Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, has spent an awful lot of time since his recent interview with the Telegraph clarifying just what he meant when he said that the way welfare reforms have been implemented has left people destitute and relying on food banks. When I saw him earlier today, he wasn’t exactly tetchy about the coverage so much as tired explaining what he actually wanted to get across.
‘People should take the trouble to read what I said’, he said (a familiar refrain, that, from non-politicians who deal with journalists). ‘My concern – and it’s a privilege to be able to bring into the public square those are not often heard; it’s absolutely the proper thing to do – is that at this time there are people who are destitute and forced out of hunger to rely on food banks, and in a country as affluent as ours it’s a disgrace.’
Now I fancy there may be some readers out there who take a dusty approach to archbishops appearing to call for more public spending, but that’s not actually what he said. For what it’s worth, here’s some of what he said to me:
‘I’m not suggesting what the political solution [to destitution] should be. We should be looking at what the real causes of poverty are and how it can be remedied. I quite accept the case for reform of social services. Everybody knows that the country has to be careful what it spends. I don’t believe for a moment that destitution is intended by the policies but this is the reality on the ground. I’m quite sure that those who take responsibility for the formation and implementation of policy want to hear when things are not working out…. we are alongside those who are hungry and destitute.’
In other words he’s not taking issue with the necessity of getting people back to work, or with making work pay, or with the universal credit, or reducing the deficit; what he’s saying is that the administration of the system, and perhaps aspects of the system, are sometimes inhumane. And given that the church is involved, as are other churches, with, say, food banks, I’d have thought he’s entitled to say that. He wasn’t intending a sideswipe at poor Iain Duncan Smith. The odd thing is, he’s never met him, even though the Secretary of State is a Catholic. Perhaps they should invite each other to tea. They’d have lots to talk about.