Welfare reform is one area in politics where Christians are really setting the agenda in the UK. Both at the heart of government and as protestors, Christians are deeply involved in the debate. But it’s a source of division and controversy, and both sides make a good case.

There are enormous changes happening this year to welfare. There will be a new system which amalgamates the labyrinthine system of benefits such as Jobseekers’ Allowance and Housing Benefit into one payment, called Universal Credit. There’s also going to be a limit on the amount of benefits someone can receive. There have already been significant changes; the work programme means the people on Jobseekers’ Benefit have to take full-time work placements for periods of time, or risk their benefits being stopped; the ‘fitness for work’ test introduced to encourage people on disability benefits back into work is said to have led to the vulnerable being expected to work. These are just the tip of the iceberg. It’s a radical agenda, but change is said to be long overdue by people on all sides of the debate.

On the left

The impact of the changes is debateable. A report from Heriot-Watt University and the University of York found that the number of homeless and rough-sleeping people continues to rise in England at present, and predicted that ‘deepening benefit cuts are likely to have a much more dramatic impact on homelessness’

Many Christians on the left are opposing the plans. Legislation to introduce a ‘cap’ on the amount a family can receive at £26,000 a year was the subject of a rare bishops’ rebellion in the House of Lords at the start of 2012, led by the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, John Packer. Research from The Children’s Society, a charity with a strong Christian heritage, inspired them to act. It argued that the cap would disproportionately affect children ? because most people who receive more than the cap do so because of child benefit, or because they live in London and their housing benefit is high. The Baptist Union of Great Britain, Methodist Church and United Reformed Church issued a statement strongly criticising the cuts in welfare provision, saying it’s taking cash from ‘people already living on a knife edge’

These people don't quite fit the stereotype of the foxhunting toff who couldn't care less about the poor

Rob Carr at the Christian Socialist Movement (CSM) is highly critical of the reform. ‘A lot of the cuts are coming in during April 2013 and the impact of them is going to be very severe…bigger than the general public are aware of,’ he says. ‘CSM doesn’t have a position except…the biblical one: we should help the poor and we should help our neighbours. To my mind…we need to be looking after those who can’t look after themselves and at least giving them a helping hand.’

There is certainly a strong biblical mandate to serve the poor, from passages such as Isaiah 58:6-12, James 1:27, 1 John 3:17 or Deuteronomy 15:7-8. However, those politically more right wing can point to verses such as 2 Thessalonians 3:10-11, 1 Timothy 5:3-18, 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12, which suggest that personal responsibility is important and that we shouldn’t support people who could help themselves if they chose to do so.

The Department of Worship and Praise

There can be a caricature of the right as the Eton-educated, privileged, braying Tory who sneers at the poor. But the government ministers who are in charge of welfare reform, in the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), are mostly devout Christians with a strong track record in social action. There is the Catholic Iain Duncan Smith, who founded the Centre for Social Justice while the Tory party was out of office. Its aim is to ‘find and promote solutions to deep-rooted poverty in Britain’. Its creation was inspired by IDS’s encounter with Janis Dobbie, whose son died from a heroin overdose after leaving prison. ‘He is the only politician who has ever come here who seemed genuinely horrified by what he saw’, she told The Observer newspaper in 2006. The top brass reportedly wanted IDS out of the DWP at the last reshuffle, but IDS dug his heels in, passionate about his cause.

There is also the evangelical Lib Dem MP Steve Webb, and Andrew Selous who is parliamentary private secretary to IDS. Both have been involved in welfare reform from the beginning. The DWP special adviser Philippa Stroud worked in Jackie Pullinger’s well-known ministry to addicts in Hong Kong, and she personally set up several homeless hostels in Bedford (her book, God’s Heart for the Poor, gives an idea of where she’s coming from). These people don’t quite fit the stereotype of the foxhunting toff who couldn’t care less about the plight of the ‘lower classes’

So why are these committed Christians implementing change that is being so strongly criticised by poverty campaigners? ‘You couldn’t have designed a system that was better at keeping the poor poor,’ says Colin Bloom, head of the Conservative Christian Fellowship. ‘God says our number one priority is to care for the poor and marginalised. That is what is motivating Christians involved in welfare reform. This notion that the left are putting out that Conservatives are all evil bogeymen who don’t care about the poor is absolutely ridiculous. I would argue we’re doing more for the poor by helping…to lift them out of poverty.’

For Christians on the right, allowing people to languish on a comfortable though small benefit cheque, which does nothing to motivate people into work, creates more problems than it solves. IDS lost his temper in a Question Time debate in November with the prominent leftie commentator Owen Jones. ‘I didn’t hear you screaming about the 2.5 million people who were parked, nobody saw them, for over ten years, not working, with no hope, no aspiration ? we are changing their lives. I’m proud of doing that,’ he growled. ‘Getting them off benefits is what we’re going to do.’

And the left can acknowledge that the other ‘side’ has good intentions. ‘I’ve met IDS several times socially and I believe his heart is in the right place,’ says Carr. ‘His department comes under pressure from the treasury [who are] demanding cuts from spending. The easiest way is to cut the welfare bill. I don’t believe that IDS sits in his office and thinks, “How can I hurt the poor today?” He has the same kinds of ends in mind, but I think his means are misguided.’

Damn lies and statistics

Drilling down into who is in the right is a difficult task. As soon as you start to investigate the benefit system and whether it is too generous or too limited, you get bombarded with complex statistics, each side presenting good evidence for their position. It is also a matter of perception. The Children’s Society research that so impassioned the bishops showed that for a couple with four children in London who pay rent of £250 each week, their income under the benefit cap would reduce from £389 each week to £250 each week ? theoretically leaving them with nothing. But it could be argued that it is the astronomical rents that need to change, not the amount given to people, and most of the country has much lower rents.

When a case study of how the cap would affect a real Welsh family of eight was posted online on the BBC News website, their income of £582 per week was being spent on items including 24 cans of lager, 200 cigarettes and a large pouch of tobacco, and a Sky TV subscription. The benefit cap would reduce this income by £82 a week, which would cover these items, though the father said the cuts would mean choosing ‘between eating or heating.’ The comments from the public were not sympathetic. For many who work on low incomes, this becomes a justice issue ? but with the injustice against them. If some can have a similar income while not having to work it seems to them to be incredibly unfair. According to the British Social Attitudes survey, the public has gradually become less sympathetic to welfare claimants over the past 20 years.

And as for most people, an income of £26,000 seems generous (equivalent to £35,000 as it is not taxed). Archbishop Cranmer, a prominent right-wing Christian blogger, commented, ‘How in the name of St Gemma could an income of £2000 a month be considered poverty?’ Yet the left claim that these levels are rare, and most people on benefits receive much less. And they point out that today’s economy doesn’t have loads of jobs for all the people who have been on benefits for years.

On the right track?

Christians who work alongside people on benefits often agree that the benefit system can be too generous and promotes dependency. Jon Chilvers leads a homeless project and is part of Jubilee Church Leamington. He also stood as a candidate for the Green Party. He says the Tory’s welfare reform bill was ‘on the right track’ on his blog, ‘Resistance and Renewal,’ although he opposes the benefit cap. He argues that the current system encourages people to stay on benefits rather than find work, and supports the principle of benefits being removed if they refuse to work. ‘The small group that will never be able to work again in any area should receive our generous support. The majority who have the capacity to do some form of work at some point in the future should be given our generous support in providing the help they need to move them back towards work,’ he says.

‘The benefits system has to change,’ commented Jon Kuhrt on the same R&R blog. ‘It’s not “anti-poor” to state this ? the system has created dependency which needs to be understood and dismantled. Doing this will be painful and hard but it has to be done. I think it’s too easy to say it’s an “evil Tory plot” ? although I am a member of the Labour Party, I actually think that Iain Duncan Smith has got a lot right about this analysis of both the structural failures of welfare and also the need to focus on issues of worklessness and the family.’

Kuhrt criticises commentators who ‘stray too far from the front line of these issues and think that high levels of welfare payments simply need defending…From my experience, some forms of benefits and the culture they help create do ruin lives.’

Change hurts

The changes are radical, and their introduction may cause problems. The new Universal Credit system relies on up-to-date information from the tax system on how much a person is earning, in order for the monthly benefit entitlement to be worked out. Should there be glitches with the new system, it could mean severe difficulties for people who have little or no other ways to get funding. People who are very used to fortnightly payments will have to learn how to budget for a month, which could make it easier for those on benefits to transition into work. However, the Work and Pensions Select Committee suggests that people who are not used to monthly payments may turn to loan sharks. So there will be a great need for budgeting skills and responsibility to be taught and encouraged, which churches could assist with.

People of Prayer and Christian commitment wil;l come to different conclusions on particular aspects of political development

Christians on the left sometimes paint the right as uncaring and ungodly in their lack of compassion, while Christians on the right can view the left as naïve and lacking wisdom. Because the system is so complex, it could be that there are both people who are struggling and also some who are comfortable and unmotivated to work. Perhaps it is unavoidable that when the complex system of welfare is seriously reformed, there will be unforeseen effects. If there is truth on both sides of the debate, it explains the controversy and the lack of understanding of the other’s position.

Unity in Christ

The motivations of Christians on both sides in the political debate, though, are to help people. Even on a divisive issue, there can be community and unity. Perhaps this is most clearly seen when one side acknowledges the successes of the other. ‘It is always true that Christians in politics will come to different conclusions on particular matters…I think that many of the aims of the government in Universal Credit and in encouraging people to be at work are ones which one would support,’ says Bishop Packer.

‘It’s possible to have a system where benefits and the system of work can work together to encourage work, which it says in the Bible is a good thing, but on the other hand you can also have a system that does protect the poorest who can’t find work and those who are unable to work,’ says David Binder, a family fiscal policy consultant for CARE, speaking in a personal capacity. ‘Too often in Christian circles it can become a polarised issue…the way CARE sees it is that you can have something that protects the poorest but also encourages work.’

‘It is important to recognise that people of prayer and Christian commitment will come to different conclusions on particular aspects of political development,’ says Packer. ‘That’s always been true and that’s fine; that doesn’t deny our common Christianity and commitment to Christ.’