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Whose welfare, what provision?

Simon Barrow
15 June 2008

Simon Barrow (London, Ekklesia): The new report commissioned by the Church of England on faith groups, government and social welfare, Moral, But No Compass, has been portrayed in sections of the media as a whining ecclesiastical broadside against Gordon Brown and a plea for special treatment from an Established Church fearful of decline and loss of influence. It’s actually rather more interesting than that, raising a host of thorny questions about how public services are shaped, to what ends, and in partnership with whom.

The report begins by providing a useful condensed overview of the development of modern welfare thinking and organisation – from voluntarism and classical statism through to “best value”, “the compact”, “enabling” and “commissioning”. It reminds readers that Archbishop William Temple was the person who first coined the phrase “welfare state”, and that many of its institutions owe a good deal to church thinking and involvement. This, of course, does not mean that the Church – now one among many religious and non-religious civic bodies – has automatic “bidding rights” in public sector reform, a point that some within its portals seem to be missing.

Moral, But No Compass takes some version of the modern “mixed economy” approach to welfare as read. It chastises the (considerable) number of church figures it spoke to who separate advocacy from delivery and are tempted to see the whole new approach as an attempt to privatize and get “welfare on the cheap”. This is self-referential radicalism, they suggest, hankering after a commanding role for the state that is neither viable nor recoverable.

Though Moral, But No Compass calls for a more “nuanced” response to the changing shape of social provision, declaring that “not all contracts are the same”, critics will suggest that its overall tenor is far too accommodating to the rhetorical flourishes and deceptions of dominant political discourse. It identifies the bureaucracy and centralism of New Labour as problematic (while affirming its moral intent), but does not give any serious account of the economic and political stance behind Tory siren calls to “free” the voluntary sector and “empower” the local.

Regarding the role of faith groups in a mix of statutory, voluntary and private provision, the report’s accusation is that government has not followed through sufficiently on its “what works” mantra. It analyses the capacity of Anglican structures, agencies and congregations in their current social role and in their potential for engagement with welfare reform and service provision, offering some short local, regional and global case studies. There is also a call for the C of E to be more strategically and tactically aware (and self-aware).

This leads on to an exploration of different management, delivery and commissioning approaches (including moral and practical critiques related to Christian social thinking); a “civic value index”, and recommendations to different layers of government and the Church on getting their act together. Whether the evidence of what is presented (there is much more as yet unpublished) bears the weight of what is claimed for it is an important issue for further investigation. The document recognises that it is “exploratory” even though it also describes itself as one of the most extensive surveys of its kind.

Overall, the researchers believe that government substantially underestimates and misunderstands the extent to which church groups already play a vital social role in regeneration, care, housing, advocacy, advice, community development and more. Its particular bugbear is the lack of adequate data, understanding and profiling. But there is an acknowledgment that the kind of voluntary-based contributions to which Moral, But No Compass points still amounts to a “patchwork” – and as the Church Times said this week, this is by no means the same as a comprehensive system of welfare. Indeed, from the perspective of those “in need” (who end up being clients of an “enabling” system still driven by money and power), the patches may be thin and the holes still considerable.

The access and discrimination questions are also huge ones, with many faith groups demanding and getting exemptions from equalities and employment legislation enabling them to favour their own and pick and choose who they will serve. This is something neither the main parties nor churches and other faith groups are fully facing.

A major extension of the “faith sector” providers into the publicly subscribed sector raises huge questions about accountability, fairness, evenness, effectiveness, participation and equity which Moral, But No Compass only begins to avert to. A more substantial critique is needed of what Ekklesia calls the “new deal” between religion and government in the area of public service. This needs to be related to a radical re-think of welfare that is grounded in equality and social justice, rather than over-reliance on technocracy and pragmatism.

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Simon Barrow (www.simonbarrow.net) is co-director of the religion and society think tank Ekklesia.

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