Thursday, 17 February 2011

Papal Visit: the final bill?

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Protest the Pope campaigners march in
London, 18 September 2010
The Foreign Office has announced that the cost to the taxpayer of the Pope's UK visit last September was £6.9 million. In a written statement, junior minister Henry Bellingham revealed that the Catholic Church, which has already paid £3.8 million, will reimburse an additional £6.3 million of public money that was used to fund the visit. It is worth noting that this figure does not include policing costs, or funding provided by the Scottish government.

So is this the final bill? While religious commentators, as the Church Mouse blogger has already, will see the news as confirmation that the Papal Visit was not as costly as opponents suggested, the National Secular Society, citing the omission of policing costs, has described the figure as "disingenuous at best" (last year the NSS estimated that the visit could cost £100m).

However, even if we take the figure provided by the Foreign Office at face value, it's important to point out that the objections that many people had to the Papal Visit did not revolve exclusively around the finances. It was a point made by the British Humanist Association at the time, and I asked their head of public affairs, Naomi Phillips, for her thoughts in light of the latest news. Here's what she said:
"Our main opposition to awarding the Pope the honour of a state visit, as head of the “state” of the Holy See, was never just about the cost – there were plenty of many principled objections to it. Things like the Holy See’s opposition to the distribution of condoms in AIDS prevention programmes and opposition to abortion that destroys people’s lives. Or the Holy See’s international opposition to gay equality. Or perhaps the failure to address, and even to cover-up, the systemic child abuse within its own organisation throughout the world.

But if we are looking at the money, at least £7 million has been funded by the taxpayer, being taken from funds including for international development (i.e. money meant to help the world’s poorest), and from crucial environmental budgets. Many more millions than that will have been spent on the security costs – the exact figure not yet known – and it seems we’re still waiting to be ‘reimbursed’ for another £6 million or so for the many pastoral activities the Pope undertook during the state visit."
Clearly, the matter of costs won't be closed until the policing figures are properly disclosed, but it's well worth remembering that the debate over the Papal Visit was about more than just money.

What do you make of the latest news concerning costs? Do share your thoughts in the comments.
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