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Osborne criticised by church groups

05 April 2013


Open-handed: George Osborne speaks at the Morrisons distribution centre in Sittingbourne, Kent, on Tuesday

Open-handed: George Osborne speaks at the Morrisons distribution centre in Sittingbourne, Kent, on Tuesday

TENSIONS between the Government and Churches have heightened this week as changes to the welfare system begin to take effect.

The Chancellor, George Osborne, gave a speech on Tuesday in which he defended changes that come into force this month. These include introducing a cap on housing benefit; the so-called "bedroom tax" on spare rooms; and limiting benefit increases to one per cent ( News, 15 March).

Mr Osborne said that the changes had "one simple principle at their heart - making sure people are better off in work than on benefits. . . Our reforms are returning welfare to its most fundamental principle - always helping the most vulnerable, but giving people ladders out of poverty. . . In reality, there is nothing 'kind' about parking people who could work on benefits."

Church groups were quick to criticise the Chancellor's speech. The chief executive of the Church Urban Fund, Tim Bissett, said: "The Chancellor wants to make work pay. For those trapped by poverty, sustainable employment is hard to find. People on benefits are struggling to find social support, and have restricted access to housing, which in turn means that the most disadvantaged are excluded from our communities. If the poorest find themselves on the margins of society, we risk breaking the social contract that binds us together."

The chief executive of the Children's Society, Matthew Reed, said that "working and non-working" families on low incomes were "being hit by the tax and benefit changes".

The Government was right to be committed to "making work pay", he said, but he pointed out that "the majority of children growing up in poverty are in working families struggling to make ends meet. Low-paid work often simply isn't enough to meet the rising costs of living, and benefits are vital to topping up family budgets. . .

"It is children who will suffer from the Government's failure to protect them from cuts to welfare. The Government urgently needs to recognise that it is poverty - not benefits - that blights children's futures."

Paul Morrison, the policy adviser to the Joint Public Issues Team, which represents the Baptist Union, the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church, and the United Reformed Church, said: "We are deeply disappointed that Mr Osborne is continuing to use the misguided rhetoric of people on benefits versus 'hard-working taxpayers'.

"The Government's own figures show that most people on benefits not only want to work, but many of them are already in work, and paying high rates of tax."

A report published last month by the Joint Public Issues Team, The Lies We Tell Ourselves, accused the Government of peddling "myths" and manipulating data to scapegoat the poorest families in Britain ( News, 1 March).

On Sunday, the report received widespread media coverage after the four Churches issued a statement saying that politicians and the media had "misrepresented those who receive benefits . . . in order to justify spending cuts".

The Housing Minister, Grant Shapps, speaking on the Radio 4 programme The World This Weekend, on Sunday, said: "Where were these people jumping up and down as those housing waiting lists doubled under the previous administration? Why weren't we hearing from the Churches?"

Christian supporters of the Conservative Party came to the Government's defence this week. Tim Montgomerie, the founder of the website ConservativeHome, and a co-founder of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, wrote in The Times on Monday: "Churches that were silent when youth unemployment soared under Labour have suddenly found their voice when a Conservative-led government fights to ensure that more people look for a job rather than to the State for their income."

A petition calling on the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, to live on £53 a week had attracted more than 360,000 signatures by Wednesday. The petition was launched after Mr Duncan Smith said on Monday on the Today programme, on Radio 4, that he could live on that amount.

Leader comment
Jonathan Bartley

Question of the Week: Is it right to cut welfare benefits at this time?

THE Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, defended the Government's policies last week after the Bishop of Exeter, the Rt Revd Michael Langrish, accused it of treating some families unfairly, writes Ed Thornton.

Bishop Langrish told The Daily Telegraph on Thursday of last week that he was concerned that mothers and fathers "who have made the principled decision to stay at home" were taking "the financial hit" as a result of the removal of child benefit from wealthier families with one breadwinner. "It is unfair, and actually against the Government's own rhetoric."

Speaking on LBC Radio that day, Mr Clegg said: "I don't actually accept that a lot of the measures that we've taken are somehow penalising mums, or indeed dads, who take the totally admirable decision [to stay at home]. . . What we can do is give the maximum amount of support to parents to make the choices which they think are right for them."

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