Bishops attack government's planned benefit cap

Backed by Rowan Williams, 18 Church of England bishops condemn coalition's controversial welfare ref

Eighteen bishops, backed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, have demanded that the coalition rewrite their controversial plan to place a £500-a-week benefit cap on families.

The bishops urge MPs to back a series of amendments to the bill, which is due to be debated in the House of Lords tomorrow. In an open letter to the Observer, they warn that the plans risk pushing "some of the most vulnerable children in the country into severe poverty", and say that the Church of England has a "moral obligation to speak up for those with no voice":

The introduction of a cap on benefits, as suggested in the Welfare Reform Bill, could push . While 70,000 adults are likely to be affected by the cap, the Children's Society has found that it is going to cut support for an estimated 210,000 children, leaving as many as 80,000 homeless. The Church of England has a commitment and moral obligation to speak up for those who have no voice. As such, we feel compelled to speak for children who might be faced with severe poverty and potentially homelessness, as a result of the choices or circumstances of their parents. Such an impact is profoundly unjust.

We are urging the government to consider some of the options offered by the Children's Society before the bill is passed into legislation, such as removing child benefit from household income for the purposes of calculating the level of the cap and calculating the level of the cap based on earnings of families with children, rather than all households. The government could also consider removing certain vulnerable groups from the cap and the introduction of a significant "grace period" of exemption from the cap for households which have recently left employment.

This intervention follows a period of soul-searching about the role of the Church of England, prompted by their attitudes to the anti-capitalist protesters camped outside St Paul's: Canon Chancellor Giles Fraser resigned over plans to evict them forcibly, arguing that the Church should stand up for those with a moral argument, while Williams expressed support for their cause.

An initial statement from the Department for Work and Pensions suggests that the bishops' call has not been taken on board. A spokesman simply reiterated that: "It simply isn't fair that households on out-of-work benefits can receive a greater income from the state than the average working household gets in wages.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Does it matter that Westminster journalists have a WhatsApp group?

Well yes, a little.

“#WESTMINSTERBUBBLE JOURNOS CHAT ON #WHATSAPP. NOW THAT’S INTERESTING,” writes the alt-left site Skwawkbox.

Its story refers to the fact that Westminster journalists have a WhatsApp group chat. The site finds this sinister, suggesting the chat could be used to “swap info, co-ordinate stories and narratives”:

“It’s a technology that worries Home Secretary Amber Rudd, in case terrorists use it – but its use by the Establishment for 1984-style message co-ordination would worry many people just as much.”

Skwawkbox’s shock was mocked by lobby journalists and spinners:


Your mole, who has sniffed around the lobby in its day, also finds the suggestion of journalists using the app for terrorist-style collusion a little hard to swallow. Like every other industry, journos are using WhatsApp because it’s the latest easy technology to have group chats on – and it’s less risky than bitching and whining in a Twitter DM thread, or on email, which your employers can access.

But my fellow moles in the Skwawkbox burrow have hit on something, even if they’ve hyped it up with the language of conspiracy. There is a problem with the way lobby journalists of different publications decide what the top lines of stories are every day, having been to the same briefings, and had the same chats.

It’s not that there’s a secret shady agreement to take a particular line about a certain party or individual – it’s that working together in such an environment fosters groupthink. They ask questions of government and opposition spokespeople as a group, they dismiss their responses as a group, and they decide the real story as a group.

As your mole’s former colleague Rafael Behr wrote in 2012:

“At the end [of a briefing], the assembled hacks feel they have established some underlying truth about what really happened, which, in the arch idiom of the trade, is generally agreed to have been revealed in what wasn’t said.”

Plus, filing a different story to what all your fellow reporters at rival papers have written could get you in trouble with your editor. The columnist David Aaronovitch wrote a piece in 2002, entitled “The lobby system poisons political journalism”, arguing that rather than pursuing new stories, often this ends up with lobby journalists repeating the same line:

“They display a "rush to story", in which they create between them an orthodoxy about a story – which then becomes impossible to dislodge.”

This tendency for stories to become stifled even led to the Independent and others boycotting the lobby in the Eighties, he notes.

Of course, colleagues in all industries have always communicated for work, social and organisational reasons in some way, and using WhatsApp is no different. But while Skwawkbox’s “revelation” might seem laughable to insiders, most people don’t know how political journalism works behind-the-scenes. It touches on a truth about how Westminster journalists operate – even if it’s wrong about their motive.

I'm a mole, innit.