Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Clegg hits back at church criticism

File photo dated 20/12/11 of workers at the Black Country Food Bank as 26 bishops sign a letter condemning the Government's "punitive" welfare reforms which they say have forced people into food and fuel poverty.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has defended the coalition's welfare reforms in the face of the latest onslaught from the church, insisting it was right to withdraw benefits from claimants who refused to look for work.

The Liberal Democrat leader rejected made claims by Anglican bishops and other faith leaders that the Government was taking a "punitive" approach to welfare claimants.

And he accused the leader of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols, of exaggerating the extent to which people had been hit by the changes.

His intervention came after 27 Anglican bishops signed a letter to the Daily Mirror warning that thousands of people were being forced to rely on hand-outs from food banks as a result of the Government's benefit changes.

Their comments echoed recent remarks by Archbishop Nichols - the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales who is shortly to be made a cardinal - who said it was a "disgrace" that in such a wealthy country there were people who could not afford to feed themselves.

Speaking on his weekly radio phone-in on LBC, Mr Clegg insisted that at a time of major cut backs to public spending, the welfare budget could not escape unscathed. But he insisted the Government's reforms were designed to encourage people back to work.

"The welfare budget constitutes about a quarter of all the money that we spend on the taxpayers' behalf," he said.

"At a time when we inherited this massive black hole in our public finances there is nothing fair about simply saying we are not going to deal with our debts, we are going to let our children and our grandchildren do it. You inevitably can't duck the fact that some of those savings come from a quarter of total public spending.

"I have a huge amount of respect for Vincent Nichols, but I think that to say that the safety net has been removed altogether is an exaggeration, it is not right. We are trying to get the balance right.

"I think most people in this country accept, that of course you need to have a safety net, of course you need to give help to people that are vulnerable, but for those who have been given support to go out to look for work, there has to be some kind of conditionality. You can't just be given benefits with no strings attached and with no questions asked, when you being given support to find your way back into work.

"That doesn't mean that we should act in a punitive way to people on benefits. Far from it. There are some people who are too vulnerable who need help. That's why I think we should be proud rather than denigrate our welfare system.

"It is important that we have a safety net for fellow citizens who simply can't look after themselves and need support. It's the reason why we spend billions and billions and billions of pounds of taxpayers' money on those kind of forms of support."

In their letter, sent to mark the beginning of Lent on March 5, the bishops said that 500,000 had visited food banks in the UK since last Easter while 5,500 people had been admitted to hospital UK for malnutrition last year.

They said that politicians had a "moral imperative" to do more to control food price hikes and to make sure that the welfare system offered the poor an essential safety net from hunger.

"We must, as a society, face up to the fact that over half of people using food banks have been put in that situation by cut backs to and failures in the benefit system, whether it be payment delays or punitive sanctions," the wrote.

"We call on government to do its part: acting to investigate food markets that are failing, to make sure that work pays, and to ensure that the welfare system provides a robust last line of defence against hunger."

For Labour, shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves said their letter should be a "wake-up call" to David Cameron.

"His Government's policies are making life harder for families with a cost-of-living crisis making workers £1,600 worse off and the bedroom tax forcing hundreds of thousands to food bank," she said.

"This Tory-led Government's welfare reforms have penalised, rather than helped, those doing the right thing."

Signatories to the letter included Anglican bishops Stephen Patten (Wakefield), David Walker (Manchester), Tim Stevens (Leicester), Andy John (Bangor), Tony Porter (Sherwood), Paul Butler (Durham), Alan Wilson (Buckingham), Alan Smith (St Albans), Nick Holtam (Salisbury), Tim Thornton (Truro), John Pritchard (Oxford), Steven Croft (Sheffield), Jonathan Gledhill (Lichfield), Michael Perham (Gloucester), Alastair Redfern (Derby), Lee Rayfield (Swindon), James Langstaff (Rochester), Martin Warner (Chichester), Mike Hill (Bristol), Martin Wharton (Newcastle), Peter Maurice (Taunton), Gregory Cameron (St Asaph), Peter Burrows (Doncaster), Stephen Cottrell (Chelmsford), Martyn Snow (Tewkesbury), David Urquhart (Birmingham) and John Holbrook (Brixworth). They were joined by a number of Methodist Districts and the Quaker Peace and Social Justice group.

Conservative MP Laura Sandys (South Thanet) said it was important to look at all the reasons why food bank usage was increasing.

Ms Sandys is taking part in a committee organised by Labour's Frank Field (Birkenhead) into the whole issue.

She told BBC Radio 4's The World At One programme: "One thing that hasn't been mentioned by the bishops or, in many ways, stressed enough possibly by the Defra report, is that since 2000 we have had a 30% increase in food prices.

"You look at the people who are going to food banks, it's not just people who are on benefits, it's also people on low incomes and I think we have to be really clear there might be something systemically wrong with the food system, not as much as other issues the bishops raise.

"There is obviously very tight need and very tight concerns by families who are low income, who are facing all sorts of different decisions in their lives.

"We must look at the food system in its totality and ensure those families that are most stretched are well supported in the right way.

"The facts don't totally bear (welfare reforms being to blame) out. Food banks started to appear in 2000 and they increased by 20-fold up until 2005. This wasn't a period of welfare reform.

"Frequently people have said it's about the system - when the welfare payments don't come in time, things like that, which has pushed people to go to food banks."