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The Catholic Church was right not to join critics of Iain Duncan Smith’s benefit reforms

Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith

It came as a relief to find that the Catholic Church wasn’t one of the churches lining up to attack the Government’s welfare reforms. Not that I think the Church doesn’t have a perfect right to opine about politics in principle: I mean, we’re all in favour of the preferential option for the poor, on good Gospel grounds. Politics is the stuff of life and the business of Christians. But it’s quite another matter to get stuck into the details of Government policy – you risk being partisan,
or just wrong.

The two cases in point were the combined criticism of Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith by the CofE, the United Reformed Church, Methodists and Baptists the other week and the letter from 43 Anglican bishops before Easter attacking the proposal to cap welfare payments to one per cent. Naturally, the church people made a great deal of noise. But I’m not sure they were right.
The problem about the one per cent cap in rises in benefits is that it’s significantly less than the rate of inflation; if prices were going up by just one per cent a year, there wouldn’t be a problem. So why not criticise the Coalition for high inflation as a burden on the poorest instead? Inflation is, in fact, the logical consequence of one of the main planks of the Government’s policy, otherwise known as quantitative easing – a title so boring, it means the subject is never really debated.

It’s the digital version of printing lots more money, and one effect is to keep interest rates low, which reduces the value of Government debt, and another is to keep inflation higher than it would be otherwise. No one, including Justin Welby, has considered church action on quantitative easing, but if the bishops have the interests of the poor at heart, they should consider lobbying the new governor of the Bank of England, the Catholic Mark Carney, to keep inflation low, rather than raising asset prices for the rich.

Incidentally, it’s not just welfare claimants who are getting the one per cent rise; private and public sector workers are, too. Another contentious element of the reforms are the changes to housing benefit. My own rent from my private landlord doubled last year, so I am a bit sour on the subject of other people having their rent paid by the taxpayer, but perhaps we should consider why it is that rents are so high in the first place, and that means looking at the demand side. One reason why there is such pressure on rents and house prices, especially in London where I live, is that lots of people have come to live in Britain from abroad. During the 10 years between 2001 and 2011, for instance, 3.8 million people came to live in Britain, mostly from outside the EU, and those are the ones we know about. There are anything up to a million people here illegally over and above that.

Of course, many of these immigrants have added enormously to British society in all manner of ways; it’s hard to know where our churches would be without them – certainly, they’d be less full.
But the fact remains that if you have four million people, and possibly five, coming to live in Britain in a mere decade, and with the same rate since – it has only started to slow this year – then of course they’ll need somewhere to live and of course the effect will be to push prices up. And lest this sounds like an attack on poor immigrants, I may say that at the better end of the housing market, Russian billionaires and Saudi princes and Greek tax exiles have dominated purchases in entire neighbourhoods in the parts of London where the middle classes used to be able to buy homes.

Yet has anyone heard a single church person complaining about immigration, even though clergy are perhaps better placed than anyone to see its effects on their own communities? The kind of large-scale immigration that took place under Labour was emphatically in the interests of employers, who could pay lower wages, and of landlords, who benefited from the upsurge in demand for homes, but the one group it didn’t benefit was working-class Brits. Yet the only time I recall the Church sounding off about immigration was to call for an amnesty for illegal immigrants, a disastrous policy which would have the effect of rewarding people traffickers at the expense of the scrupulous.

Now, as it happens I don’t expect the Church to complain about immigration, nor indeed about quantitative easing. I’m just making the point that if the welfare of the poor is your concern, it would be possible and consistent to take a completely opposite stance on these issues to those the bishops normally take. Economics is complicated; so is politics. It’s not an argument for not getting involved, just for taking a broad and sweeping approach to matters of principle rather than trying to micro-manage poor Iain Duncan Smith’s reforms.

It can’t be said I’ve actually read Diarmaid MacCulloch’s new book, Silence; a Christian History, for want of time, but I have skimmed it. And one thing I find he never quite dwells on is the actual practice of silence as in meditative, willed silence. Strange, because Prof MacCulloch is pleasingly talkative himself – though not half as much as I am – and would have some interesting things to say about the difficulties. Personally, I can never go on a quiet retreat without mentally making lists of all the things I ought to be doing once I’m back in business; silence rarely equates to proper meditation. I need monastic help with this one.

In fact, I find not talking much harder than not eating. Perhaps silence could be a new penitential practice for the laity for Lent. Given a toss-up between giving up sweets and giving up talking for minutes on end, I’ll pass on the chocolate.

Melanie McDonagh is a journalist and leader writer for the Evening Standard

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald, dated April 5 2013