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 86.

    Although I'm an atheist/ agnostic (depends on mood) I quite like the CofE. This letter shows that the curch can be a force for good in their role campaigning for the weak and disadvantaged

    Every group has a right to be heard but not to demand to be listened to

    If they see themselves as a moral authority it's their responsibility to push for debate, they already do a lot for the poor

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Archbishop, you have no right to judge/preach/advise/comment on anything at the moment - get your own disgusting house in order first. The continuing stench of hypocrisy and double standards emanating from the church continues to be unbearable. You may wish to consider updating 'God's word' with a Millenium Testament, that is relevant to this world?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    I agree with the Archbishop that we should protect society's most vulnerable people. Sadly we seem to be "protecting" about 80% of the population in one form or another.

    Our country is technically insolvent and we need to do things differently. Providing services, like food banks and free food for all school children is the way to go, rather than just handing people money to spend as they like

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    Good to hear the Cloth is not just a wet rag!

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    I don't side with any religious group but this man felt that he was in a position to speak out and so he did so. He feels it is part of his job to voice his concern over the political changes that will affect his flock and others. Changes are needed in the benefits system, no one is denying that but the proposed changes are poorly thought out and unfair as a result.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    Financial poverty in this country is often the result the failure of people to love and care for each other. At heart 'Social Exclusion' is not a question of money, and money always holds people apart in the same degree that it supports them. Creating categories of 'people in need' shuts them into boxes- these days just tick boxes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    30 Voice of reason

    I notice you don't mention parental responsibility in creating a society where children will prosper!!! No just a rant about the "usual suspects".Your comment is not a voice of reason.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    Much as though I agree that some welfare could be cut, it needs to be selective. People abusing the system or who really don't need the benefits should be targeted, not just everyone; which is happening at the moment. The problem here is that time and time again the people on the breadline are being hit by sweeping changes from a government that seems to be completely out of touch.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    Not often I agree with the church - this time I do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Maybe the Archbishop of Canterbury should keep out of politics and focus on unifying the Church of England

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    Surprise, surprise Labour are once again against a cut. They promised probably around £44 Billion of cuts in their manifesto, yet every single decision the Government has made they've been against. So where was Labour's savings going to be?

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    he should stick with yapping to god, he is not on this planet for sure

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    Well done the Church

    The DWP says "tough decisions need to be made"..... what like capping bankers bonuses?

    What a failed and corrupt political system we have

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    The Church of England is crumbling. Their active congregation is less than a million. I think this former oil executive should spend more time building up the attendance of his churches rather than getting invoved in politics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    As the Church of England are so wealthy, why do they not support the local community in funding. They have plenty of land and property available to do this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    Yes benefits system needs changing. Although I find it strange how some people struggle to feed their families on benefits, yet others can afford top 'SKY' packages etc.
    Yet at the same time any cuts must be targeted carefully to those who abuse the system but mustn't make life harder for others who genuinely need the help.
    Not easy but that's what the Gov are supposed to have the info to do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    From his Ivory Towers, an out of touch with reality idealist, talks about something he knows little about and will never even come close to that world.
    Words, just words. Words take you no where.
    If action is not taken to address a worsening fiscal situation, benefits and welfare will be hit even more
    Sorry, get back to fighting the militant atheists who foolishly drag the name of our Lord in dirt

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    Interesting to see how Yvette Cooper believes that she has a right to comment on an issue that her Party had a large part in the making.

    Both the Archbishop and the opportunist Opposition appear to miss the critical point: Debt does not just go away and while the poor should benefit in the good times, they have to play their part in the Blair/Brown inspired bad times.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    I agree with the Archbishops comments, a civilised society is responsible for caring for our vulnerable. What does disturb me though is how the Tories have gradually switched the blame for the economic crises. We all know where the blame should be placed, but the Tories have shifted it to the most vulnerable in society and away from the obscene pay pots of the Banking Industry.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    1. FishOnADish
    >>> if they are reliant on the state, then the state controls them.

    Hmm that's a conspiracy theorythat pre-supposes a high degree of coordination & commonality of intent between the legislature (parliament) and organisations that are tasked with delivery and administration (the civil service and hundreds of QUANGOs); I don't see any real sign that such commonality exists.


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