The Right Rev John Packer, Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, tells Chris Bond why he decided to fight the Government’s benefit cap plans.
EARLIER this week, the Government suffered an embarrassing defeat in the House of Lords over its plans to introduce a £26,000-a-year cap on benefits.
Liberal Democrat, Labour and crossbench peers backed an amendment to exempt child benefits from the proposed cap, by 15 votes, sending the Welfare Reform Bill back to the House of Commons where frustrated Ministers will seek to overturn the defeat. The opposition was led by the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, the Right Rev John Packer, along with four fellow bishops, who argued that plans to limit the amount of benefits a single household can receive “cannot be right”.
It has sparked a battle of wills between the Commons and Lords that looks set to continue, with the bishops at the heart of it. They were criticised by Welfare Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, after he suggested they should show greater concern for working people rather than fighting for the benefits of unemployed families.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, also weighed into the debate. Writing in the Daily Mail, he said the “greatest moral scandal” was the scale of the country’s debt, and a welfare system that had become “an industry of gargantuan proportions” which was “impoverishing us all”. It was a stinging rebuke to his fellow bishops who he claimed were flying in the face of public opinion.
It emerged, too, this week that senior bishops are facing their own spending cap. Church of England officials confirmed the cap will be lowered by a third from 2014, meaning members of the clergy will have to cut the costs of running their houses and mansions.
But despite the criticism thrown at him, Bishop Packer – who sits alongside 25 fellow Church of England bishops in the House of Lords – is unrepentant over his stance. Speaking to the Yorkshire Post, he said: “When you get a massive piece of legislation like the Welfare Reform Bill, the important thing is to see what the unintended consequences are and who it is actually going to damage, and one of the groups that it was most obviously going to damage was children.
“In the cap legislation as it stood, before the amendment, there was no reference to children at all. It was as though they had been airbrushed out of the whole discussion about people on benefit. As it has turned out in the discussion, with words like ‘feckless’ being used, it’s come to be seen as something that is almost punitive in the way in which it is designed.”
He rejects the argument that the cap is a way of encouraging people to get jobs. “It is quite difficult to take seriously a Government assertion that this is designed to get people back to work when there aren’t any jobs for them to go and do. Many of the people who will be caught by the cap are people who would love to work but can’t find jobs and therefore need the welfare benefit. In particular, we need to assert the need for children to be properly looked after in any welfare system.”
He also questions whether the coalition does actually have the support of most people in the country, as it claims. “It depends what question you ask the public. If you asked ‘is it right for there to be the same cap on benefits for a childless couple, as for a couple with four children?’ I don’t think they are going to say ‘yes’ in answer to that question and that’s the question we were looking at.”
But irrespective of the motives behind their action, there is the question of whether members of the clergy, who have no electoral mandate, should be able to override the decisions and opinions of elected MPs. “Bishops have always been members of the House of Lords and it is our task to fulfil our duties. There is a particular need for the bishops to raise questions as to the way in which legislation affects the way we treat each other within our society. It seems to me that one of the things politics is about is the way we treat one another in our society and one of the things faith is about is the way we treat each other, so they come together quite closely.”
Bishop Packer isn’t surprised at the level of criticism he has faced but believes much of it is ill-directed. “I have never denied the need for a cap, which is what some of the critics have accused me of, and I don’t deny there are some people who misuse benefits, just as people misuse every other part of our financial system. But the vast majority of people who are on benefits are on them because they need it. I think it is the task of bishops who are members of the House of Lords to raise questions and in this particular case because we had raised them it was appropriate for me to propose the amendment.
“It was something we did feel very strongly about and the fact that this amendment got through the Lords with a significant number of the Lib Dems voting for it and a massive majority of the cross-benchers who don’t have a specific political allegiance, seems to me to demonstrate that it did touch a chord and as the debate developed it was clear that our arguments were winning the day,” he says.
“There’s no reason why generosity shouldn’t be a real element of moral capitalism and I believe the Welfare Reform Bill, in essence, is good in that it will get rid of the plethora of benefits there are at the moment which just confuse everybody and replace them with universal credit.
“What we’re seeking to do is in ways that are not desperately expensive and which don’t wreck the principles of the bill, is to say there are moral issues, particularly regarding children, and the bill needs to help them.”
Given his support for a more compassionate form of capitalism does he then support the Occupy movement in its fight against greed and social inequality?
“The Occupy movement has been a commendable one and has raised the issue of the gaps within our society and I do strongly believe that our society is far more unequal than it needs to be and anything that can be done to create equality, in this case in terms of money, is good.
“The danger of the Occupy movement is that we’ve come to emphasise the movement itself rather than what it stands for, because the things that it stands for are entirely appropriate and commendable.”
And what about the Church’s role – does it have a voice beyond the pulpit that has something meaningful to say in today’s secular world?
“I hope there will be many people who, when they read what has actually been said, will think this is something that it is important to have said and it’s important that the Church has said it.
“I believe we live in a period when people are searching for more than money, that they are looking for spiritual elements in their lives. The very large number of people who are present at carol services, the number of people who will be involved in church services to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee this year and the number of people we get when we pack Ripon Cathedral for Candlemas this week, all show there are a very significant number of people in this country who find that valuable.
“There are people who want to come and share in that and who want a spirituality which will build on these things. Even though many of them do not come to church Sunday by Sunday, the Church has something very real to offer them and I hope that we shall do so to an increasing extent.”