Archbishop backs bishops’ letter on welfare cuts
“BISHOPS SLAM CAM over UK’s ‘hunger crisis’,” was the front page headline in the Daily Mirror last Friday. Inside, the newspaper printed a letter signed by 27 bishops, 10 Methodist Chairs of Districts, and representatives of the United Reformed Church and the Quakers.
In their letter the bishops spoke of half a million people visiting food banks since Easter and 5,500 people admitted to hospital for malnutrition last year.
“One in five mothers report regularly skipping meals to better feed their children and even more families are just one unexpected bill away from waking up with empty cupboards,” the bishops wrote.
The bishops criticised cutbacks in the benefit system, payment delays and punitive sanctions.
After referring to Lent as a time of fasting and drawing closer to those in need and the efforts made to support food banks, the bishops called on the Government to do its part by ‘acting to investigate food markets that are failing’, making sure work pays, and providing a ‘robust last line of defence against hunger’.
The letter by church leaders came in the wake of an interview by Archbishop Vincent Nichols on the eve of his being made a Cardinal in which he criticised the welfare system. Reaction to the letter was mixed.
Asked about the church leaders’ letter, Archbishop Justin Welby said: “One of the things about the church, both the Catholic and Anglican and other churches in this country, is that we have people on the ground all over the place.
“And it is from the upswell of feeling that they are reporting, from what they are seeing in their own communities as priests, ministers and pastors.”
In response to a question at a press conference at Lambeth Palace the Archbishop said he ‘entirely agreed’ with Archbishop Nichols on the failures in the benefit system.
Although a number of politicians, including the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, have accused the Archbishop of Westminster and the church leaders of exaggerating, not much dissent has been expressed within the church.
The Rev Stephen Heard, former parliamentary chaplain to the Bishop of London, told The Times that he thought the bishops in their letter appeared to accuse the Government of being ‘almost malevolent’ and that he did not think this was the case.
He said it was true people on the ground were suffering but that food banks were widely used in France where there had been no welfare reforms.
“If you criticise people or appear to attack them publicly you are in danger of closing off the possibility of negotiating or lobbying,” he said.
Statistics given by the church leaders were widely criticised in the press. It was pointed out that the figure of half a million people using food banks actually referred to requests and that individuals made repeat visits.
The NHS said the figure for people suffering from malnutrition actually referred to cases not patients and that malnutrition was normally associated with abuse or neglect of children or a medical condition.
Appearing on the BBC Radio Four ‘Sunday’ programme, the Bishop of Manchester, the Rt Rev David Walker, one of the signatories of the letter, argued that one in three people seeking help from food banks were hit by delays in the payment of benefits and that one in five were hit by sanctions.