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Children will suffer, Bishops warn

15 March 2013


THE Archbishops of Canterbury and York joined dozens of bishops this week in challenging the Government over its plans to limit benefit increases.

The Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill, which is before Parliament, would limit the increase in most benefits and tax credits to one per cent a year for the next three years. The Children's Society says that the one-per-cent limit is "well below the rate of inflation predicted by the Treasury", and "will push 200,000 more children into poverty".

Archbishop Welby issued a statement on Sunday, after the Sunday Telegraph published a letter, signed by 43 bishops, which called on the Government "to take action to protect children from the impact of this Bill". The Archbishops did not sign the letter, in accordance with convention.

Archbishop Welby said that the Bill would force "children and families to pay the price for high inflation, rather than the Government. . . Politicians have a clear choice. By protecting children from the effects of this Bill, they can help fulfil their commitment to end child poverty."

The duty to support the vulnerable "should be felt more than ever" during hard times, and "not disappear or diminish", he said.

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, also criticised the Bill. He said: "I understand that 60 per cent of savings from the up-rating cap would come from the poorest third of households - with only three per cent from the wealthiest households. That cannot be right."

The BBC reported on Sunday that "government sources" had expressed "surprise" at Archbishop Welby's intervention. The Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, told Sky News on the same day: "There is nothing moral or fair about a system which I inherited that trapped people in welfare dependency. . . Getting people back to work is the way to end child poverty." Other government sources were quoted accusing Archbishop Welby and the bishops of being "out of touch" with public opinion on the issue of welfare.

On Monday, Archbishop Welby published a blog on his website which attempted to mollify Mr Duncan Smith. The Archbishop was "absolutely convinced" that Mr Duncan Smith was acting "with the best possible motives. But, with a number of other bishops . . . I feel that the particular way the burden is being shared is wrong. . .

"So this is not a great, grand political gesture, but a reasoned questioning of something that a lot of people are concerned about."

The Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, a signatory to the Sunday Telegraph letter, said on Monday that he did not accept "the rhetoric from the Government" that the Bill would "incentivise people to work".

He said: "The vast majority of unemployed people desperately want to work. . . A large proportion of those on benefits are in work anyway.

"Part of the problem with our economy is that work does not pay enough to keep parents with several children out of poverty. So, reducing benefits tips 200,000 children into poverty, including the children of people like primary-school teachers, nurses, and soldiers in the army."

Bishop Stevens said that churches were witnessing a "massive increase" in the use of food banks. "These are not just destitute people shuffling around for a free bowl of soup. We're talking about perfectly ordinary families."

The Bishop of Ripon & Leeds, the Rt Revd John Packer, another signatory, said on Monday that he recognised that the "fiscal crisis" meant that savings needed to be made, but that "an awful lot of the savings" which the Government was trying to make "are actually impinging on children".

He suggested that the Government looked at "tax breaks on pension contributions for the richest people. . . We need to look at ways that the burden of the fiscal crisis should fall on those who can pay for it, rather than those who cannot."

The Bill will be debated at Report Stage in the House of Lords on Tuesday.

Bishop Stevens said on Monday that he had offered to lend his name to an amendment "to remove the notion of up-rating by one per cent from the Bill". This would be technically a wrecking amendment, he said.

Bishop Packer said that he intended to table or support an amendment that would "seek to take Child Benefit out of the Bill, with the aim of Child Benefit being increased by inflation following the three-year freeze".

The bishops are also involved in discussions with other peers about introducing amendments to exclude disability benefits from the one-per-cent up-rating, and to stop the one- per-cent cap applying if inflation exceeded three per cent.

Bishop Stevens said: "The poorest people spend the largest proportion of income on food, fuel, and housing. All those three items are increasing in cost at above inflation; so the proportion of your available expenditure you have if you're amongst the poorest is much higher on food and fuel. If they go up, you're hit hardest."

Bishop Stevens said that it was not possible to be confident that the amendments would carry, because Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers would be whipped. "But I think there will be cross-benchers and Labour peers and independent peers who may well want to support the amendments, particularly on Child Benefit."

Bishop Packer said that, in opposing the legislation, the bishops were not behaving in a "party-political" manner. "We would be equally opposed to the way in which children are being treated, if whatever party was in government."

Bishop Stevens said that it was "nonsense" to suggest that the Church was assuming the position of unofficial opposition to the Government, as some press commentators had argued. "If the very poorest people in our country, choosing each day whether to feed their children or heat the house because they can't do both, and the Church has nothing to say - well, that would be a very sad day for the Church. It has nothing to do with partisan politics and everything to do with . . . the gospel."

Paul Vallely

Question of the week: Were the bishops right to oppose the Welfare Benefits legislation? 


Bishops' letter in full:

SIR - Next week, members of the House of Lords will debate the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill.

The Bill will mean that for each of the next three years, most financial support for families will increase by no more than 1 per cent, regardless of how much prices rise.

This is a change that will have a deeply disproportionate impact on families with children, pushing 200,000 children into poverty. A third of all households will be affected by the Bill, but nearly nine out of ten families with children will be hit.

These are children and families from all walks of life. The Children's Society calculates that a single parent with two children, working on an average wage as a nurse, would lose £424 a year by 2015. A couple with three children and one earner, on an average wage as a corporal in the British Army, would lose £552 a year by 2015.

However, the change will hit the poorest the hardest. About 60 per cent of the savings from the uprating cap will come from the poorest third of households. Only three per cent will come from the wealthiest third.

If prices rise faster than expected, children and families will no longer have any protection against this. This transfers the risk of high inflation rates from the Treasury to children and families, which is unacceptable.

Children and families are already being hit hard by cuts to support, including those to tax credits, maternity benefits, and help with housing costs. They cannot afford this further hardship penalty. We are calling on the House of Lords to take action to protect children from the impact of this Bill.


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