|Religion and Politics|
|Organised religion is always ambiguous. It can be both an instrument for good or for great evil. When I consider the history of organised religions the world over and look at the present state of our world and the countless acts of violence committed.
|Inequality: it’s not the politics of envy|
|It’s hard to hold onto intuitions that equality and fairness are important when others – including most of the government – seem to have abandoned theirs. A belief in greater equality has always been close to the core of socialism.
Equality in practice
by Stephen Timms
When Jesus said ‘the poor you will always have with you’, (Matthew 11), he was not endorsing inequality. Quoting Deuteronomy 15, he was reminding us that God’s earth provides for all, but sin – human greed and selfishness – keeps people poor.
As a Minister, I bring values to every decision I make. They are Labour values, of a society where ‘power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many’. These are values with their roots in the Bible.
I want everyone who can to have the chance to work. Work is a good thing. People in work are not only better off. They feel better about themselves, and enjoy better health. A job provides purpose, and a place in society. Pulling down barriers which deny people work is a moral cause.
‘Pathways to Work’ is a programme to help people on incapacity benefit back to work. Since April it has been operating nationwide. I recently met in Cardiff a woman who had run into health problems at age 17 – she is now 39, so has been on incapacity benefit for 22 years. She always hated Jobcentre review meetings, because the only thing ever suggested to her was a job on a supermarket checkout. Her interests were working with animals or elderly people.
She told me that, visiting Pathways for the first time, her adviser said something extraordinary and unexpected. He said: “Would you like a cup of coffee?” From then on, she knew this was different. She started volunteering with the RSPCA, and, when I met her, she was about to start paid work as a domiciliary carer for elderly people. She was ecstatic.
Previous Governments have been content merely to pay people benefits. But we are committed to investing in every person, so they can benefit from work, and benefit society through their work.
This is equality in practice – providing opportunities to all. Having a job is the best anti-poverty measure. In households where someone works, children are much less likely to be in poverty. The combination of the minimum wage, tax credits and new in work support help ensure that people are financially better off in work.
The rise in employment has been crucial. Earlier this year, the number in work passed twenty nine and a half million for the first time ever, and it hit a new record last month. There are around 800,000 people on unemployment benefit – the last time it was that low was in June 1975. Today we can extend opportunity to people denied it for decades.
Other measures have helped – higher child benefit, renovating a million social homes, winter fuel allowances and doubling the funding for every school child.
In 1997, one in three children lived in poverty. Child poverty had doubled under the Tories, to the worst rate in Europe. Since 1998, we have halted and reversed that trend. If the Government had simply up-rated the 1997 tax and benefit system, child poverty would be 1.7 million higher instead of 600,000 lower.
We have set ambitious targets on child poverty: to halve it by 2010 and abolish it by 2020. These are tough but achievable targets. Recent data has shown a small rise – about 100,000 – in the number of children in poverty in the past two years, but budget decisions will lift another 500,000 children above the poverty line by 2010.
But there is much more to do, and Government can’t do it alone. Public pressure on poverty provides the oxygen for progress. Inertia on poverty – or, as we saw in the early nineties, an unwillingness to accept the reality of poverty – or attempts to redefine poverty as something else – are not good enough.
Critical friends will urge faster progress – but will note also the trends in spending and policy.
I welcome the Conservative Party adopting a different rhetoric on poverty. But in opposition they have opposed every major measure to help people on low incomes. They opposed the Minimum Wage; tax credits; more help for pensioners.
CSM’s sustained focus on equality is very important. If Government drifts, or if it is only an aspiration, then poverty will rise again. So let’s speak with one voice on this crucial issue - welcoming progress when we see it, but urging further action and pressing for more.
Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP is Minister of State at the Department of Work and Pensions and Labour Party Vice Chair for Faith
Stephen Timms MP, 05/02/2009