Moderator calls for tax to tackle poverty crisis

The Moderator of the Church of Scotland's General Assembly has called for a wealth tax to help tackle the cost-of-living crisis.
The Rt Rev Dr Iain Greenshields. Picture: Lisa FergusonThe Rt Rev Dr Iain Greenshields. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
The Rt Rev Dr Iain Greenshields. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

The Rt Rev Dr Iain Greenshields said the move could help fill the financial hole facing governments and the very wealthy "would not even notice". He said he had shared his views with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

It came as Dr Greenshields said the congregations of historic churches such as St Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh should be able to charge sightseers for entry. He said the move would be about "sustainability rather than profit", but added public religious services were a differentmatter.

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Dr Greenshields was elected Moderator of the General Assembly in May 2022. He holds the honorary role for a year, during which he acts as an ambassador for the Church of Scotland.

Speaking to The Scotsman at his official residence in Edinburgh's West End, Dr Greenshields said hundreds of churches have provided help during the cost-of-living crisis, but argued there had to be a cross-party "political solution".

He said: "I think it's got to be a ten-year programme where you look at society, you look at health boards, you look at everything across society and you say, 'Right, we have got to make decisions about how this is done, and not two-year decisions or three-year decisions or five-year decisions – not dependent upon, necessarily, whoever is in power – but an agreed sense of something across that."

Dr Greenshields said: "I would personally like to see a wealth tax. I think that would make more sense."

He added: "People who have wealth of that kind would not even notice that, and it's only a paper exercise, but it would fill the billions that we need."

A wealth tax is based on assets, and various forms exist in Europe.

In 2020, an expert report estimated a one-off wealth tax on millionaire couples paid at 1 per cent a year for five years would raise £260 billion.

The Kirk moderator said benefits have to keep up with the cost of living, and argued the money spent on nuclear weapons would be better used on tackling the economic crisis.

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"The Church has also consistently spoken out against nuclear weapons, and if we're going to spend a massive amount of money renewing and maintaining nuclear weapons, I think we would say as a Church – if you're talking about desperate need in your society – that money could far more be better spent on that," he said.

"Do we really need nuclear weapons? We don't think we do."

Asked what Mr Sunak said when he suggested a wealth tax, Dr Greenshields said: "He just said that you've got to have trade-offs in politics, and that was one of the things that probably people wouldn't be persuaded to trade off. I have really got huge respect for politicians, because they're dealing with a world crisis here."

He added: "We've been caught up in something that's not of our own making, so how you deal with that on an international level, as well as a national level, is very, very difficult."

He continued: "We can be overly critical, rather than supportive, I think, of politicians, in what for them is a hard ask."

The Church of Scotland is currently undergoing a process of reform that will see the number of presbyteries in Scotland fall from more than 40 to under a dozen. This will involve potentially selling off historic church buildings, with plans for all presbyteries due by the end of the year. Dr Greenshields likens it to "a form of devolution".

"That's our next challenge,” he said. “That's where we need to be looking seriously at who we are and, sadly, looking at buildings and what buildings we need, what buildings are in the right places, what buildings we don't need, and actually building new buildings, because that's something we're committed to as well.”

The Kirk has a vast number of listed buildings and is aware that Historic Environment Scotland has limited capacity to take on new properties.

Dr Greenshields argues congregations such as that at St Giles' should be able to charge sightseers for entry. "We were in London recently, at Westminster Abbey and St Paul's – 90 per cent of their income comes from charging the public to come into their buildings," he said. "Now we can't do that."

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He added: "Or at least, we don't have the choice to be able to do that. People can make a donation if they wish when they go in, but I wouldn't imagine that that comes close to what you would get if you charged for people coming in."

He continued: "I think the congregations should have a choice. I think that's reasonable, to have that choice."

The Kirk moderator said buildings such as St Giles' have huge costs associated with their upkeep. But he said: "If it's a public service, then that's a different thing."

St Paul's in London charges adults £18 for tickets booked in advance, and £21 for walk-up admission. Westminster Abbey charges £27. However, neither charge for attending services.

Along with around a dozen other churches in Edinburgh, St Giles' is subject to certain historic conditions imposed on it by the council, one of which is a prohibition on charging.

The Church of Scotland said other local authorities may have similar conditions.

Elsewhere, Dr Greenshields said the constitutional division in Scotland is "not healthy for society". He said "shouting across the barricades at one another is not a helpful way of resolving anything, or having any kind of debate".He also suggested First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's plan to fight the next general election as a "de facto" referendum was not the right route forward.

He said a general election is "about much more than the issue of independence".

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Asked if it was wrong to use it as a de facto referendum, he said: "Well, I can see why they would, that they're wanting to do that. I wouldn't, when I'm voting, see it as a referendum on independence. It's a general election of the United Kingdom.

"It's not been declared as a referendum on independence, so in that sense it isn't."

He added: "A referendum is a referendum, and I'm not sure it's right to corner people into something that it isn't. It's a general election. It's not a referendum."

Meanwhile, those suffering "immense anxiety and hardship" amid the cost-of-living crisis were remembered by the Archbishop of Canterbury in a Christmas sermon which also paid tribute to the late Queen.

Justin Welby also referred to the "desperate struggles of hospital wards" as well as those people who make perilous journeys in small boats, when he delivered his annual message on Christmas Day.

Mr Welby said that despite war and conflicts around the world and financial pressures on people closer to home, there is "unconquerable hope" in the birth of Jesus Christ.

In his first Christmas message since the death of the Queen, Mr Welby said she “put her interest after those of the people she served”.