Church leaders call for Government and Executive clarity on Welfare Reform

29 Feb 2012

Church leaders call for Government and Executive clarity on Welfare Reform

Northern Ireland’s Church leaders have called for more clarity regarding the proposed legislation on welfare reform and an indication of what will be decided by Westminster legislation and the areas in which the Northern Ireland Assembly will have autonomy. The call was made at the beginning of a discussion event organised by the Church leaders and held tonight, Wednesday 29 February at 7.30pm in the Presbyterian Assembly Hall, Assembly Buildings, Fisherwick Place, Belfast. (ref: media invitation issued Monday 27 February.)

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP, and Social Development Minister, Nelson McCausland, addressed an invited audience and took questions from a panel representing various interest groups whose work will be directly affected by changes to the legislation.

The Church leaders involved were Cardinal Seán Brady, Archbishop Alan Harper, Presbyterian Moderator Dr Ivan Patterson, Methodist President Rev Ian Henderson and President of the Irish Council of Churches, Dr Richard Clarke.

Last December the church leaders travelled to London to voice their concerns to Lord Freud, the Minister for Welfare Reform who is drafting the legislation. Subsequently they have held meetings with the Secretary of State and Minister McCausland.

“Our primary concern as Church leaders has been to clarify the implications of the Social Welfare reforms passing through Westminster for the people of Northern Ireland,” said Cardinal Brady.

“We want to respectfully challenge those who hold authority in civil society to act with justice and to show compassion to those most in need. Those with the least capacity to suffer cuts should not be made to suffer more. We want to express our concern at the potentially dramatic and negative consequences for some of the most vulnerable in our society and for the wider economy in Northern Ireland.”

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said: “Those who are too sick or disabled to work will always receive support from the state as they should. It is precisely because we need to protect the vulnerable that we need a system that works .  Few people disagree that the present system is broken and   as a country we cannot go on increasing out of work benefits without ever tackling the root causes of deprivation. There is nothing moral, progressive or compassionate about leaving people on benefits without support or incentive to get back into work.

“These reforms will ensure that work always pays, that the most vulnerable in our society are protected and that the welfare system is fair to those on benefits but  also  fair to those who pay for them .

“It is for the Executive in Northern Ireland to bring forward the legislation here once the Bill has been passed in Westminster, and for legal and practical reasons parity should be maintained; There will however be areas where the Executive will want flexibility to fit local circumstances and we will do whatever we can to accommodate that. That is why we have been meeting Nelson and his department officials and many other groups such as the church leaders, so that we can help ensure that Northern Ireland’s specific issues are reflected where possible.”

Speaking at the event, Social Development Minister, Nelson McCausland, said; “I recognise the concerns many have regarding the proposals to reform the welfare system. That is why I have engaged with the church leaders to hear their concerns to me, and it is why I am here tonight.

“It is generally accepted that the welfare system is complex and increasingly expensive to run, so reform is essential. As the church leaders have already said, whilst they support reform of the welfare system, they also have concerns about some of the welfare reform proposals.

“As Minister, I have already challenged some of the proposals and am working with my Executive colleagues to find ways to minimize the most negative aspects of these reforms. While it is possible to make some adjustments to operational delivery, it is essential to maintain Parity with the rest of the United Kingdom in delivering the reforms.

“I am committed to ensuring that the most positive aspects of these changes; those that will make work pay for people, those that will help move people closer to the workplace, and those that will ensure our welfare system is sustainable for future generations – are maximized in Northern Ireland.”

The discussion event began with a welcome from the Presbyterian Moderator, Dr Ivan Patterson, and opening remarks from Cardinal Brady (see below).   This was followed by two speeches, firstly from the Secretary of State and then the Social Development Minister, Nelson McCausland. (Their press offices will issue respective speeches).

Members of the panel who discussed what they heard and, together with the audience, put questions to the main speakers were Mary McGinn and/or Pól Callaghan of the Citizens Advice Bureau, Director of St Vincent de Paul, Cormac Wilson, the Skainos Project’s Glenn Jordan, Hilary McClay who runs a social action project at Willowfield Parish Church, Harriet Poynton of the Salvation Army and Lindsay Conway, Director of Social Service for the Presbyterian Church.

Notes to editors:
•    Requests for interviews with the Church leaders will be dealt with by Stephen Lynas – details below.
•    The Church leaders are Cardinal Seán Brady, Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, Most Rev Dr Richard Clarke, President of the Irish Council of Churches, Archbishop Alan Harper, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh, Rev Ian Henderson President of the Methodist Church and Rt Rev Dr Ivan Patterson the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church
•    Cardinal Brady’s address follows

Opening presentation by Cardinal Seán Brady, Archbishop of Armagh at Church Leaders’ Discussion on Social Welfare Reform in Northern Ireland
Let me first add my thanks to those of the Moderator to all of you for being here. Let me also thank the Moderator and the Presbyterian Church for their generosity in agreeing to host this evening’s event.

It is so appropriate that we have come to these historic Assembly buildings for this discussion on Social Welfare Reform. This building symbolises the mix of deep Christian conviction, human genius and hard work that made Belfast one of the fastest growing economic hubs of the industrial revolution. It is a reminder of past achievements and also of the many opportunities that lie ahead.

It is worth noting that the stained glass windows just behind me here at the Organ gallery were put back into place in 1992. They had been removed during the troubles to protect them from further damage following the scores of bombings that scared this city for many years. They are a powerful symbol of the hope we share together of a brighter, better future – a future that lies firmly and realistically within our collective grasp.

The scenes depicted on these windows also reveal the reason why disciples of Jesus Christ have an active interest in issues such as Social Welfare Reform.

On one side of the Organ gallery we have depicted the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments. Since then, the Ten Commandments have shaped the basic principles of social culture and jurisprudence in most of the western world. We ignore them at our peril. At their heart is a careful balance between our rights and our responsibilities as children of God placed in this world to serve God and our fellow creatures. That call is not just to remember the Covenant but to honour its obligations in how we organise society and live our lives. The issues we are discussing this evening are, at their heart, about our rights and our responsibilities. They are about our duty towards each other and those who are always regarded in the Mosaic Covenant as especially deserving of our care and attention – the widow, the stranger and the orphan.

And this brings me to the panels on the other side of the Organ Gallery. Here we see depicted four of the best known parables of Jesus. Among them we have the parable of the talents, symbol of the profound duty we each have to use the talents and gifts we have been given for the glory of God and the good of others. It is a reminder of the fundamental Christian duty to play our part in society where we can. Sitting back and letting others take all the burden is not an option in the Christian vision of work, welfare and society. We have a duty to God, ourselves and to each other to put our talents to work where and when we can.

In another panel we have perhaps the best known parable of the Gospels, the story of the Good Samaritan. This parable reminds us that for each and every one of us life can throw up any number of unexpected set- backs and challenges. We are reminded that, through no fault of their own, many in our society have to cope with unforeseen events that leave them vulnerable and in need. We cannot walk by on the other side, as if we have no responsibility. We have a duty to help. Their need may be short term or long term, depending on their circumstances. But there can be no doubt that caring for those who are vulnerable and in need is a fundamental duty of a Christian society.

Indeed, Saint Matthew, in Chapter 25 reminds us that our final judgement will depend on how well we have responded to Christ present in those in need. Coming immediately after the parable of the talents, the words of Jesus are straightforward: ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ (Mt 25:34-36).

So, these beautiful stained glass windows explain very aptly why, as Church leaders, we feel compelled to raise our voices in support of all that promotes the dignity of the human person and the genuine good of our society.

Churches have many people working on the front line of responding to social need. Thousands of volunteers, clergy and church workers are engaged every day in responding to the social and economic challenges of their local community. I am delighted that they are so well represented here this evening – on our panel and in our audience. It was in response to those in initiatives like the Skainos project and organisations like the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul that we first became aware as Church leaders of the potentially dramatic implications of Social Welfare reform for Northern Ireland.

I have to say that there was immediate and consistent unanimity among us. We did not want to pass by on the other side! As Christians, we want in this event and in the meetings we have had with political representatives to give witness to our shared responsibility for the society in which we live.  We want to make public our interest in and commitment to the common good of our society. In particular, we want to allow our voices to be raised with others on behalf of those who so often go unnoticed and unheard – the marginalised, the disadvantaged, the elderly, the sick, the vulnerable and the weak. We want to help identify the pathways to a culture of shared responsibility for each other and for the public good.

That is the purpose of tonight’s event. It follows meetings we have had over recent weeks and months with the Secretary of State, with Lord Freud in Westminster, with other MP’s and members of the House of Lords and with the Minister for Social Development in our own Assembly, Mr Nelson McCausland.

We are immensely grateful to the Secretary of State and Minister McCausland for making themselves available for what I believe is the first public discussion of these matters in which the Secretary of State and a Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly have taken part together. A very sincere thank you to both of you, it is a privilege to have you with us this evening.

In all our representations to politicians in Westminster and the local Assembly to date, our primary concern as Church leaders has been to clarify the implications of the Social Welfare reforms passing through Westminster for the people of Northern Ireland. We want to respectfully challenge those who hold authority in civil society to act with justice and to show compassion to those most in need. Those with the least capacity to suffer cuts should not be made to suffer more. We want to express our concern at the potentially dramatic and negative consequences for some of the most vulnerable in our society and for the wider economy in Northern Ireland.

At first glance the potential consequences of these reforms could hardly be more dramatic: the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that after London (because it is a high rent area), Northern Ireland will be the region hardest hit by these reforms.[1]  The loss to benefit recipients here is estimated to be more than £600 million per year by 2015.[2]  The high numbers of those in receipt of Disability Living Allowance in Northern Ireland, partly as a result of the troubles, and the high number of families with children on benefits, make the issues we are discussing this evening critically important for literally tens of thousands of people across all sections of our community.[3]

While commending the basic principle that work should be incentivised over welfare, we have asked as Church leaders how such a policy can work in a time of economic downturn and increasing unemployment. We have drawn attention to the high levels of economic disadvantage which may be further compounded by the dramatic withdrawal of over half a billion pounds a year from a struggling Northern Ireland economy. In particular we expressed concern about the implications for childhood poverty in Northern Ireland. We already have the highest level of child poverty in the UK, twice the rate of any other region. We are the only region where child poverty is increasing. We have made a special appeal to the Secretary of State and others to ensure that whatever reforms are introduced are accompanied by pro-active measures to stem the increase in childhood poverty in Northern Ireland.

I know the Secretary of State has answers to many of these questions that he would like to share with us this evening. As Church leaders we are delighted that he has taken this opportunity to give his first public address on his Government’s intentions behind these Social Welfare reforms. We also look forward to hearing the perspective of the Minister for Social Development, Mr McCausland on the issues that arise for the local Assembly in translating these Welfare Reforms from Westminster to Northern Ireland. We are grateful to the members of our panel for bringing the perspective of those who work on the front line of responding to social need on a daily basis. Finally, we are grateful to all of you for bringing what I am sure will be an informed and challenging perspective on all of these matters into our discussion.
And with that I now hand you back to Seamus who will introduce the next stage in our programme.

[1] James Browne.,  IFS Briefing Note 114 The Impact of Tax and Benefit Reform to be introduced between 2010/11 and 2013/14 in Northern Ireland pg 6
[1] Response to Northern Ireland’s draft budget, Mike Tomlinson and Grace Kelly, Poverty and Social Exclusion Project 2011 p 1
[1] Ibid


Further information:
Catholic Communications Office Maynooth: Martin Long 00353 (0) 86 172 7678 and Brenda Drumm 00353 (0) 87 310 4444
Presbyterian Church Press Office: Stephen Lynas 0044 (0) 780 226 4354