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Universal and Specific

Monday 11 March 2013

I was away over the weekend in Switzerland at a very long-arranged conference (long before I was here) with a Roman Catholic, ecumenical monastic order on the Baptism in the Spirit.

The scenery was refreshing and wonderful, the friendships warm and encouraging, and the content and worship that went with it all uplifting. When I got back to my room there were a few (!) texts, tweets and emails about the open letter signed by a huge number of Bishops, along with statements from the Archbishop of York and myself, about the below-inflation caps on various social security payments.

It’s a very complicated area, and the first thing to say is that the current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, has spent hard years turning himself into a leading and principled expert on welfare, its effects and shortcomings. He is introducing one of the biggest and most thorough reforms of a system that most people admit is shot full of holes, wrong incentives, and incredible complexity. Like many parish priests’ families, we got benefits, and it was incredibly complicated. For lots of people in the parishes where I worked, taking some extra hours of work could actually lower income; that is exactly the kind of thing that the move to universal credit aims to change.

The Work and Pensions Secretary is also attempting this series of reforms at a time when, through no fault of his own, government finances are more squeezed than at any time in peace since the 1930s. And reforms cost money. So he also has to manage a considerable task. That is why in my letter I was careful not to imply wrong motives or anything like that. Having met him, I am absolutely convinced he is trying to do something that he knows more about than most – and with the best possible motives. But, with a number of other Bishops (and we tend to live in, or have lived in, or have clergy living in, the most affected parts of our country), I feel that the particular way the burden is being shared is wrong. Mr Duncan Smith thinks I am wrong, and that is how democracies work: they are ways of disagreeing profoundly, but not destructively.

So this is not a great, grand political gesture, but a reasoned questioning of something that a lot of people are concerned about. It is not me saying the government is evil (I am much less cynical than many about politicians of all sides), but that I don’t agree on this particular bit of a programme which in general is incredibly brave. Perhaps a little less heat and a little more clarity would help.

Author: Justin Welby

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