Catholic archbishop attacks welfare reform

Archbishop Vincent Nichols: "The basic safety net to guarantee that people are not let in hunger has been torn apart"

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The leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales has labelled the government's social reform a "disgrace" for leaving people in "destitution".

Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols said the "safety net" for the poorest families had been "torn apart".

The government responded by saying welfare reforms will "transform the lives" of the poorest families.

The Conservative Christian Fellowship said the archbishop should explain where extra money would come from.

Speaking to the Telegraph, Archbishop Nichols - the most senior Roman Catholic cleric in England and Wales and designated by Pope Francis to be appointed a cardinal later this month - said the welfare state was becoming "more punitive".

"I think what's happening is two things", he said.

'Meet basic needs'

"One is that the basic safety net, that was there to guarantee that people would not be left in hunger or in destitution, has actually been torn apart. It no longer exists, and that is a real, real dramatic crisis.

"And the second is that, in this context, the administration of social assistance - I am told - has become more and more punitive."

Analysis

The comments by the soon-to-be Cardinal Nichols are the latest by Britain's Christian leaders on the subject of welfare reform.

Overwhelmingly, they've all cautioned the government to beware of allowing the poor to sink deeper into poverty, though some accept that reform is needed.

The leader of the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has said the burden of change is being shared unequally, but he admired the "best possible motives" of the architect of the plans, Iain Duncan Smith.

By far the strongest criticism has come from an alliance of the Methodist and United Reformed Churches, the Baptist Union and the Church of Scotland.

Nearly a year ago they accused the government of deliberately misusing statistics in order to blame the poor for their own predicament.

In response, the coalition says it wants to help people escape benefit dependency - which many Christians would also argue is the right course to take.

The intervention by Archbishop Nichols may also have another purpose - the raising of both his, and the Catholic Church's profile, in Britain's public debates.

The attack comes just days before Archbishop Nichols will be one of 19 new cardinals from around the world who will be appointed by Pope Francis at the Vatican.

A spokesman for the Department of Work and Pensions replied by saying the previous benefits system was "trapping" the very people it was designed to help.

"Our welfare reforms will transform the lives of some of the poorest families in our communities with universal credit, making three million households better off and lifting hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty", the spokesman said.

"It's wrong to talk of removing a safety net when we're spending £94bn a year on working age benefits and the welfare system supports millions of people who are on low incomes or unemployed so they can meet their basic needs."

In a statement the Conservative Christian Fellowship (CCF), an organisation of Christians who support the Tory party, called for the Archbishop to explain how much more he would like the government to spend on welfare.

The group says he should also explain where the additional money will come from.

The statement said: "We respect his opinions and welcome any contribution to the debate around welfare reform or any other political issue."

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