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Northern church leaders defend welfare claimants

07 December 2012

PA

Eyes down: George Osborne delivers his Autumn Statement, in the House of Commons, on Wednesday 

Eyes down: George Osborne delivers his Autumn Statement, in the House of Commons, on Wednesday 

SENIOR church leaders in northern England, and officials of the three largest Free Churches have warned the Government not to characterise the poor as feckless scroungers.

In separate statements issued before the Chancellor made his Autumn Statement on the economy on Wednesday, they expressed concern at the effects on society of continuing welfare cuts.

In an open letter to the Prime Minister, nine Anglican bishops and 20 other Roman Catholic and Free Church leaders said: "We are concerned that the ideology behind many cuts and reforms serves to undermine fundamental principles of mutual care that are basic to our vision of a good society.

"We are similarly disturbed that the political rhetoric that is increasingly used of benefits claimants, 'scrounger' and 'feckless' to name but two, stigmatises welfare in such a way that those who are in genuine need become reluctant to make claims, to the detriment of themselves, their families, and the communities in which they live.

"We would also urge care in applying means-testing in an aggressive way that further polarises the debate about welfare into one in which the independent and self-sufficient think of themselves as being in permanent support of the dependent and 'feckless'.

"For us, the common good relies on the recognition of the equal worth of all persons, and an active aspiration for interdependence. We therefore wish to challenge such polarisation."

The writers also urge the Government "to achieve a better balance in the UK economy between the South and the North".

In a separate statement, officials of the Baptist Union, the Methodist Church, and the United Reformed Church expressed growing concern over government language that, they said, increasingly appeared to blame the poor for poverty.

"We need to guard against justifying welfare cuts by portraying those on benefits as being undeserving or worse," the policy adviser for the Methodist Church, Paul Morrison, said. "Mr Osborne has spoken of families 'with their curtains closed, sleeping off a life on benefits', implying welfare cuts primarily target an undeserving poor. This is a far cry from reality."

The head of faith and unity for the Baptist Union of Great Britain, Stephen Keyworth, said that welfare claimants deserved to be spoken of with respect. "It is unacceptable to remove money from people already living on a knife edge, and justify that by using misleading stories and statistics," he said. "The least people deserve is an honest acknowledgement of the truth of their lives."

The Children's Society says that 3.6 million children live in poverty in the UK, most of them in low-income working households. It says that cuts in welfare benefits will make them worse off, and that the Universal Credit coming into effect next year will reduce support for particularly vulnerable children, such as the disabled.

A Treasury spokesperson said: "The Government's deficit-reduction plan is essential to put the public finances back on track and deliver sustainable growth. It has helped keep interest rates low, supporting hard-pressed families and businesses.

"But we are cutting the deficit in as fair a way as possible. Welfare reforms have focused spending on those most in need, and bringing fairness back to the system by supporting people into work and making work pay."

Payday-loans protest. The Association of Christian Financial Advisers has called on the Chancellor to act against payday lenders to prevent borrowers being driven deeper into debt. It wants high interest rates made illegal, and credit checks made compulsory.

"These measures would help protect the vulnerable, and make it extremely difficult for the current business model of high rates of interest to survive," the Association's spokesman, Arwyn Bailey, said. Lenders were "enticing the vulnerable to take out payday loans at usurious interest rates, driving them deeper into financial hardship. Right now, a tough new law is what is needed."

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