Cardinal O’Brien tells Prime Minister to deal with poverty

In a BBC interview with Cardinal Keith O’Brien of St Andrews and Edinburgh in Scotland, the Cardinal had some tough words for prime minister David Cameron about the government needing to deal with poverty. He accused the prime minister of acting immorally by favouring the rich before ordinary citizens affected by the recession. The cardinal denounced David Cameron’s opposition to a “Robin Hood tax” on financial institutions. And he urged Mr Cameron not just to help “your very rich colleagues”.

Robin Hood champions at Westminster

Call for ‘Robin Hood tax’
The cardinal said it was immoral “just to ignore” those who were suffering as a result of recent financial disasters. In a BBC Scotland interview, he said: “My message to David Cameron, as the head of our government, is to seriously think again about this Robin Hood tax, the tax to help the poor by taking a little bit from the rich.

“The poor have suffered tremendously from the financial disasters of recent years and nothing, really, has been done by the very rich people to help them. And I am saying to the prime minister, look, don’t just protect your very rich colleagues in the financial industry, consider the moral obligation to help the poor of our country. It is not moral just to ignore them and to say ‘struggle along’, while the rich can go sailing along in their own sweet way”

Government opposed

The UK government opposes Britain introducing the “Robin Hood” tax, which would impose a small tax levy on large transactions of currencies, bonds and shares. It argues jobs and investment would go overseas. However the UK would not be alone and there are calls from other countries in the European Union for just such a ‘Robin Hood tax’. France and Germany are both committed to introduce a Financial Transaction Tax (the official name for the Robin Hood tax) by the end of this year, 2012. As various governments elsewhere in Europe come under pressure from  their electorates over the worsening recession, these calls are likely to increase.

Robin Hood Tax headlines

The cardinal said he believes the government’s opposition to a ‘Robin Hood tax’ is immoral because, he maintains, it overlooks the needs of the poorest in society and those of the less well-off.

Who’s poor?

“When I say poor, I don’t mean (only) the abject poverty we see sometimes in our streets. I mean people who would have considered themselves reasonably well-off. People who have saved for their pensions and now realise their pension funds are no more. People who are considering giving up their retirement homes that they have been saving for, poverty affecting young couples and so on and so on. It is these people who have had to suffer because of the financial disasters of recent years and it is immoral. It is not moral, just to ignore them and to say ‘struggle along’, while the rich can go sailing along in their own sweet way.”

The Cardinal’s description here of the poor he is most concerned about, is distinctly odd. He highlights relatively well off people who’ve been able to save for retirement and to buy a retirement home. He doesn’t explain how ‘their pension funds are no more’ or why they are ‘considering giving up their retirement homes’, and it is hard to see how this has happened to any significant number of people; house prices are still falling in almost every part of the country. No one’s savings in banks have been wiped out: even people who put all their pension savings in Icelandic banks that went bust, got full compensation.

Invisible 13 million below the poverty line

The Cardinal overlooks the far more harshly affected 13 million people officially classified as in poverty in the UK, who are mainly dependent on state benefits, such as the unemployed, the sick and people with disabilities, whose benefits have been slashed, with hardly a squeak of public protest, but lots of blaming of “scroungers”. There’s barely a murmur here from the Cardinal: “I don’t mean (only) the abject poverty we see sometimes in our streets”: but, Cardinal, 13 million people, 21% of the population, are not just ‘sometimes’ seen on our streets, this is 1 in 5 of the population.

Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender too

Among the 13 million in poverty we can expect around 760,000 to be LGBT people, on the basis that around 6% of the population is LGBT. Gay men and migrants living with HIV are particularly harshly affected by a whole series of cuts and rule changes to sickness and disability benefits.


Catholic social teaching on combating poverty 

Catholic social teaching demands a fairer spread of the nation’s resources among people and generous support to the developing world. The nation’s wealth has become remarkably more concentrated in recent years on the top 10% wealthiest in the population. The poorest tenth of the population now have, between them, 1.3% of the country’s total income and the second poorest tenth have 4%.  In contrast, the richest tenth have 31% and the second richest tenth have another 15%.  The income of the richest tenth is more than the income of all those on below-average incomes (i.e. the bottom half of the population) combined.


Growing Catholic movement for ‘Robin Hood tax’

The Cardinal was speaking in support of a campaign by the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (SCIAF) which says the billions of pounds raised by levying a financial transaction tax in the UK could be spent helping the poor and vulnerable at home and abroad.

The aid agency estimates a tax of 0.05% on major financial transactions, such as the trading of stocks, bonds and derivatives, would raise £20bn each year in the UK alone.

It wants that money to be spent tackling poverty at home and internationally, as well as on helping those in developing countries, whose lives are being affected by climate change.

SCIAF’s campaigns officer, Lexi Barnett, said:

“Cardinal O’Brien is joining a growing movement of high-profile figures calling for a Robin Hood tax to be put in place both in the UK and internationally. David Cameron and his government should do what is right. They should change their policy and implement the Robin Hood tax immediately so that the banks and financial institutions start paying their fair share to help those hit hardest by this crisis.”


Downing Street replies with a brush off

The Downing Street spokesman also said that the government had “inherited enormous debt – but the prime minister is determined to help people who are struggling with the consequences of that”.

He added: “That’s why the last Budget took 2m people on the lowest incomes out of debt altogether and from April 2012 pensioners will see the largest ever cash rise in the basic state pension.”

The budget has, of course, come in for strong criticism for its unfairness: there have been political rows over the budget’s income tax cut for top earners, the new levies on pensioners, hot pasties and big charity donations, so 54% of the public dismisses the idea that the chancellor looks “after the interest of the many, not the few” – against 24%. That crushing 30-point margin suggests comprehensive public rejection of any claim that “we’re all in this together”.


More information

Just Church – Catholic Church Action on Poverty

Cafod – Hunger and Poverty

Caritas – Catholic charity for the relief of poverty in England and Wales

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