Coalition seeks its own welfare in a bout of bishop bashing

By staff writers
23 Jan 2012

With Liberal Democrats deeply divided on welfare reform, senior coalition figures have united to attack bishops and faith leaders over benefit capping.

Iain Duncan Smith, the welfare reform minister, who has in the past been held up as a standard-bearer for 'compassionate Conservatism' has angered critics by claiming that 'normal' people support the government's cuts and changes.

He and Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem deputy Prime Minister, who is a millionaire, have attacked bishops who are criticising their welfare plans as out-of-touch with "ordinary people".

Challenged on the impact of cuts and changes impacting poor, sick, disabled, jobless and vulnerable people, Mr Duncan Smith said over the weekend that "people are not suffering". This morning he added that "We do not believe there will be an increase in child poverty" and that "Our department does not believe that you can directly apportion poverty to this particular measure" - meaning the benefits cap.

But critics say that there is a mass of evidence from poverty groups, charities and claimants themselves which the government, including Mr Clegg and Mr Duncan Smith, is choosing to overlook.

On Sunday 22 January 2012 the Observer newspaper reviewed official figures that indicate the cap could push 100,000 children into poverty.

Already the government has been forced to revise its estimates of those directly affected from 50,000 to 67,000. Opponents say they need to keep going.

Charities and churches have also suggested that the current proposals will significantly increase homelessness.

Some eighteen senior Church of England bishops have raised serious practical and moral issues over the government's Welfare Reform Bill, which is debated further in the House of Lords today and tomorrow (23-24 January 2012).

Among other things, they and other British religious leaders have asked for child benefit to be excluded from the proposed benefit cap.

The Anglican Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, the Rt Rev John Packer, said yesterday he was “surprised” by the “aggressive” stance of Welfare Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, after the minister said bishops should show greater concern for working people instead of supporting benefits for unemployed families.

Church groups say that low pay, joblessness and poverty are linked rather than separable - and accuse the government of 'divide and rule' rhetoric.

Bishop Packer is putting forward a motion in the House of Lords today to amend Mr Duncan Smith’s proposed £26,000 cap on the total amount any household can receive in payouts.

The bishop wants child benefit to be exempt in order to help ensure that children in large families do not suffer disproportionately.

He declared: “I am surprised we have got this diatribe, a real attack on the bishops. I’m surprised they have taken this aggressive line. We are not talking here about people who have £26,000 to spend, we are talking about people whose rent may be £300 or even more per week – and so that money is going out again."

“These are people who may well find it very difficult to pay the rent ... because rents have escalated,” said the bishop

Leading charities, alongside disability groups and the thinktank Ekklesia, say that the government's entire Welfare Reform Bill package - which has suffered three parliamentary defeats and detailed expert critique - needs to be paused and substantially rethought.

Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat Lord Ashdown has attacked present government attempts to cap benefits as "completely unacceptable" and said he will not vote for the controversial coalition plans - bringing him into direct confrontation with Mr Clegg.

Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams last year pointed out that ‘no one voted’ for the government’s welfare policies and said that ministers were encouraging a "quiet resurgence of the seductive language of 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor".

Bishop Packer told journalists on 22 January: "There is a very real risk that these reforms will cause suffering to the most vulnerable in society. What we’re hoping to do is to lessen that suffering for children in families where parents are unemployed."

He told the Guardian recently: "This amendment is about children, who cannot directly speak for themselves. One of my roles is to speak up for those who have no voice, and that fits in with my own Christian commitment."

The bishop continued: "Christianity is deeply concerned with the way in which we treat others in our society and especially those in most need. And I would also say that from the beginning of the discussion about how to cope with the financial crisis and what cuts we needed to apply, I've always been clear that cuts should be borne by those who can bear them, not by those who cannot."

"I think that we need to be very careful in a whole range of areas, of which welfare reform is one, health and social care would be another, issues concerned with legal aid would be another - to make sure that those who most need the provisions which we give as a nation are able to access them," concluded Packer.

[Ekk/3]

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