Church leaders protest as destitution reaches dangerous levels

By Savi Hensman
February 21, 2014

Social security sanctions, in which people not in paid work have benefit payments cut or removed for up to three years, have reached record levels. 27 Anglican bishops and other church leaders have condemned UK government benefit cuts and failures which mean that many go hungry.

Though experts have been warning of a public health crisis caused by poverty, UK Prime Minister David Cameron declared that government ‘welfare’ changes were a “moral mission", brushing off critical comments by Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols.

But a letter to the Daily Mirror, linked to the End Hunger Fast campaign from Church of England, Church in Wales, Methodist and United Reformed Church leaders and spokespeople for Quakers in Britain, has highlighted the human cost.

“Britain is the world’s seventh largest economy and yet people are going hungry,” they wrote. “Half a million people have visited foodbanks in the UK since last Easter and 5,500 people were admitted to hospital in the UK for malnutrition last year.” They pointed out that “over half of people using foodbanks have been put in that situation by cut backs to and failures in the benefit system, whether it be payment delays or punitive sanctions.”

Meanwhile increasing numbers of people who are unemployed or unable to work have been having their benefits reduced or suspended for not meeting conditions set by job centre staff. These may fear being sacked themselves if they do not punish enough claimants.

“The total number of sanctions against benefit claimants in the year to September 2013 was 897,690, the highest figure for any 12-month period since jobseeker's allowance was introduced in 1996,” reported Patrick Wintour in the Guardian. This includes a record 22,840 in the work related activity group of employment and support allowance, for people who are too sick or disabled to have a realistic chance of working.

He also described what charities called “a culture of fear” in which unrealistic targets are set so that sanctions can be applied. “Hostel residents with limited IT facilities are being directed to apply for 50 jobs per week, while single parents are being told they must apply for full-time jobs to continue receiving jobseeker's allowance, the charities say in evidence to an official inquiry.”

“We urge those of all faith and none, people of good conscience, to join with us,” the church leaders urged in their letter. “There is an acute moral imperative to act.” At a time when large numbers of people are being deliberately left without basic necessities, many would agree.

Ekklesia is an active supporter of the End Hunger Fast initiative. There is more here:

* End Hunger Fast:

© Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, economics, society, welfare, sexuality, theology and religion. She is an Ekklesia associate and works in the equality and care sector.

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