Churches challenge government over poverty and welfare

By staff writers
11 Nov 2010

Churches and church organisations have told the government that its welfare proposals are based on a failure to understand the plight of the poor.

They argue that constructive reforms are at risk of being lost under a wave of punitive measures and cost-cutting.

The Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland, the United Reformed Church, the Baptist Union of Great Britain, Housing Justice and Church Action on Poverty have welcomed plans for a simplified benefits system, but have raised concerns that the proposed reforms are based on inaccurate assumptions about the poor.

“There is a serious danger that people living in poverty will be stigmatised by government announcements that imply they are lazy or work-shy,” said the Rev Alison Tomlin, President of the Methodist Conference.

“The Government seems to assume that if people are forced into working they will comply and their lives will be made better. The poor we meet are seeking to better their lives in difficult circumstances. They are willing to work, but face difficulties in finding jobs, in meeting caring responsibilities and in living on the wages offered,” she added.

“People who are long-term unemployed are already struggling to find work in a market place where there is increasing pressure on both the public and private sectors,” added Alison Gelder, director of Housing Justice.

“Some need help to develop the skills to find and keep a regular job. What they do not need are punitive measures such as the proposed cut in housing benefit by 10 per cent after a year out of work. Most of all, they should not be forced to do manual labour in return for their benefits for just £1.73 an hour - £4.20 below the current adult minimum wage,” she said.

The group argues that government welfare policy needs to be based on a realistic assessment of those living in poverty and what they really need to get back into the work force. They are concerned that policy should not be based on skewed figures and a misunderstanding of the poor.

The Rev Graham Sparkes, Head of Faith and Unity for the Baptist Union of Great Britain commented: “We meet people on a daily basis who are experiencing long term unemployment. Unemployment, especially in an area where there are few jobs available, damages a person’s self-confidence, health and ability to survive life’s knocks. The Government needs to understand what people in poverty need in order to return to work. It’s not good enough to just tell people to ‘pull their socks up’.”

On 28 October 2010, a group of Churches and Christian agencies wrote to David Cameron asking him to set the public record straight after Chancellor George Osborn conflated figures for benefit fraud and error during his speech on the Comprehensive Spending Review, claiming that there is three times as much fraud as shown by government figures.

Niall Cooper, National Coordinator of Church Action on Poverty, said: “We ask that the government to talk to people in poverty and base their policies on combating the problems they face daily. Iain Duncan Smith should come to one of our listening events, where people struggling to make ends meet tell their stories. Simplistic solutions such as benefit cuts, telling people to get on a bus to find work, and enforced labour would face a harsh reality check.”

[Ekk/3]

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