Churches and Christian organisations have accused the Government of failing to understand the poor as Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith announced tough sanctions to get more of the unemployed back into work.
Under the plans, the unemployed face losing their Jobseeker’s Allowance – worth £64.45 a week – for up to three years if they refuse to accept a job or take up a period of community work.
The measures are part of a package designed to simplify the universal benefit system by cutting out separate means tests for housing, income benefits and tax credits.
The controversial sanctions are due to come into place in 2013.
The Church of Scotland, Methodist Church and Baptist Union of Great Britain welcomed efforts to simplify the benefits system but said they were concerned that the proposed reforms were based on “inaccurate assumptions” of the poor.
The Rev Alison Tomlin, President of the Methodist Conference, said there was a serious danger that people living in poverty would be “stigmatised” as lazy or workshy by the measures.
“The Government seems to assume that if people are forced into working they will comply and their lives will be made better,” she said.
“The poor we meet are seeking to better their lives in difficult circumstances.
“They are willing to work, but face difficulties in finding jobs, in meeting caring responsibilities and in living on the wages offered.”
The Rev Ian Galloway, Convener of the Church and Society Council of the Church of Scotland, echoed her sentiments. He said the Government should be focused on training, job-creation and support for new enterprise, rather than "stigmatising" unemployed people.
“By constantly singling out the poorest and most vulnerable people in society as the cause of the problem, the Government is creating a false divide between the affluent and the poor,” he said.
Around 1.5 million people have been on out of work benefits for nine of the last 10 years. The Government claims that the new package will leave 2.5 million households better off and reduce the cost of benefit fraud and system errors by around £1bn each year.
Announcing the measures today, Mr Duncan Smith said it was a “sin” that the majority of jobs created in the last 13 years had gone to foreigners because Britons “weren’t capable or able” to take them.
He said the Government would work alongside the unemployed to help them back into work.
He told BBC Breakfast: "We are coming out of a recession, more jobs are being created ... It is not enough but it is growing all the time. As the economy grows and more jobs become available, all we are simply saying is, people have a responsibility now we are making work pay to take the job when it is available."
Mr Duncan Smith came under fire recently when he suggested that unemployed people in Merthyr Tydfil get on a bus to find work in Cardiff.
The Rev Graham Sparkes, head of faith and unity for the Baptist Union of Great Britain, questioned the Government’s hard talk.
“We meet people on a daily basis who are experiencing long term unemployment. Unemployment, especially in an area where there are few jobs available, damages a person’s self-confidence, health and ability to survive life’s knocks,” he said.
“The Government needs to understand what people in poverty need in order to return to work. It’s not good enough to just tell people to ‘pull their socks up’.”
Niall Cooper, national coordinator of Church Action on Poverty said Mr Duncan Smith needed to talk to people in poverty and listen to their stories.
“Simplistic solutions such as benefit cuts, telling people to get on a bus to find work, and enforced labour would face a harsh reality check," he said.
Steve Clifford, General Director for the Evangelical Alliance, accepted the need for some changes but urged the Government not to neglect the poor.
“On the one hand, our welfare system has allowed a culture of dependency to develop that has led to jobless people digging in their heels when they realise that they’re better off on the dole," he said.
"On the other hand, Christians think it’s important to care for the most vulnerable members of our society and so we hope that the government can balance their welfare reforms in such a way as to ensure the nation’s commitment to the poor and vulnerable is not lessened."
Government welfare proposals reveal lack of understanding towards poor, say Christians
Church leaders say the Government's changes to welfare are based on "inaccurate assumptions" of the poor.
Published 11 November 2010 | Jenna Lyle