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Bishops blame benefits changes for food crisis

28 February 2014


"Simplifying the system": the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg

"Simplifying the system": the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg

A ROW has broken out between church leaders and the Government over the impact of reforms to the welfare system.

The war of words was sparked by a letter in the Daily Mirror on Thursday of last week, signed by 27 Anglican bishops and by leaders from other denominations, which accused the Government of creating a food-poverty crisis by changing and restricting various benefits.

The Prime Minister denied that his Government was to blame for up to 500,000 visits to foodbanks last year. He said that he was on a "moral mission" to end dependency on welfare payments.

But the Bishops received backing from the Archbishop of Canterbury, who said last week that he was "entirely with them". He said that the Bishops had been writing from their personal experience as pastors in different parts of the country.

Last Friday, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams wrote in the Daily Mirror that those who were forced to use foodbanks were not scroungers, but instead "drawn from the six million working poor, people who are struggling to make ends meet in low-paid, bitty employment".

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, had earlier also criticised the Government, writing that its welfare-reform programme was a "disgrace" that had left the poor in "destitution" .

In response, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, said on Friday that Cardinal Nichols and the Bishops - whose letter was also signed by representatives of Quakers, Methodists, and the United Reformed Church - were "exaggerating" the scale of the problem.

Speaking on his LBC radio show Call Clegg, Mr Clegg said: "What we are doing is simplifying the system and sharpening the incentive to work."

Statistics from a research project led by Professor Linda Woodhead, of Lancaster University, and published last week, suggest that the Bishops were out of step with many in their congregations over welfare reform. Fifty-two per cent of Anglicans questioned in a wider survey agreed that the welfare budget needed to be cut. Conservative politicians have accused the Church of trying to discredit the Government's programme. The MP for Enfield Southgate and the chairman of the

Conservative Christian Fellowship, David Burrowes, said: "Whether deliberately or not, the Bishops have been used as pawns in a wider political agenda."

The Trussell Trust, the charity that co-ordinates hundreds of foodbanks across the country, however, said that it was not involved in party politics.

The Bishops' letter was released to mark the launch of the End Hunger Fast campaign, which is calling for a national fast in April to highlight the growing problem of food poverty.

In an article for The Times on Tuesday, another former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, wrote that it was "simplistic" for Bishops to blame cuts in benefits for the hunger crisis. "There is something Canute-like about resistance to welfare cuts. . . The Church of England is at its best when it avoids party politics and istead works with all partners to tackle social and economic injustice."

In the House of Commons on Wednesday, Mr Cameron denied that the Bishops' letter had got it right on welfare reform, and instead quoted from Lord Carey's article.

It emerged on Sunday that Mr Cameron had met the leaders of the Trussell Trust in the early part of last week. A spokeswoman from the Trust said: "We had a good discussion about how Trussell Trust foodbanks work; what our data shows; and what we believe to be the main causes of increased foodbank use."

Last year, the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, refused to meet the chairman of the Trussell Trust, Chris Mould, and accused him of politicising the foodbank debate (News, 3 January).

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