Osborne re-toxifies Tory brand for Catholics?

Generally speaking I try to keep this blog apolitical for a multitude of reasons, perhaps because like many Christians I have absolutely no idea where I fall on the political spectrum: biblical Christianity does not fit neatly into the left/right praxis of modern Western democracies and currently like many orthodox Christians and Catholics and it would seem, most of the electorate, I feel politically disenfranchised. If an election were called tomorrow, I couldn’t vote for any mainstream political party in good conscience, and even choosing the candidate most likely to reflect Catholic teaching is a rather tough call in Brighton and Hove.

Any residual sympathy for the Tories, who seem to be more sympathetic to a pro life agenda and who, unlike Labour, allow their MPs a free conscience vote on matters such as same sex marriage and life issues, has dissipated with George Osborne’s announcement that he plans to curb child tax credits. The precise details have not yet been announced but this will be a blow to thousands of families already feeling the squeeze in the most difficult economic climate for generations.

Make no mistake, the welfare system does need an enormous overhaul, we are trapped in a vicious circle where most families need government welfare in order to top up household income to afford the cost of living. Whilst the government continues to subsidise us, the deficit continues to grow and employers have no incentive to raise wages and thus the cycle continues, but if working tax credits are withdrawn thousands of families will fall into poverty, with waves of house repossessions and potentially catastrophic circumstances.

Osborne’s answer to the spiralling welfare bill seems to be very short-sighted, namely to stop families from having too many children in order to reduce the state’s financial burden. Whilst this might appear to be a sensible policy on the surface, anyone in dire financial straits who seriously cannot afford to feed, clothe or house additional children should temporarily delay having children until they are in a better position, it does at the very least, send a very clear message that more than two children should be the preserve of the wealthy. It also dangerously assumes that the state should assume financial responsibility for families, which of course, is one of the difficulties with welfare as a whole.

The problem is that in an ideal world, welfare should be a safety net only, society has a duty and obligation to look after those who are unable to provide for themselves, however we have got ourselves into a situation where most families rely on assistance from the state, for better or worse. The ideal would be for the state to help families wean themselves off support, however this is not going to happen when wages are not keeping pace with rising inflation, not to mention the catastrophic property boom which has made buying and even renting a family home, out of the reach of many.

If George Osborne curbs child tax credit, the effect will be felt hardest amongst families at the lower end of the earnings scale. Apparently the thinking behind it is to prevent the caricature families with 15 children, parents who have never worked, possess large flat screen TVs, coupled with smoking and drinking habits that the mainstream media like to demonise. No doubt there are families like this who do abuse the system, but welfare is a very blunt instrument with which to cut down on abuses, and as the ESA reforms show, it is largely innocent people who get caught in the crossfire.

From a pro-life point of view these reforms could well exacerbate the soaring abortion rate as well as encourage euthanasia twenty years down the line, when our ever-aging population finds that it has a real shortage of young people to boost the economy. Who is going to work to pay taxes to help fund the costs of care for us when we are elderly and sick? Will there be enough people to actually physically look after us or will care homes and hospitals find themselves with labour shortages? Is it fair to put the burden of looking after elderly parents on one child?

The abortion statistics show year after year, that the majority of abortions occur in the 25+ age category. Around 30% of women who terminate their pregnancies are aged 30 and over. These are very often women who already have a family, who are well aware of foetal development, who know the realties of pregnancy and child-rearing and yet feel that they have no other realistic choice. It’s a situation with which I have much personal empathy. I know only too well what it is like to be pregnant and worried about the future holds, to be seriously scared about whether or not you will be able to provide for another child, financially, practically and emotionally. Even if your child tax credits are not topped up substantially, the extra £13 per week in child benefit provides reassurance that at least the nappies will be affordable. For those thinking that an extra baby need not be a huge expense – simply the nappies, without any other expenditure put an extra burden on the grocery bill, and that’s before one’s thought about formula milk, then later shoes, which can’t always be passed down, and the extra food required – break, milk, cereals, fruit and veg, which have all seen substantial price rises over the past few years. I still shudder when I realise that it’s impossible to buy a loaf of bread for under £1 in most supermarkets.

Women who abort, don’t tend to do it for just one reason alone, there are a plethora of inter-related anxieties, of which money and finances often feature highest on the agenda, particularly for those who already have children. For many it is not simply a case of having to forgo luxuries but very real pressing concerns about making ends meet. George Osborne might think he is preventing dependence on the state, but the grave side effect of this policy is that it will encourage abortion. What happens to a woman who loses her job or whose partner loses their job or perhaps walks out on her when she’s pregnant and already has children to look after? She either aborts, adopts or struggles to fend for her children, but it’s hard to give hope and encouragement when the government are saying that unless you have a steady permanent well-paid job, your children are not welcome. It’s certainly at odds with a government whose leading members are wanting to reduce the abortion time limits.

It makes no sense that Ian Duncan-Smith’s eminently more sensible idea of means testing payments such as the winter fuel allowance for the elderly, many of whom are the baby boomers who have profited from the property bubble and are enjoying a lavish retirement, has been rejected, in favour of targeting so-called feckless families and only drives these families further into poverty, regardless of whether or not they are in work. Perhaps the Government needs to do more in terms of job creation?

It is fear of stigmatisation, fear of people’s perceptions, fear of being written off as being either a feckless teenage mum or a scrounger on welfare that is a very real deterrent for women with unplanned pregnancies, along with concerns about how they are going to manage. These proposed welfare cuts are a real blow to creating a more life accepting society.

I am not sure whether or not a Catholic in good conscience could endorse such a government which not only seeks to use its powers to limit the number of children the average family has (given the previously mooted cuts to child benefit) but also creates an environment more likely to drive women to abortion. What if these so-called feckless families out of work continue to have children, undeterred by the cuts? Even if they save money on the welfare bill, they are still likely to cost more in terms of needing support from other services such as health or education providers.

The words of Paul VI seem ever more prophetic.

Who could blame a government for applying to the solution of the problems of the community those means acknowledged to be licit for married couples in the solution of a family problem? Who will stop rulers from favoring, from even imposing upon their peoples, if they were to consider it necessary, the method of contraception which they judge to be most efficacious? In such a way men, wishing to avoid individual, family, or social difficulties encountered in the observance of the divine law, would reach the point of placing at the mercy of the intervention of public authorities the most personal and most reserved sector of conjugal intimacy.

EMA, Marriage and “Emancipation”

I had a slight online altercation with Johann Hari on Twitter earlier this week. Altercation is probably too strong a word, more like I insinuated that his stance was slightly foolish, he attempted to justify it and then he ignored me. Quite right too. I have to confess to a shred of disappointment that I didn’t join that elite band of Tweeps who he has blocked – “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers”…

Mr Hari had, in his infinite wisdom, exhorted his followers to join a Facebook group entitled, “I would happily sacrifice my married couples’ tax allowance to save the EMA”.

The logic behind it being that EMA currently costs the treasury £500 million per annum with the proposed married couples’ tax allowance estimated at £550 million per annum. I don’t feel particularly inclined to discuss the EMA issue, other than to note that it seemed like a charming piece of naivety to assume that the coalition who are ideologically opposed to EMA, faced with an electorate who were declining a potential tax benefit, would say, “you know what, not many of our voters are that interested in receiving their £150 per annum, so let’s just keep the EMA after all”. They’d still cut EMA regardless.

The other point that this group failed to grasp was that the £150 a year, which they quantify in terms of buying married couples a Big Mac a week between them, compared to the resources needed to attend FE, is not about providing a financial incentive to marriage. What David Cameron appears to be wishing to do, is to provide married couples with a reward, for society to grant some recognition, no matter how small, to the contribution that marriage makes to society. Whether or not this is some sort of misguided sop to attempt to appease his core voters as well as an attempt to give a nod to the religious communities who all strongly advocate marriage, particularly in terms of being the most stable environment in which to bring up children, is a matter of conjecture. Whether or not it is a worthwhile use of resources is an entirely different matter and one on which people may draw their own conclusions.

The opposition would do well to avoid claims that it’s an attempt to bribe people to get married or stay in abusive relationships; £150 will probably buy you a wedding cake and marriage licence, but that’s about it, certainly not enough to make couples commit to marriage in their droves. Equally no woman suffering from domestic abuse is likely to be swayed to stay in that relationship by the offer of £150. Many women in those situations (and I am loath to employ generalisations on this topic) are not likely to be in control of their finances and thus £150 will make no odds. I should imagine that when fleeing one’s home to a refuge with your children, taking the bare essentials, that lost £150 or Big Mac per week is going to be the last thing on one’s mind. What many detractors to the Married Couples’ Tax Allowance are against, is the idea that society might reward or recognise marriage as being the ideal, which conflicts with their personal ideology and situation and allegedly “judges” those who are not married. If the Opposition are going to fight this, they need to make a serious economic case, instead of anti-marriage rhetoric and talk of forcing women to stay in dangerous relationships. There needs to be dialogue about whether or not this would amount to unfair penalisation of single mothers and whether or not the government should legislate for private morality; not reduce the argument to a banal statement about whether or not married couples need an extra burger a week, side-stepping the entire issue.

The group itself is disingenuous in its objectives, and Johann Hari short-sighted in promoting it. When I probed him on it, he unsurprisingly patronised me by informing me that it was in the Tory party manifesto and that I needed to do some research on it. Rightyho then Johann, let’s just assume that most folk on Twitter expressing some sort of political opinion didn’t bother to acquaint themselves with party manifestos. Given that there currently is no Married Couples’ Tax Allowance for the under 75s, it is simply being discussed as a possibility in the next budget, it seems rather daft to be renouncing something that you don’t actually have. Makes you look, dare I suggest, a touch stupid.

My other niggle was that given Johann Hari is neither married or in a civil partnership, I take umbrage at him strongly suggesting that people should volunteer to relinquish a tax benefit that he himself would not be party to. “I want you to give up your extra £150 for students in FE, but I’m not going to because I don’t get it anyway”. Although, if I’m honest, I’d probably bristle at any well-paid commentator for a national newspaper telling me to give up money, given that I’m in less of a position to be able to afford it. The statement lacked integrity. His response to this was “but my taxes are going to be used to pay the new subsidy”. Sorry to let you in on a teensy wee secret Johann but death and taxes are a fact of life and there will always be disagreement as to how taxes will be spent. I’m also a taxpayer and there are plenty of things that I cannot abide my taxes going on. A democracy elects a government whom they hope will best represent their wishes on how to spend taxes and manage the economy, amongst other things.

The aspect that riled me the most however, was the attempt to rally political activism by means of a Facebook group. Don’t get me wrong, the internet and social media are extraordinarily useful tools in building online communities, gathering together support and fellowship and hopefully building coherent groups, but they are only a part of the story, only part of the armory in achieving real social and political change, no matter what one’s cause or ideology. To rely too heavily on the internet, be it blogs, social media, or both in combination is to waste opportunity. Though I find Twitter immensely useful in terms of keeping abreast of developments and in forming useful relationships and finding Catholic fellowship; one major drawback, is that too much time reading a liturgical blog can, if one is not careful, detract one from reading the source material itself. One picks up bite size chunks of this and that, without ever reading the text in its entirety, meaning that one is unable to form critical judgements, only gleaning from the opinions of others.

Reliance solely upon social media, risks, as the Pope said this week in his message for the 45th World Communications Day, enclosing ourselves in a parallel universe, and must not replace authentic human encounters. In terms of political or social activism, it can encourage laziness. In terms of spirituality it must not replace prayer or meditation, instead providing aids, such as the Universalis application, for example.

If we examine how social change has come about throughout history, it has been through cogent protest, demonstration and activism. What has had more impact, the student demonstrations and occupations, or an online protest group with say 1,000 members? It’s one thing to spout polemic on the internet, another thing to actually get up and do something, whether that be to protest, or to practically help those in need, instead of simply talking about them. Same applies for Christian spirituality. It’s not enough to go to Church every week, you need to actually live your faith by word and deed, proclaim and live the Gospel, not just tick the weekly Mass obligation box.

It is not enough to simply click “like” or “join” on a social media group and feel like you’ve done your job, if change is what you desire. The internet is not “the means of human emancipation”.

Which is why, Johann Hari, I found your exhortations more than a little lame.