Tony Blair's new faith film competition

The choice of judges confirms that our former prime minister is rather too fond of celebs.

Sometimes it's quite difficult to decide what to make of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Its aim to increase understanding across religious and cultural divides is perfectly admirable. Whether our former prime minister is necessarily the man to do it is, however, debatable.

When not busy raking in enormous amounts of cash from speeches and now an autobiography, Blair has managed to make a lot of noise "doing God" (as he didn't when in office), but not all his fellow believers are convinced that this is helpful to the cause.

Anyway: now the TBFF is launching a film competition called Faith Shorts, open to those aged 25 or under. Entrants are asked to pitch a film about how their faith inspires them. Those shortlisted will be provided with video cameras to shoot their shorts, as it were, and the three winners will be given the opportunity to premiere their work at Bafta in July.

All very good. I'm a little perplexed by the judging panel, though. The members include Queen Rania of Jordan, Jonathan Caplan, Amr Khaled, Jet Li, Wendi Murdoch, Natalie Portman, June Sarpong, Nik Powell and Deepak Verma.

Many of these judges are extremely famous (I've even seen posters of Jet Li in longhouses on Borneo), which is doubtless flattering for all the participants. It is also true that several have a great deal of experience in the world of television and film. But the panel does sound a little short on members with strong religious credentials. It is not exactly in danger of being criticised for its highbrow slant, either.

Maybe I'm being uncharitable. But the choice of judges does not do anything to diminish the suspicion that Blair is rather too fond of hobnobbing with celebrities.

We like our ex-prime ministers to come across as dignified. A little less glitz in the life of the last occupant of No 10 would be welcome -- and especially in the context of a faith foundation, which surely should not be in the business of suggesting that worldly fame is something to be valued in itself.

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.
For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.
IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.
Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.
Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.
Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.
The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.
His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.
He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.
I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.