Twenty-seven bishops condemn the government’s “punitive” welfare reforms, which they say have forced people into food and fuel poverty.
In an open letter to the Daily Mirror to mark the beginning of Lent on 5 March, 27 Anglican bishops and 16 other clergy said that too many people were having to choose between “heat or eat” as a result of “cut backs and failures in the benefit system”.
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.
The Anglican bishops write: “Half a million people have visited food banks in the UK since last Easter and 5,500 people were admitted to hospital in the UK for malnutrition last year.
“We often hear talk of hard choices. Surely few can be harder than that faced by the tens of thousands of older people who must ‘heat or eat’ each winter, harder than those faced by families whose wages have stayed flat while food prices have gone up 30 per cent in just five years.
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“Yet beyond even this 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.”
They added: “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.”
The open letter follows Archbishop Vincent Nichols’ criticism of the government’s welfare reforms on Saturday.
In an interview with the Telegraph, cardinal-designate Nichols said: “People do understand that we do need to tighten our belts and be much more responsible and careful in public expenditure.
“But I think what is happening is two things: 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. So if applicants don’t get it right then they have to wait for 10 days, for two weeks with nothing – with nothing.
Responding to the bishops’ calls, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves said: “This 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.
Speaking to Channel 4 News, Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi said that benefits sanctions should be a “last resort” and that job centres “should not be going straight for sanctions.”
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg on Thursday rejected the claims that the government was taking a “punitive” approach to welfare claimants. 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.”
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The Bishops’ letter is part of the End Hunger Fast campaign – which is calling on people to fast during lent in solidarity with the UK’s hungry families.