Quakers have joined churches from across Britain and Ireland to send a joint letter to David Cameron, the UK’s prime minister, asking for an apology to poor people for misrepresenting them.
The letter, signed among others by Paul Parker, recording clerk of Quakers in Britain, states that the government has been giving out misleading and inaccurate information about people on benefits. In particular, specific examples of the abuse by Grant Shapps (Conservative party chairman) and Iain Duncan Smith (secretary of state for work and pensions) are highlighted in the letter, which goes on to state: “It is disturbing that these three instances conform to an apparent pattern of misleading and sometimes wholly inaccurate information from the government when dealing with the issue of social security; a practice that has added to the misunderstanding and stigma which continues to pollute the debate around poverty in the UK. We are concerned that these inaccuracies paint some of the most vulnerable in our society in an unfavourable light, stigmatising those who need the support of the benefits system. No political or financial imperative can be given to make this acceptable.”
In their letter, the church leaders, which also includes the leaders of the Methodist Church, the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the United Reformed Church and others, explained that while they hold no common view on welfare reform, they all share the belief that that those in receipt of benefits are loved and valuable.
“What unites us is the belief that the debate around these reforms should be based on truthful information,” they write. “We ask you, as prime minister and as leader of the Conservative Party, to ensure that the record is put straight, and that statistics are no longer manipulated in a way which stigmatises the poorest in our society.”
Quakers in Britain as an organisation was recently encouraged to be more outspoken on issues concerning government cuts that relate to welfare benefits. In April, the organisation’s Meeting for Sufferings body minuted that they “return to the concern for those experiencing increasing poverty, and accept the need for strong political representation, joining with other organisations and churches locally to express this.”
Central England Area Quaker Meeting was one of three area meetings that had raised the issue. In their minute to Meeting for Sufferings they called on Quakers in Britain to re-adopt the 1987 statement on poverty, which features as paragraph 23.21 in Quaker Faith & Practice. The 1987 statement said that Quakers were angered by the polarisation in Britain between the affluent and the ‘have-leasts’. The statement also calls on individuals to re-examine how they use their personal and financial resources.
In a recent paper, Government Cuts: Welfare Reform – what Friends can do, Quaker Peace & Social Witness general secretary Helen Drewery gives examples of study and reflection, political action and practical action that Quakers can take on the issue. She explains that QPSW is providing support for a Quaker’s concern on Citizens Income. She also cautions Quakers to use sensitive language and to consider challenging local and national media when they use hurtful or misleading language. (The paper is on the last two pages of the link http://www.quaker.org.uk/sites/default/files/S-12-04-8-Government-cuts-package_1.pdf)