In appreciation of the Lord Bishop of Chester
His Grace got it in the neck quite a lot yesterday, following his post on the lack of behind-the-scenes communication between bishops and politicians: apparently it is okay to bash the lefty bishops who wrote to the Mirror about food-banks, but the Bishop of Chester did not merit the criticism. As one communicant wrote: "Your comment on Bishop Forster is unfair and unworthy. He is one of the few Bishops who speaks in a conservative way and amazingly for a bishop in a biblical way." And a regular reader emailed: "I was most disturbed to see you sully the valuable contribution of the Bishop of Chester on the issue of family and taxation.."
Which is rather bemusing, because nowhere were the Bishop's faithful works or personal beliefs criticised: the post was concerned solely with the communication (or apparent lack of it) between bishops and ministers of state, and the subsequent unseemly Church v State spats that appear in the (usually) left-wing press.
His Grace apologises if he picked the wrong bishop, and would like it to be noted that the Lord Bishop of Chester, the Rt Rev'd Dr Peter Forster, is one of the longest-serving bishops amongst the current Lords Spiritual. He has had a long-standing concern over the way in which family life and marriage are supported in the UK, and has campaigned consistently for the recognition of marriage in the tax system. He has talked and written since 2000 about the immense social consequences of Britain's failure to do this, including highlighting the impact on work incentives for one-earner couples via the Effective Marginal Tax Rate.
He wrote an eloquent and evidence-based foreword to CARE’s latest report on the taxation of families. The charity highlighted quotes from this in a press release (to which His Grace was not party), which they headed: "Osborne’s personal allowance policy is failing families". It seems to His Grace that this was bound to embroil the Bishop of Chester in a 'Bishop v Chancellor' scuffle: indeed, going rather ungraciously for "Osborne" seems a rather purposeful provocation.
Yesterday, Bishop Peter chaired and hosted a briefing for parliamentarians on CARE’s new research on the treatment of families within the tax system. It was also attended by the (mainstream) media, think-tanks and others with specialist expertise. His Grace hears that the Bishop shared his passion and knowledge on the subject, and it is undoubtedly the case that he has worked hard on this issue in Parliament, engaging with ministers over many years. Some recent examples of this work include:
10 Feb 2011It is manifestly evident that Bishop Peter does pick up the phone to MPs, ministers and secretaries of state. As the ChurchState parliamentary team also tweeted: "Often they do (phone ministers). And write. And speak in Parliament. Doesn't always amount to a good headline though..."
The Bishop of Chester secured a 2.5-hr debate on the role of marriage and support for marriage in British society in the House of Lords, in which he called for the Government to strengthen marriage and take action to implement transferable allowances. You can read his speech HERE.
9 March 2011
The Bishop of Chester hosted a briefing for parliamentarians and non-parliamentarians on ‘the taxation of families 2009/10’ in Parliament.
11 October 2012
The Bishop of Chester secured a 2.5-hr debate on Child Development in which he called for the Government to implement its transferable allowance tax plans for married couples. The speech can be read HERE.
12 December 2012
The Bishop of Chester hosted a briefing for parliamentarians and non-parliamentarians on ‘The taxation of families – international comparisons 2011’ for which he provided the foreword.
11 March 2014
The Bishop of Chester hosted a briefing for parliamentarians and non-parliamentarians on ‘The taxation of families – international comparisons 2012’ for which he provided the foreword
And that was the point His Grace was trying to make: there is no doubt that when these stories appear in the press, the impression given is one of a total lack of communication or of a failure to hear what the other side is saying, both of which impair perceptions and hinder mission. If you put out a press release targeting "Osborne" and have a bishop associated with your work, as sure as night follows day you can expect this to be portrayed as a 'turbulent priest' story.
Nevertheless, His Grace appears to have caused some offence to Bishop Peter's admirers, so, by way of amends and in admiration and appreciation of the Bishop's work, here below is the full text of his Foreword for CARE's report The Taxation of Families – International Comparisons 2012:
As I write this foreword, I can see and hear the birds building their nests in preparation for the spring. Nature is hard wired to give priority to the nurturing of the next generation. Human beings may occupy a special place in nature, but we are not above and beyond its intrinsic dynamic. Yet we have seen in the UK a persistent tendency to marginalise children and their parents financially.
This report, which is concerned with looking at how different families in the OECD fare in the tax and benefits system, is the seventh such review that CARE has published.
Once again, CARE continues to impress with the breadth and depth of its analysis, which this year has improved yet further. The evidence they present should be carefully considered and acted upon by policy makers, politicians, academics, industry professionals and think tanks alike.
Even when tax credits are taken into account, this year’s report demonstrates that the tax burden on one-earner married families is still significantly above the OECD average and rising. Between last year’s report – which looked at 2011 – and this year’s – which looks at 2012 - the burden rose from being 42% greater than the OECD average to being 45% greater. More disturbing than this, however, is what has happened to the tax burden on a one-earner married family with two children on average wage as a proportion of that placed on a single person on the same wage. In 2011 we were already placing a tax burden on such a family that represented 74% of the tax burden placed on a single person on the same wage, when the OECD average was just 54%.
In 2012, though, we broke through the 80% barrier, moving ever closer to placing the same tax burdens on families as we do on single people.
We cannot promote such clear fiscal individualism and not expect to reap the consequences. Far from delivering policy solutions to fix ‘broken Britain’ it would seem that the government, at least in 2012, was more interested in exacerbating our social brokenness however inadvertently by promoting fragmentation. This was a far cry from David Cameron’s promise in his 2010 General Election manifesto to make Britain the most family friendly country in Europe!
Then there is the question of work incentives. In 2012, a one-earner married couple with two children and an income between £12,559 and £35,883 would have had an effective marginal tax rate of 73%, meaning that the family would have kept only 27p of every extra pound earned. The same goes for single parents with children.
This is particularly troubling state of affairs because, at 73%, our effective marginal tax rate is actually the worst in the OECD. We are, as such, the last developed nation to be able to lay claim to the title, ‘aspiration nation,’ at least as far as one-earner married families are concerned. As someone who believes in both the importance of supporting the family and in the intrinsic God given value of work (whether it be paid or unpaid), I find it deeply troubling that families where one spouse is in full time paid employment and the other is undertaking unpaid care can be treated in such a manner.
Moving away from 2012, the report makes it plain that there is one ray on hope on the horizon. In his 2013 Autumn Statement the Chancellor committed to introduce transferable allowances by April 2015. Although the commitment is to a very modest partially transferable allowance, it lays a crucial foundation upon which we can build to challenge the damaging effects of a tax system that between 2000 and 2015 treated Britain as a mass of individuals and had no regard for family responsibility. It comes not a moment too soon.
Rt. Rev Dr Peter Forster
The Lord Bishop of Chester