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War of words between bishops and Government

24 February 2014


Store: a client chooses a week's food selection from the display at the foodbank in New Cross, south London, last month

Store: a client chooses a week's food selection from the display at the foodbank in New Cross, south London, last month

A ROW has broken out between faith 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  last week, signed by 27 Anglican bishops, which accused the Government of creating a food-poverty crisis by changing and restricting various benefits.

David Cameron 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 on Thursday of last week that he was "entirely with them". Archbishop Welby said that the bishops had been writing from their personal experience as pastors all over the country.

On 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 welfare reform 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. It is surely better to see people in work rather than on benefits."

Figures from Professor Linda Woodhead, of Lancaster University, suggested that the bishops were out of step with their own congregations when it came to welfare reform. Fifty-two per cent of the Anglicans surveyed within 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 - an agenda that goes beyond that of many good people supporting foodbanks for people in need."

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, the former Archbishop of Cantebury, Lord Carey, wrote that it was "simplistic" for bishops to blame cuts in benefits for the hunger crisis.

He said: "There is something Canute-like about resistance to welfare cuts...The churches should beware of the dangers of blithely defending a gargantuan welfare budget that every serious politician would cut as a matter of economic common sense.

"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."

It emerged on Sunday that Mr Cameron had met the leaders of the Trussell Trust earlier last week.

A spokeswoman from the trust said: "The Prime Minister listened to our stories of individuals who have been helped by foodbanks, and 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.

"We hope that this will open the way to further engagement with Government, enabling us to speak up about the problem of food poverty in this country to those who have the power to bring about change."

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.

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