1. ITV Report

Former Archbishop asks, 'Who is the real drain on Society?'

Dr Rowan Williams Photo: PA

Dr Rowan Williams is welcoming if wary when cameraman Chris Warner and I visit him at Magdalene College Cambridge. Being interviewed by a journalist, he tells me, feels like 'a real conversation' but can instead become a series of 'bear traps.'

The former Archbishop of Canterbury has good reason to be cautious.

His relationship with the press has not always been a happy one, with several of his remarks stirring up media storms which clearly unsettled him. In 2008 he was forced to deny that he backed the application of Islamic Sharia Law in Britain.

There is irony in Dr William's reputation for controversy, given that he spent much of his time as Archbishop of Canterbury working as a peacemaker, painstakingly holding a divided church together. Whilst he was the leader of the Church of England, the Anglican Communion was at times in danger of splitting apart, most notably on the issue of women bishops. The debate on whether or not women should take on the Church's highest office remains a live and painful issue.

Dr Rowan Williams presiding over the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, while Archbishop of Canterbury Credit: PA

Today Dr Williams declined to comment on tomorrow's General Synod meeting which might see the ordination of women bishops come a step closer to reality. 'That's for my successor,' he says politely but firmly, adding that he wouldn't want to step on the current Church leader's toes.

The Master of Magdalen College has however, lost none of his passion or outspokenness when it comes to another question close to his heart: society's treatment of the poor. Since returning to Cambridge, Dr Williams has been working with the city's Foodbank.

"It's certainly been an eye opener to realise that even in a relatively prosperous city like this, levels of need are so acute and the problem of the working poor - people who have jobs, but jobs that don't pay adequately to cushion them against sudden crisis or disaster, that's such an issue.

I am worried about the prevalence of language in parts of the media and some parts of politics that suggests if people are poor it must be their fault, and they are a drain on our resources and therefore we needn't worry about them. And I would just want to invite people who think like that to come and listen and see what life is really like."

– Dr Rowan Williams

Dr Williams singled out one programme in particular for criticism - Channel 4's 'Benefits Street.' The programme has sparked controversy over whether it exploits or accurately represents the lives of residents on James Turner Street in Birmingham, who live on benefits.

The Master of Magdalene College made it clear where he stands on the debate.

"We've had this very unhelpful television programme 'Benefits Street' which has just colluded with that picture of people on benefits as not like us, these are freaks, these are objects of curiosity or derision or contempt. And God help us if that's the kind of society we are moving to because it just robs us of real mutual understanding and compassion."

– Dr Rowan Williams on TV show 'Benefits Street'
Ian Duncan Smith has refused to meet with the Trussell Trust Credit: PA

This December the Work and Pensions Secretary Ian Duncan Smith criticised the charity the Trussell Trust, which run foodbanks across the UK, including the Cambridge branch, for being 'politically motivated.' His remarks were in response to the charity's claim that it is seeing more hungry people seek its aid due to cuts in benefits.

Dr Williams called the minister's statement a 'disturbing attack.'

"I certainly don't want to see the food bank issue turned into a political football, I'd just like to see realism about it, people admitting, yes there is a problem, if we have a withdrawal of certain benefits, if we have financial pressure all round, then people will be paying and the people paying will be the ones least able to.

And I don't think that's a party political point, I think that's just reality and I would be grateful for some acknowledgement that that was so, because if that's denied all the time, you get back to this idea that if people are falling through the net it must be because they are not being careful enough. And for that to be happening at the same time as the continuing issue of tax evasion by large companies which is going on, you think who is the real drain on society?"

– Dr Rowan Williams

It's now been just over a year since Dr Rowan Williams has given up the weightiest office in the Anglican Church. I ask him how his relationship with the Church has changed. He laughs and tells me that avoiding the constant media scrutiny has been very welcome, adding that he is enjoying being an ordinary Christian again.

Yet with his passion for speaking out on the causes he believes in, it seems unlikely that Dr Williams will ever entirely escape media attention and he looks set to remain a far from ordinary figure.