The Chancellor must not balance the Budget on the backs of the poor
If you go into most churches across the United Kingdom – not just on a Sunday but on any day of the week – you’ll find people on the frontline of the response to the cost of living crisis.
Church congregations – in common with other local faith communities – are running food banks and debt crisis centres and, as winter approaches, acting as warm banks for the growing numbers of people struggling to heat their homes, as well as feed their families.
This is central to how many millions of people live out their faith. But putting faith into action doesn’t stop there. The people who volunteer for our food banks are often the same people who raise funds and take action to support people beyond our borders: people whose lives have been devastated by conflict, climate change and extreme poverty, in Ukraine, Pakistan and East Africa.
We expect a swift return to spending 0.7 per cent of national income on tackling poverty overseas
For many Christians there is no choice to be made between tackling poverty at home and abroad.
This isn’t just about generosity. It is about something much deeper – the answer to the question, “who is my neighbour?” – and the responsibility that we have for one another.
In the past year huge numbers of people in the UK and globally have been plunged into poverty on a scale not seen for decades. In the UK, nearly 10 million adults and 4 million children didn’t have enough to eat or skipped meals this September. Meanwhile, tens of millions of people in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya face the looming threat of famine following the worst drought in 40 years.
This should be what the Prime Minister and Chancellor are focused on as they plan the government’s financial statement tomorrow.
That public finances are currently stretched hardly needs stating. However, what Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt must not do is to balance the budget on the backs of the poor. Not that they need to pursue austerity 2.0. Much more could be done to tax the vast profits of oil and gas companies, ensure that multinational companies systematically avoiding their fair share of taxes pay up and equalise tax on private wealth with income tax.
The worst possible response to the deepest cost of living crisis in a generation is to treat it as a zero-sum competition between the most disadvantaged people at home and abroad. So just as a fair society would expect welfare benefits to be protected on in the Budget, so too should we expect a swift return to spending 0.7 per cent of national income on tackling poverty overseas. As the COP27 summit focuses on the loss and damage caused by climate change, the UK should be joining Denmark, Belgium, Austria and others in looking at how to mobilise new sources of finance, rather than cannibalising a shrinking aid budget.
As the Prime Minister and Chancellor finalise their plans for the Autumn Statement, where will they draw inspiration? They may be looking at the record of Conservative predecessors, such as Margaret Thatcher, who famously once said: “No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he'd only had good intentions – he had money as well.”
But Margaret Thatcher missed the key point about Jesus’s best-known parable. The Good Samaritan is neither a story about good intentions nor money. It’s about how we should love our neighbours as ourselves. The people on our street are our neighbours. But so too are the people of South Sudan and Afghanistan.
Churches across the UK understand that. It’s time that the UK government did as well.
Patrick Watt, CEO of Christian Aid.
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