Welfare: Moral responsibility or sinful waste?


Christians on the Left held its annual Tawney debate last night during which the vitality and ethics of the welfare state were discussed.

Andy Flannagan chaired the debate and in his opening statement spoke of the personal aspect of welfare policy, dismissing the idea that what sometimes seems like vague politics affects real families, and has a lasting impact on real communities all over the UK.

"The dignity of man is that he is a child of God, capable of communion with God, subject of the love of God – such love as is displayed on the cross – and destined for eternal fellowship with God. His true value is not what he is worth in himself, or to his earthly state, but what he is worth to God, and that worth is bestowed upon him by the utterly gratuitous love of God," he said, quoting William Temple.

"All his life should be conducted and ordered with this dignity in view. The state must not treat him with the value only so far as he serves his ends. The state exists for its citizens, not its citizens for the state, and neither must man treat himself or conduct his life as if he were the centre of his own value. He is not his own end. His value is his worth to God, and his end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever."

Dr Anna Rowlands, Professor of Theology and Ministry at Kings College London was the first to take the floor. She began by highlighting the number of Christian leaders who have spoken out regarding welfare in recent weeks "from the frontline of the Church's pastoral experience".

"What they spoke against were the social facts: increased hunger, destitution, and growing imbalance in equality," she noted, adding that they have connected these issues to three aspects of current welfare policy: the move towards a more punitive, sanction-led government, bureaucratic inefficiency, and a "seemingly irrational welfare policy" which negatively affects the poorest members of society.

Dr Rowlands underlined the importance of faith leaders exercising their "rightful duty to be overseers" and of letting "suffering speak", noting that it is integral to the mission of the Church.

She challenged society's belief that autonomy is inherently good while dependency is always bad, noting that at the heart of the Christian faith is dependency on God, meaning Christians must use their judgement to wisely discern between good and bad dependencies.

She also discussed the original meaning of the term "welfare state", coined by Temple in 1928, which did not just refer to a few specific policies regarding social security, but rather the "general disposition of a democratic state".

"A welfare state was used to denote the opposite of a power state, which rules over its people, suppressing their individuality and denying its citizens true social participation. A welfare state by contrast ruled with and for people; an active state, committed to partnership within the wider civil community," she explained.

The main thrust of Rowland's argument was the need to "rethink the character of the state" and create a more responsible, participatory and relational economic system.

"I believe that what is at stake with the current discussion about welfare is the shape of British society for a generation. We need to think again about virtues and responsibilities, and rethink the capacity of the state," she said.

"Social criticism can only stand up ... if it is grounded in something deeply true beyond itself."

Shadow Secretary for Work and Pensions and Labour MP Rachel Reeves then took the floor, also championing the role of the Church and its ability to have a significant impact within local communities.

She built on Dr Rowland's arguments from a political perspective, asserting that government policies must embody the values that allow its citizens to flourish.

"Care and compassion and solidarity and contribution go hand in hand," she said, adding that the welfare state needs moral foundations if it is to give people dignity and a decent standard of living.

She argued that "the welfare state has to make moral sense" and perpetuate values of equality and fairness, supported by a "wider context of responsibility and compassion", in order to be sustainable.

"The welfare state can't be an island of compassion and solidarity in a society without those values," she said. "[It is] part of the fabric which binds our communities – not something that is separate from them."

She urged those present to practice these values in their everyday lives, in business, in community and the way they treat one another. Only then, she said, would the welfare state truly be able to function to its full potential.

However in her concluding remarks, Reeves was keen to assert the importance of establishing economic practices which do not create widening inequality in the first place.

The debate was then opened up to questions from the floor, during which Reeves defended the Government's decision to cap the welfare budget at £119 billion, saying it was important "not to close our ears to the legitimate concerns about the welfare state".

Dr Rowlands, however, criticised such a cap as "arbitrary and calculating, rather than relational and personal".

"There seems to be a disconnect between the wider vision you've discussed and this cap," she argued. "Your logic doesn't lead to this."

Other issues raised included the general public's misguided perception of the welfare state, and the polarisation of opinions brought about by such TV programmes as 'Benefits Street'. Reeves also mentioned the failure of Cameron's Big Society, which she said hinged on the mistaken belief that the voluntary sector and the state are separate entities. Instead, she argued, they must work together.

The debate concluded with both women agreeing on the necessity of a democratic debate to widen public knowledge of welfare and its related issues, as well as the need for a redistribution of power within the UK.

"We need to make politics local again. To overcome the democratic deficit we need a devolution of power; a relational local context...We have narrowed, distanced and centralised the sense of what politics is," contended Dr Rowlands.

"We need to help people to understand that the passions they have are political...they're not disengaged from questions of structure and power, they are distanced from the process, and that needs to change."