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Welfare Bill under fire from bishops in Lords

20 November 2015

KEITH BLUNDY

At pray: The Right Revd Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham, with pupils of Esh C of E Primary School working on Play-Doh prayer as part of a Prayer Spaces taster day, last week. The two-year project will see churches and schools working together to help children and young people to "reflect on life and try new creative ways of engaging in prayer"

At pray: The Right Revd Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham, with pupils of Esh C of E Primary School working on Play-Doh prayer as part of a Prayer Spaces ...

THE Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, and the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, have criticised aspects of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill during its Second Reading in the House of Lords on Tuesday.

Dr Smith dismissed government plans to reduce the housing-benefits bill as "bad social practice" and "bad economics". The simple solution would be to exclude the measures from the Bill, he said.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is to impose a reduction in social-housing rents of one per cent a year for four years from April 2016. The legislation was announced in the Budget in March, to bring down the housing-benefit bill. The cost of means-tested benefits for people on low incomes to cover social-housing rent stands at around £25 billion.

Dr Smith said that forcing rent reduction in supported housing would endanger the supply, and put vulnerable and disabled adults at risk. "Any measure that increases the number of vulnerable people in unsuitable accommodation, or the number of those experiencing homelessness, is only going to increase the wider financial burden on the State," he said.

The proposals were "ill-advised", as they would "increase the pressure" on the social-housing sector, which was already under strain from other measures, such as the £20,000 cap on income from benefits.

"Smaller housing associations which are devoted to the supply of supported housing might be simply unable to absorb the rate cut," he said. "While larger housing associations with a variety of housing stock might find themselves forced to get rid of their most unprofitable supported housing."

The Minister of State for Welfare Reform at the DWP, Lord Freud, who moved the Second Reading, said that the cuts would "protect tenants" from rising housing costs by reducing average rents in the social-housing sector by 12 per cent by 2020. By this date, those who were not on housing benefit would be "better off" by about £12 per week.

Bishop Butler criticised the proposed two-child limit on child benefit payments. Under this, families with three or more children could lose up to £2780 a year per child. He said that the change was "fundamentally anti-family", and ignored "the importance of money" in meeting the basic needs of working families.

"Penalising children" was a "futile" way to incentivise parents to find work. "Two million children will be affected by the end of the Parliament, many of whom are already in, or at risk of, poverty," he said. "In extreme circumstances older children may be forced to leave home before they are ready, and large families may break up in order to avoid the two-child penalty." The Bill also did not recognise "in-work poverty".

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