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Archbishop Speaks Out On Welfare Reform

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu.

Sunday 7th July 2013

The Archbishop of York today spoke out at General Synod during the debate on "Welfare Reform and the Church". The Archbishop called for greater help to be given to those in poverty and revealed he will Chair a new Living Wage Commission. His speech in full follows...

"The concept of the ‘undeserving poor’ seems to be one which periodically comes to haunt British society. It is a concept to which Government, the media, pub conversations, return with pompous self-righteousness whenever times are hard.  The ‘scroungers’ we hear so much about are a convenient scapegoat when it seems expedient to make sure someone pays the price of the hardship we fear.


But set against this is a more edifying story of social concern amongst our leaders and our neighbours. Lloyd George’s National Insurance Act of 1911, and Lord Beveridge’s Report in 1942 were the culmination of years of care and concern about the poor and vulnerable in society. Archbishop William Temple, said of the Beveridge Report: “This is the first time anybody had set out to embody the whole spirit of the Christian ethic in an Act of Parliament”.

It is unthinkable that people are now trying to undermine and scrap such public policy.


In 1942 William Temple had published his ground-breaking work, Christianity and the Social Order, where he sought to apply Christian values to the political issues of his day. Key to this work was his identification of three principles: freedom, fellowship and service and how their application might lead to a more just society.


The Church has always been in the forefront of the challenge to speak and act prophetically, to give a voice to the voiceless and hope and help to those in need. And we must continue not only to show mercy and kindness, but to shine the light of truth onto the debate about Welfare, and resist the rhetoric that accuses many of choosing a life of idle dependence to the detriment of society.


It is an insult to claim that poverty in this country is caused by people choosing unemployment.  Six out of ten families in poverty have at least one adult in work.

We need to remember who caused our economic downturn. Was it those workers on low wages, working hard to provide for their families – or was it the gambling casino culture of a group of wealthy bankers that has left our economy where it is today? Who was bailed out with large sums of money?


We need to focus on what we are doing for the working poor – rather than stigmatising and dehumanising those going through tough times.

Until we pay a proper Living Wage for a proper day’s work, we will always have the problem of some people being unable to provide for their families.


Paying a Living Wage is not about generosity or charity; it is about fairness and justice.  I was glad to receive an invitation – which I accepted - to Chair the new Living Wage Commission. This will be launched on the 19th July.


Income inequality is an affront to our perception of ourselves as a healthy and modern society.  My own experience as Sponsor of the Fairness Commission in York that is that, in our society, we often have real affluence living next door to real deprivation.


Research has shown that a wide range of social problems are more common in societies with larger income differences between rich and poor.  Mr David Cameron himself has said that, “We all know in our hearts that as long as there is deep poverty living systematically side-by-side with great riches, we all remain the poorer for it.”


Britain is, sadly, among the more unequal of the rich countries. Cutting welfare benefits and squeezing the voluntary sector, can only result in more injustice and misery.


What we need to do is ensure fairness is put back at the heart of the decision-making process – whether that’s in Whitehall or in our town halls – and we all need to do what we can to tackle poverty in practical ways, not ignore it and hope it goes away.


We, as a Church, need to remind people of what they know in their bones – that huge inequalities are an affront to justice, and a threat to a cohesive society.  

For me, the road to recovery is a path not of riches, but of service, mutual resourcing and togetherness. Something for something.  It is rooted in the rediscovery of a vision to rebuild community in recognition of our duties to one another. Rediscovering the wellsprings of solidarity.


Together, the Church and State must work to regain the Big Vision for society under God, which Jesus Christ has called us to show in our care for our brothers and sisters.  We must live the Beatitudes and cause them to pervade all our communities."

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