Archbishop of Canterbury condemns benefit changes

The Most Reverend Justin Welby The Most Reverend Justin Welby said struggling families would be hard hit

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The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has warned changes to the benefit system could drive children and families into poverty.

He said society had a duty to support the "vulnerable and in need".

His comments backed an open letter from bishops criticising plans to limit rises in working-age benefits and some tax credits to 1% for three years.

The Department for Work and Pensions said changing the system will help get people "into work and out of poverty".

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show that Archbishop Welby was "absolutely right" to speak out and described the proposals as "immoral".

Civilised society

The welfare bill will be debated in the Lords next week and bishops in the house have tabled an amendment in an attempt to see child-related benefits made exempt.

The letter in the Sunday Telegraph from the 43 Church of England bishops, which calls on politicians to "protect" children and families, has also been supported by the Archbishop of York, the Most Reverend John Sentamu.

Start Quote

When times are hard, that duty should be felt more than ever, not disappear or diminish”

End Quote Justin Welby Archbishop of Canterbury

In a statement, Archbishop Welby said: "Politicians have a clear choice. By protecting children from the effects of this bill, they can help fulfil their commitment to end child poverty."

He said planned benefit changes, which would cap rises in welfare payments for the next three years, would exact a large price on families.

The archbishop said a "civilised society" had a duty to support the vulnerable.

"When times are hard, that duty should be felt more than ever, not disappear or diminish," he said.

He said the current system recognised rising costs of food, fuel and housing by giving benefit rises in line with inflation.

"These changes will mean it is children and families who will pay the price for high inflation, rather than the government," he said.

The statement is his first major intervention in political life since he was named in his new role in November. He is due to be formally enthroned at Canterbury Cathedral on 21 March.


It is a signal that the new Archbishop of Canterbury will not shy away from challenging political decisions.

Archbishop Welby has made what looks like a highly charged intervention in a politically sensitive debate very early in his tenure.

It is not the first time that the government has been criticised by an archbishop or by the clergy. But the Church of England has helped the government's critics to make their case against the benefit cap.

It comes just over a week before the chancellor delivers his budget. Some elements of it may depend on what ministers see as these crucial welfare savings.

The bishops themselves are hoping to press for a vote on an amendment which would exempt child-related benefits from the government's proposals.

That could result in an embarrassing defeat for ministers. But Whitehall sources say the Anglican church challenge will be hard fought.

Ministers argue that they are protecting some of those lowest paid but insist they have to get the welfare bill down.

'Fairness test'

The Rt Rev David Walker, Bishop of Dudley and one of the signatories of the letter, told the BBC that bishops had resorted to writing to the press "because we had tried everything else".

He said: "These changes are the not the right ones of our country. It is a bad test of a country's fairness that it rewards the wealthy and it makes the poorest take the heat of the burden when we've got a recession."

The BBC's religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott said Archbishop Welby's comments would be interpreted as a rebuke to ministers.

It suggests tackling poverty will be a priority for him as the Church's leader, our correspondent added.

BBC political correspondent Tim Reid said if the bishops' amendment to the bill was successful and later approved by MPs, it would cause difficulty for the chancellor as he would then need to rethink his figures for the overall welfare budget.

In their letter, the bishops said they were concerned 200,000 children could be pushed into poverty.

"Children and families are already being hit hard by cuts to support, including those to tax credits, maternity benefits and help with housing costs," they write.

"They cannot afford this further hardship penalty. We are calling on the House of Lords to take action to protect children from the impact of this bill."

The letter is in support of a campaign by the Children's Society which it said has also received support from the Roman Catholic and Methodist Churches, the Baptist Union, the United Reform Church and the Evangelical Alliance.

'Mums not millionaires'

Speaking to the BBC, Ms Cooper said Labour was against the 1% cap.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper described the government proposals as "immoral"

"They should just have the benefits go forward linked to inflation this year," the shadow home secretary said.

"You could do it by paying for it by restricting pensions tax relief on the very highest earners. That would be a fair way to help everybody."

She added new mothers would lose £180 a year in maternity benefits as a result of the 1% cap.

"I think it is pretty simple on Mother's Day to say that the government should help mums not millionaires," she said.

Liberal Democrats' president Tim Farron said the party had been working to ensure the poor would be protected under the coalition's plans and the archbishop's intervention was "an immensely helpful one in strengthening [its] hand to fight for a fairer deal".

Ex-Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown defended the coalition's record on helping poorer families but said: "I don't think we can get ourselves out of the economic mess that we're in without people having a price to pay".

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said "simply increasing benefits" would not tackle poverty.

"For too long the welfare system has kept families trapped in a cycle of benefit dependency and made it impossible for many to contemplate moving into work and off benefits.

"We are fundamentally changing the system so people are helped into work and out of poverty, whilst providing support for those where work is not a realistic option.

"Benefits have risen twice as fast as wages over the past five years, and even in these difficult economic times, they will continue to rise each year."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    Perhaps the Church might help pour some into the financial black hole that is Britains welfare bill,by selling some real estate?It's all too easy to say something 'should' be without understanding or explaining 'how' it can be.The economy is sinking under its welfare bill-the welare 'safety net' is caught on the rocks of financial unsustainability,the Church should play the 'deserving' card less

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    As usual the Government & DWP misinform. The so called bedroom tax/fine on top of all the other benefit cuts will disproportionately affect and further reduce the incomes of disabled people. Many families with children will also see their incomes significantly drop because of the bedroom tax and some pensioners will also not escape the net

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    why does it matter what the archbishop says.he's thinking of people like me,on benefits.The useless government 's so called help schemes don't work,& with companies going into administration left right and centre,what hope is there?

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Being the largest landowner, its about time that they pay back what they have been given. What about donating some of their land and use some of their money (hard-earned donations) to develop more social housing, schools and medical institutions? They should stop complaining and take some action themselves! Show us what the Church can do for the people! Its about time!

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    The BIG hit is coming next month with the start of the Bedroom Tax, I notice Ms Cooper and most Labour MPs keep quiet on this one and fail to speak out on a policy that will hit around 1m people. Most of these cannot move to smaller properties for the simple reason that there are not enough 1 bed places. Cameron continues to give false answers in PMQs,Freud and IDS sneer at the poor.Trouble ahead

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    The Archbishop believes in something he can't see, why can't he understand the obvious when it is staring him in the face. The economic situation is not a belief it is a fact.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    The welfare budget is such a relatively small part of the national budget, yet the Tories have somehow convinced the nation that it's somewhere we can *still* make major cuts.

    The vilification of the poor has to stop. I have seen personally how poor people are at their limits living in high-cost cities like London.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Top 3 UK government spending:
    - Pensions: £130 billion
    - Health Care: £120 billion
    - Welfare: £115 billion

    When you look at the facts and figures, I find it hard to comprehend the argument that we as a nation are turning our backs on the 'poor'.

    Our education system - that which has the potential to give children a bright future - lags behind at £90 billion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Ask the poor to work for the church for free and see what answers he gets from them. Bet he would change his mind with some of there comments

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Bishops said they were concerned 200,000 children could be pushed into poverty.

    A damning indictment of this government’s policy toward the poor. As someone who sits on this governments Commission on Banking Standards, Welby is in a position to know that bankers should be paying more toward getting the country out of debt.

    They had more to do with creating the debt, the children didn’t.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Children whom shouldn't have been conceived by parents already under the poverty line, backed up by selfish, archaic religious schools of thought. Take the communal bucket to the high street and gauge peoples' reaction there Justin.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    We are not a socialist country, The C of E needs to grow up and recognise that fact.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Why doesn't the Archbishop condemn the punitive taxation levels we're facing? People on average incomes have never paid so much tax - not just PAYE, but fuel, vat, insurance tax - we're being bled dry. So doleys can live in luxury homes with their own ponies.... Where is the church's concern for generations unborn, lumbered with debt? The country needs to live within its means.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    The church is more than welcome to pay the tax needed to fund benefits but personally I'm fed up with having to subsidise a house for someone else when I can't afford one myself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    A good and relevant topic to discuss.
    Shame you can't also allow open and honest discussion about the opinions and beliefs of the so called "religion of peace" - for fear of upsetting some hate filled jihad lunatic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    The Archbishop is like the rest of the liberal establishment are out of touch.

    The working man on the street want a safety net but they don't want a system that rewards those who don't try & accept a state dependent way of life. It is often this group who have abdicated personal financial responsibility who don't take responsibility in other social areas of life & cause trouble. We know this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    I admire this man for saying what needs to be said.

    Children should never, ever be a casualty in a failed system involving corrupt Politicians, Industrialists, Bankers and Security forces.

    These deep, hard and fast spending cuts will ultimately rob a swathe of children of their right to a carefree and happy upbringing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    I support the Archbishop's right to speak out on such issues, even though on this one I happen to disagree with him. What I think is an outrage is that he and the other bishops have the means to interfere with the political process because they are able to sit in the House of Lords. Such a privileged position is an accident of history. The Lords has to be reformed and the bishops ejected from it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    With his weak moralising background of Eton/Trinity, oil company and six children, the Archbishop could have at least tried to use some religious material in his argument, or is this asking too much these days?

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Why can't these people in the Church, keep to spreading the message of God as opposed to always commenting on political issues.


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