And because this of all things would rejoice his heart, let us at this time remember in his name the poor and the helpless, the cold, the hungry and the oppressed…
So prayed the congregation at King’s College Cambridge as they do every year in the popular broadcast service. It probably always was a bit of a mismatch. People who turn up to the services probably don’t think of it as an act of solidarity with the poverty-stricken, any more than singing ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ generates concern for the people who live there, surrounded as they are by the Israeli security wall.
I have never known a Christmas when the mismatch is so stark, at least here in the UK. A major issue at present is the use of ‘benefit sanctions’. The Government has been determined to reduce the levels of welfare benefits for the unemployed, making heavy use of the rhetoric of ‘scroungers’ and the ‘workshy’. At the same time many of those in paid employment are having their pay reduced and the amount they have to do increased. This means greater stress and less time to do anything else. Government rhetoric has been encouraging hostility between them (‘hard-working families’) and the unemployed, to make further benefit cuts politically popular. Benefit sanctions are the next step in this process: stories are emerging of those entitled to benefits (through unemployment or disability) being denied them for flimsy reasons. We are hearing complaints of job centre staff even falsifying records in order to reject benefit claims. Why? Apparently because of targets: job centre staff, it seems, are given targets for rejections rather than being expected to judge each case on its merits.
A major source of these stories is the food banks. The organisers, naturally curious about the rapid rise of the number turning up to ask for food, ask about the reasons and hear the answers. Benefit sanctions do seem to the the main cause of the recent rise. The Chair of the Trussell Trust, a Christian charity promoting food banks, is quoted by the Daily Mirror criticising the inhumanity of the system:
When someone is a few minutes late for an appointment at the Jobcentre because their bus doesn’t turn up, they should not be taking money away for several weeks. It’s inhumane.
The Labour Party asked for an independent enquiry into the situation, and a debate was held in the House of Commons on 18th December. Naturally it was defeated. A Green Party member wrote to his Member of Parliament, Eric Ollerenshaw (Conservative), asking why he had voted against it. Eric replied:
…it had been deliberately drafted by Labour to include policy statements that no Government bench member could support. For instance, in addition to calling for an investigation into the use of foodbanks the motion called for the introduction of the following Labour Party policies: ‘a freeze on energy prices, a water affordability scheme, measures to end abuses of zero hours contracts, incentives to companies to pay a living wage and abolition of the under-occupancy penalty.’
In other words he thought the Labour Party had worded the motion in such a way as to ensure defeat.
I report the information as I have received it. I don’t visit the jobcentres and food banks to see for myself. I don’t have inside knowledge, so this is second-hand. Nevertheless there are so many stories of dramatically increased hardship that it hard to believe they are all made up.
In this situation, what does it mean to pray for the poor in Christmas services? Is it just a superficial sop to the conscience, as though saying the prayers exonerates us from doing anything for them? Is it pure hypocrisy? Or is the unchanging prayer, in its setting in a well-established service, an affirmation of an unchanging spirituality that carries on regardless of changing realities? In that case, does the present situation drive a wedge between those who care and those who don’t? And what happens to that other wedge, between religion and politics?