Seeking anonymity

In the second of our series on faith in the financial crisis, the Director of the St. Paul's Institu

Each morning at the early service at St Paul’s Cathedral prayers are offered for different groups of City workers in turn. Everyone – office cleaners, financiers, insurance workers, restaurateurs, waiters, street cleaners, builders, and so on – is prayed for. As the credit crunch has bitten harder, so there have been more prayers: those affected are mentioned at the larger services of evensong every night and at the Sunday morning eucharist, attended by hundreds of people. It’s one of the ways the Cathedral can respond to the current situation. Most people don’t know we do it; but we do it, and it’s at the front line of our care.

The atmosphere around the Cathedral in the City, and even more so further east in The Wharf, is strange. There’s a studied air of "business as usual" but the feeling is different. More fear, more uncertainty, less busyness, more reflection. We don’t know who of the many people that come to the Cathedral for quiet prayer are there because of large or small financial worries. We don’t ask people, unless they want to talk, because a Cathedral can offer a great gift to the public: anonymity. It’s a big place and you can mind your own business if you want to. In the mornings, when we open up for Mattins at 7.30, a few people wander in to sit quietly for a moment or two on their way to work. The Cathedral is silent then, and beautiful.

The Cathedral is full of staff, clergy and lay who see themselves as there first and foremost for the people who visit. We are conscious that the City is shaky and that its workers are under horrendous pressure. There is always someone available from our pastoral team to spend time with anyone appearing at our doors in distress. The offices in the vicinity of the Cathedral can ask for passes so that their staff can visit whenever they want to; coming in and out as neighbours, as and when they wish, rather than attend as paying tourists.

The Cathedral is also addressing the broader ethical and social issues arising from the current crisis, seeking to make a serious and challenging contribution to how to emerge from its ravages wiser and better governed. What individual and corporate lessons in business ethics need to be learned? Will financial institutions need to constrain their global ambitions? What should risk strategies look like? What makes for genuine human flourishing? St Paul’s Institute for 21st century ethics is holding a series of debates in October on money: on global institutions and global governance; on the interplay between individual responsibility, rule making and ethics; corporate standard-setting; free markets; and the impact of the credit crunch on the third world. We will bring together practitioners in the financial world, moral philosophers, theologians, social historians and economists, in the Cathedral itself where we can host audiences of up to 2,500 people, for free and un-ticketed events. We can bring together people who wouldn’t otherwise meet - from business, the professions and other walks of life.

We are encouraged by senior figures in the City who advise us that we are playing an important part, as a large religious institution in the heart of the City, in evoking wisdom in the midst of a confusing and frightening time.

Claire Foster is Lay Canon at St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London and Director of the St Paul’s Institute

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.