Church of England

Tax credit cuts: Bishops regret "short-term impact", but not the PM's sophistry


Tax credits are not given to shirkers, but to strivers. They are paid to the lowest-earning families in society to help them feed their children. There is a ‘working tax credit’ and a ‘child tax credit’, and the average claim was of £6,340 a year. It’s all quite complex in the calculations, but, absurdly, if you had three or more children, it meant that you could claim tax credits even if you were earning as much as £65,000 a year.

There are moral arguments for retaining the system (it helps to make work pay), and arguments for scrapping it (better to reduce income tax,  raise the minimum wage and reduce welfare spending to something sustainable). There is also an argument for some sort of transitional arrangement so that those who really do work hard to live on the breadline can still afford their daily bread. The national debit and lingering deficit are not the fault of hardworking families, but this system does need reform. Higher wages are always going to be preferable to burgeoning welfare.

The Rt Rev’d Christopher Foster issued the following statement in the House of Lords:

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth to move, as an amendment to the motion in the name of the Lord Privy Seal, at the end to insert “but this House regrets that the draft Regulations fail to take account of concerns about their short-term impact on working families and individuals currently receiving tax credits, and calls on the Government to consult further on the draft Regulations and revisit their impact.”

This is quite tractable. It isn’t a demand that we carry on spending and living beyond our means. It isn’t an insistence that we continue with Labour’s fiendishly complex tax credit system and burden our children and grandchildren with the bill. We’re talking about a saving of £4.4bn a year – some £20bn over the course of this parliament – and every little helps.

The thing is, the Prime Minister stated very specifically that he would not do this. Just days before the General Election, he was asked directly by David Dimbleby on a special edition of BBC Question Time:

Dimbleby: “Clearly there are some people who are worried that you have a plan to cut child credit and tax credits. Are you saying absolutely as a guarantee, it will never happen?”

Cameron: “First of all, child tax credit, we increased by £450..”

Dimbleby: “And it’s not going to fall?”

Cameron: “It’s not going to fall. Child benefit, to me, is one of the most important benefits there is. It goes directly to the family, normally to the mother, £20 for the first child, £14 for the second. It is the key part of families’ budgets in this country. That’s not what we need to change.”

Of course, political sophistry in order to curry the people’s favour is nothing new: democratic politics has not changed since Plato wrote about his ship of state. And there is manifestly some confusion about what the Prime Minister did say or intended to say in this exchange.

But the “regret” of the Lords Spiritual would have been of greater moral force if, in addition to making appeal on behalf of those three million hardworking families who will lose about £1000 a year, they had reminded the Prime Minister of his word, which ought to be his bond. After all, if the Prime Minister is elected having apparently given an assurance that something will not be so but then he makes it so, is it not the function of the Upper House – and especially of the Lords Spiritual – to breathe a little truth into proceedings; to gently rebuke, correct, wade through sophistry and train in righteousness?

Or is it that they are bound on the same whirling wheel, and see through the same glass, darkly?