Fr Jim Kennedy alerts us to the coming extensive welfare state review and says forewarned is forearmed.
AS THE CONSERVATIVE Government starts an extensive review of the welfare state and the system of benefits, all church leaders, through their various conferences, have sounded the alarm bells.
Our present Social Security system started with the Beveridge Committee in 1941, which was followed by four basic Acts of Parliament culminating in the National Assistance Act of 1948.
There have been a number of items of legislation since then which have brought the system up-to-date. In 1980 two acts started the current trend for chipping away at the welfare state. The first, the Social Security Act of 1980, was mainly concerned with administrative details. It was the second, the Social Security (No. 2) Act of the same year that caused the controversy. It changed obligations in deciding the level of benefit, altered rules governing the relation between sickness benefit and unemployment, and abolished earnings-related supplement to unemployment benefit, sickness benefit, maternity and widows allowances.
Further changes in 1982 made benefit taxable, and added some further administrative alterations. However, it was the Social Security and Housing Benefit Acts (1982) which created chaos and great distress, particularly to people on retirement pensions.
The overall problem is not an easy one. Some £32 billion is spent on the Social Security system, putting it ahead of defence and education in terms of government spending.
There are over nine million people in receipt of retirement pensions, and over three million people, at least, claiming unemployment benefit. Added to that, there are a further five million — the handicapped, the mentally ill, single parents, the low paid — who need some form of help from the state to come up to the minimum subsistence level.
The minimum take-home average pay in Britain today is £75 per week, while the maximum basic benefit for a couple is £52.30. About 18 per cent of all families are trapped between these two figures, and cannot claim any benefit to bring them up to the minimum wage level. It is estimated that 67 per cent of pensioners are on the poverty line, and 75 per cent of those unemployed are just under that level.
Turning to housing, 80,000 households are accepted by local authorities as homeless. The number of single homeless who do not have to be provided for is not known, but is thought to be about the same number again. Two million occupied houses are classified unfit for habitation. A further two million people have to share their homes, and one million homes are overcrowded. In addition, four million people live in homes needing substantial repair, and a million and a quarter are on council waiting lists.
The benefits which are designed to deal with these needs are either contributory, that is from National Insurance monies, or else are noncontributory, from money provided by Parliament, and raised through taxes (as is the money for defence, education and so on).
To say that the benefit system is confusing is to underestimate the situation, so a review is to be welcomed. But if that review is going to mean reduction, or nilgrowth, then it will be totally unacceptable.
The Church leaders are right to hold up a hand and cry "halt". They are asking the government "what exactly are you trying to do"? There seems to be an element of hurry and rush. Yet fundamental principles are involved. Not the least of these is a question of priority. What is the priority of the Government — defence, education or the welfare state?
All the evidence collected by the four review boards set up must be in by July 31. There is no guarantee that after that date adequate debate will take place. First there must be a green paper, allowing for. further discussions. Then the white paper, and finally the legislation. Each of the boards (housing benefit, pensions, children and young people, supplementary benefit) consists of only three people, all of whom are white, middle-class contributors. That is why there must be adequate discussion.
In conjunction with other Churches and such organisations as the Child Poverty Action Group, we need to be sending evidence, either individually or through the deaneries, to the bishops' conference. In particular evidence about how current recipients of benefit feel needs to be heard.
I try never to be personal when writing for the Herald in the sense of seeking letters or 'phone calls. However, I believe that in this case there is a priority matter for the Church and would therefore be happy to help individuals or groups, such as parish Justice and Peace committees, in sending their evidence, or in finding out who to contact, or what is going on.* Some important names are Nicholas Coote, Secretary of the Bishops' Conference Department of Social Responsibility, Lewis Donnelly of Westminster Diocese Social and Pastoral Action group, or else send a letter to your own MP, and to members of the House of Lords (who are crucial in legislation today).
We need to stress to all these people our care and concern in response to the lead given by our bishops.
If we get together, we might be ahead of events, rather than arguing the Gospel values after the event. Of all legislation today, this is one item over which we, the Church, must be most watchful and outspoken. If we are not involved, we will be asked what is the point of the Church in today's society We speak for God, and for his justice in the world; let us not be afraid to use that voice.
*Clergy House, 9 Perkin Street, London EP/ 6EZ (01 987 4523).