The leaders of Northern Ireland’s four main churches have travelled to Westminster in an unprecedented bid to change the Government’s welfare plans.
In a united stand, the four church leaders told ministers and MPs in the Houses of Parliament that the proposals would hit Northern Ireland harder than anywhere else in the UK.
They said they were not in London to undermine Northern Ireland’s MPs, insisting the campaign would support the efforts of Parliamentary representatives.
Welfare Minister Lord Freud has promised a follow-up meeting, which is likely to be held in Northern Ireland, and they are meeting Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland on Friday.
But they conceded that major changes to the legislation are not possible.
The delegation was made up of Archbishop Alan Harper (right), the Church of Ireland’s Archbishop of Armagh, Rev Ivan Patterson, Presbyterian Church Moderator, Methodist President Rev Ian Henderson, and Cardinal Sean Brady, head of the Irish Catholic Church.
As well as Lord Freud, they also met Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson and his Labour shadow Vernon Coaker.
High among their concerns was a £500 cap to be placed on the amount of benefits a household can receive.
Archbishop Harper told the Belfast Telegraph that welfare reform would cost Northern Ireland’s economy £600m, and said the high rate of youth unemployment made the province especially vulnerable.
Describing their reception as “courteous and helpful”, he added: “This was a valuable meeting, and the first of others, we hope.”
Rev Patterson said: “We want to support our local politicians in making government in Westminster aware of the grave consequences of these reforms for the economy in Northern Ireland.”
Rev Henderson highlighted 40,000 youngsters in Northern Ireland living in severe child poverty as a major area of concern.
He said: “Many of these children could be further disadvantaged by these reforms. This is simply unacceptable in any decent, developed society.”
Cardinal Brady pointed to Northern Ireland’s “shared future” often cited by ministers.
He said: “Today we are making a united stand as church leaders to say ‘give us a shared future which is a better future’, not one that pushes Northern Ireland further back as the most impoverished region of the UK.”
A Department for Work and Pensions spokeswoman welcomed “the beginning of a dialogue.”
She added: “We are committed to working with the church leaders in the future.”
Story so far
The government says its Welfare Reform Bill, seen as the most dramatic benefits shake-up of the past 40 years, is needed to end a culture of welfare dependency. It paves the way for a single, universal credit, to replace a complex series of mean-tested payments for people of working age. A £500-per-week cap will be placed on the amount of Housing Benefit any family can receive and changes will be made to DLA.