David Cameron has written a powerful reply in this morning’s Daily Telegraph to the attack by Archbishop Vincent Nichols on the Government’s welfare policy. The Prime Minister says:
“For me the moral case for welfare reform is every bit as important as making the numbers add up.”
Cameron’s argument is convincing. But there are two reasons why it will be difficult to persuade a number of serious-minded critics such as the Archbishop that this is so.
The first problem is that so much of what the Government says from day to day is indeed about “making the numbers add up”: an emphasis which can make the moral case for welfare reform seem like an afterthought.
The public generally accepts the need for welfare reform: it knows the previous system, which left millions of our fellow citizens to rot in silent idleness, was indefensible.
But although this instinctive support for reform is of immense value, it does not absolve ministers from the duty to make more frequently the explicit moral case for what they are doing.
The second problem is a more general one, about the very nature of the welfare state. The difficulty is this: how do you decide who needs to be given money, and who does not?
Economic criteria are not sufficient for making this decision. Consider this situation: two young men arrive in one of our cities looking for work. Neither of them has any money, so both of them might be assumed to be in need of support from the state.
But one of the young men has a good education, and friends from university with whom he can stay while he finds work. These friends will not only let him sleep on their sofa: they will also help to put him in touch with employers who will be keen to employ him. Almost at once, he is on his way.
The other young man has no education and no friends with whom to stay while he sorts himself out. He is the one in need of help. But how long will he need help, and at what point will that help start to undermine his desire to make a career of his own and stand on his own two feet?
These judgments are difficult enough to make if one knows that young man well: if one is a member of his family or one of his acquaintances. But they are even harder for welfare officials to make, who generally lack close knowledge of individual cases, and are also bound by rules which make it difficult or impossible to exercise the wide discretion which is actually required.
So hard cases sometimes occur. The Churches are bound to hear about those cases, and to speak up for them.
But part of the answer to these criticisms has to be that no welfare state can be perfect. One of the cruellest illusions of collectivism, T.E.Utley once pointed out, is that compassion can be delegated to the state. It cannot be, and to suppose that it can be is morally evasive.
None of us is absolved, by the mere act of paying our taxes, from the duty to help other people. This was the insight which Cameron was attempting, somewhat ineffectually, to convey when he talked about the big society. The more the Tories show that they understand this, the less open they will be to the unjust suspicion that they are a party which cares only about the rich.