Lord David Alton
Lord Alton's Keynote Address

Lord Alton's Keynote Address at the launch of the The Myth of the Undeserving Poor at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, Wednesday 22 October

"Genuine poverty is an enduring problem in the UK. It has remained stubbornly persistent in the face of many proposed political solutions in recent years. The financial crisis of 2007-08 brought the issue to the forefront of the political agenda.

"A powerful combination of economic contraction, inflationary pressures on household living costs, entrenched indebtedness, a reduction in local authority capacity and radical welfare reforms led to major challenges for the poorest and most needy sections of the population. Real poverty came starkly to our attention. We entered the era of “foodbank Britain” with the dramatic rise of church-sponsored foodbanks as the symbolic frontline of a new battle with poverty.

"Not far from here, as they step from the platform to the train at Embankment tube station, passengers are frequently told to “mind the gap.” In a country where the gaps have been getting bigger, it’s advice which policy makers, campaigners, Government, charities, churches and civil society need to take to heart. The widening gap between the destitute and the very wealthy risks social cohesion.

"It was no surprise to me that the poorest in Scotland voted to leave the United Kingdom and that a city like Glasgow, with significant poverty, voted Yes by a majority. As well as risking the cohesion of our country a failure to recognise and tackle poverty also offends basic principles of justice, fairness and decency. The injustice is compounded when we either blame those who are poor for their own condition or delude our-selves into believing that poverty is an illusion.

"I have often pointed out that we may live in the world’s fifth richest country but because we fail to mind the gap most people have little or no experience of the wealth which that implies. Instead, too many people’s experience of the fifth richest country in the world is of Food Bank Britain, Sharp Elbowed Britain, Rip-Off Britain and Devil Take The Hindmost Britain. In too many places we have seen the emergence of a new class of people who are outside society: workless, broken, lost to ambition and social improvement and with no stake in society – and easily exploited and manipulated by those who have extreme agendas. When you ask the question “who owns Britain?” we all know it’s not the people who have fallen through the gap – they have no ownership of our common society or our common destiny.

"In the face of this, the creative and energetic response of the church and other faith groups to the recent economic difficulties has been dramatic. During the last few years we have seen the birth of the “community franchising” movement in which strategic and effective methodologies for tackling specific areas of social action have been reproduced rapidly and effectively across the nation. The speedy growth of such “community franchises” as Street Pastors, Community Money Advice, Christians Against Poverty and the Trussell Trust are prominent examples – but many more – over 40, are developing quickly. This process is set to continue for some time to come.

"I was brought up in the tradition of Catholic social teaching, which has always been suspicious of anything which over emphasises crude individualism or unnecessary State domination. Hence, it has opposed both collectivisation and command economies whilst simultaneously criticising unbridled market forces. It has proclaimed the importance of subsidiarity; of community, (the most basic community being the family); of a lively civil society; of solidarity; and the sharing of what we have been given. Between the rocks and hard places of individualism and collectivism the Church has rooted its social teaching and it proclamation of the Common Good in the inviolate and sacred dignity of the human person (“from the womb to the tomb”) insisting that each person is made in God’s image.

"This transcendent relationship, between man and his Maker, requires those who have power, or who exercise it, to show infinite respect for the human person – and this expresses itself in a profound belief in the sanctity and the intrinsic worth of every human life; in a preference for the poor; in a requirement to use our talents and resources through servant leadership; in an emphasis on duties and mutual obligations rather than the flaccid language of autonomy, claimed rights and entitlements; through a cultivation of the Virtues described by both Aristotle and Aquinas; in a willingness to share what we hold in common; and to be good stewards of what God has entrusted to us. The Common Good is not a slogan or a manifesto. Rather, it is the scaffold around which we can hang a Christian contribution to public life and to the building of a more just and compassionate society. It also represents a good starting point in engaging with other faith traditions and with secular society, with political parties and individual politicians and policy makers, and in opening the door to the fullness of Christianity.

"The ability of Catholic social teaching and Christian engagement to transform society will inevitably be influenced by the ground into which the seed falls. We can too easily see the glass half empty rather than the glass half full. When we take the trouble to look we can see a great outpouring for the common good already underway. Look carefully, and with different lens, and what you will see is a remarkable amount of social capital and social vision unleashed by the churches through the harnessing of volunteerism on a grand scale into social action projects. Jubilee+ research estimated that in 2012 there were a staggering 98 million hours of volunteering for church-based social action– a 36% increase in 2 years. This work in our communities across the UK has already had a major impact on government perceptions of the church. New avenues for working together and the sharing of resources have emerged. Localism and financial cutbacks have also led many local authorities into meaningful partnerships with churches on the ground in their areas.

"And yet there is now another factor which has emerged suddenly into the public discussion of poverty – a new, or perhaps renewed, stigmatization of sections of the poor. The “myth of the undeserving poor” has been reborn. The media has been the primary source of this untimely and unwelcome narrative. It seems that chavs, scroungers and benefits cheats have become central players in the media narrative on poverty in the UK. Politicians have sometimes also jumped on the bandwagon.

"The Jubilee+ team works as a capacity building network for church based social action. They see the challenges of enduring poverty at the sharp end. They are working alongside churches and community franchisors. They have been active in researching the scale and impact of church-based social action. They have also been examining the bigger media narratives which have been emerging. The authors of the The Myth of the Undeserving Poor book, Martin Charlesworth and Natalie Williams, have written boldly and passionately about this. They have analysed the emerging media narratives. They have looked again at the history of tackling poverty in the UK. They have analysed both the theology and the practice of the current upsurge of church-based social action. Most searchingly of all, they have challenged the “myth of the undeserving poor”. They argue, rather, that both church and society respond best to poverty when we do not allow ourselves to be imprisoned by dubious and highly subjective moral judgements concerning the poorest in our society.

"I commend this publication to help challenge the thinking of not only people of faith but also the media and policy makers."