certainly less of one than our often very well informed bishops), just a slightly worried and ill-informed observer.