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Bishops fail in bid over welfare Bill

22 March 2013

THE defeat of attempts by bishops in the House of Lords on Tuesday to thwart the Government's cap on benefit increases was marked by speeches challenging their interpretations of Christianity, and highlighting the level of stipends paid to Church of England clergy.

An amendment to stop the Government from limiting the increase in most benefits and tax credits to one per cent for the next three years (News, 11 January), supported by the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, was lost by 206 votes to 275. Bishop Stevens described the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill as "ill conceived. It will harm the most vulnerable . . . and do nothing to promote work incentives."

He was immediately challenged by Lord Deben (formerly John Selwyn Gummer) the son of a C of E priest, who accused him of suggesting that "we spend money that we do not have on people who are in need, at a rate we cannot afford. That is not at all a Christian comment. . . For those of us who were brought up in the difficulties of a poorly paid Anglican parsonage, the first lesson that we learnt was to spend within our means."

Speaking on behalf of the Government, Lady Stowell of Beeston said that the Bill was "a short-term change, made at a desperately difficult time, as we seek to rebalance the public finances". The Bishop of Ripon & Leeds, the Rt Revd John Packer, moved an amendment to exclude child benefit and child tax-credits from the Bill, which will affect 87 per cent of households with dependent children, and 95 per cent of those headed by a single parent. He suggested that the £0.9 billion savings produced by the child-related parts of the Bill could be met in other ways, such as reducing tax reliefs on pension contributions. He cited research indicating that a couple without children would see their income decrease by 0.9 per cent, while a couple with two children would see it fall by 4.2 per cent.

His intervention was welcomed by the Labour peer Lady Sherlock, who praised the Lords Spiritual "for being willing to stand up for what they believe, despite the inevitable volley of artillery that came their way the moment they dared to raise their heads above the cathedral parapet".

The Conservative peer Lord Forsyth of Drumlean suggested that a "large part" of C of E clergy would be recipients of benefits because of the wages paid to them: "If the Church of England were to put up its clergy's wages, less would be claimed in benefits . . . but that is not a practical proposition . . . because the Church, like the Government, is faced with a financial crisis."

Bishop Packer's amendment was lost by 221 votes to 261.

Peers will have a final chance to amend the Bill at its third reading in the House of Lords on Monday.

TUC backs poorest. Research published by the Trades Union Congress this week suggests that the poorest will lose proportionally the most from the Government's changes to benefits and tax credits. By 2015, those in the highest decile will be 0.6 per cent worse off a year, while those in the lowest three deciles will see income losses of 4.6 per cent.

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