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Cardinal Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster: He calls the welfare reform "punitive" (credit: Vincent Bradley)

"Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" Those, or something like them, were the fateful words Henry II let slip in 1170. The cleric who had provoked the king's ire was his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas à Becket. The monarch's careless talk cost a life, for he aired his rhetorical question within earshot of four eager-to-please knights. They raced straight to Canterbury to bump off Becket on the steps of the cathedral's altar. 

Last summer I moved to America, just outside Washington, D.C. Living abroad has afforded me a new perspective on welfare reform at home. From here it looks as if the roles of Henry and Becket have been reversed. Now it seems that an Archbishop, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, wants to get rid of a minister — though, in our gentler age, the disposal Nichols probably imagines for the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith is the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. (I'd take a quick death in my favourite cathedral any day.)

Exercising the "privilege" of speaking truth to power, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales has branded the government's benefit changes "punitive" and the fall-out "disgraceful". His strongest claim is that "the basic safety net that was there to guarantee that people would not be left in hunger or in destitution has actually been torn apart". 

The Cardinal Archbishop is not out on a limb. The Church of England's hierarchy has backed him up, delivering its most blistering attack on the Coalition to date. Twenty-seven Anglican bishops and leading Methodists, Quakers and other Christians told the Daily Mirror making the difficult-to-substantiate claim that "over half of people who use foodbanks have been put in that situation by cutbacks to and failures in the benefit system, whether it be payment delays or punitive sanctions". 

In other words, the turbulence being inflicted on the welfare system is an increase in sanctioning activity. And it is true: more people than ever before are having their benefits suspended — mainly Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA)— for failing to look for work, not participating in back-to-work initiatives like the Work Programme or missing meetings with welfare advisers. As many as 789,000 sanctions were imposed last year — double the monthly rate under Labour. 

Despite this, from across the Atlantic it looks as if Nichols et al exaggerate grossly. Here President Clinton's 1996 welfare legislation led to a far more stringent regime. The welfare rolls plummeted as lifetime benefits were limited to a maximum of five years and the new Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) introduced a looking-for-work component. Furthermore, in the Commonwealth of Virginia, where I live, sanctions are frontloaded: you are automatically disqualified from unemployment benefit if you're found to have "quit your job without good cause". More recently, in December 2013 Congress allowed to expire extended benefits for the long-term unemployed — an emergency measure put in place in 2008.
In Britain, by contrast, despite their rise this year, sanctions still only make up 6 per cent of those seeking JSA every month. And a significant amount of lost JSA is coming back to individuals via hardship payments. As for Nichols's claim that the safety net for the unemployed has "actually been torn apart", you don't need the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to remind you that it continues to spend £94 billion per year on that net. You can simply listen to Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves lambast the Tories for profligately spending half a billion pounds more a year than her party did.

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March 28th, 2014
11:03 AM
Thanks James - highlighting the rift between DWP and the Treasury is helpful and important. In defence of the bishops', though: they have been carefully listening to people working for Foodbanks - struggling to keep up with ballooning demand - and from their account it seems pretty clear that the gap between 'stick' (tough) and 'root' (love) has been painfully wide. Can we really blame all of that on the Treasury only?

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