Government welfare reforms are 'unfair'

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The Government's welfare reforms are "unfair" and putting "very considerable pressures on people", according to the outgoing Bishop of Ripon and Leeds.

Bishop John Packer, who retired last Friday, was reflecting on his seven years in the House of Lords in a Church of England interview.

He said that the welfare situation had not improved significantly during his period in the Lords, and speaking on the recent changes, he said: "I know from experience in Leeds that people are suffering as a result of the welfare reforms."

"People are being driven into debt by having to pay council tax in situations where they actually cannot afford to do so."

Although Bishop Packer did not criticise the government's focus on the national debt after the financial crash of 2008, he described the welfare portion of the budget as a comparatively "easy target" to make savings out of.

He praised the basic idea behind universal credit of simplifying the benefit system, saying "...because the current system is so complicated that I don't think anyone understands it."

"Many of those receiving welfare benefit don't understand it and can't work out why they are getting reduced amount benefit in particular areas," he said.

However he said it was a "pity" that the policy was coming about at a time when the government was also looking to save money.

In particular, Bishop Packer singled out the bedroom tax for criticism.  The policy cuts the housing benefit for those living in council houses or housing association properties that have a spare room, was "unfair".

"I believe many of those reforms, such as the bedroom tax, are unfair," he said.

He also questioned when the Government was going to deal with the question of more affluent pensioners, and when they would be asked to "bear some of the burden of financial austerity".

"There are pensioners who are in desperate need, but there are also pensioners who have very significant reserves and they do not need to have their pensions gold plated from the state in the way they are at the moment."

Answering the question of why he believed it was important for bishops to speak out on issues of welfare reform, Bishop Packer explained his motivation as being deeply connected to his Christian faith.

"One of the things bishops bring to the debate ... is the belief that humanity is created by God in his image and that Jesus died for all humanity. Therefore it is crucial that we think of the needs of all human beings," he said.

He then specifically referred to how this is important for the welfare of children: "Because in a political sense they don't have a voice of their own because they don't have votes."

He also raised concerns about the impact of welfare on immigrants, some of whom he has worked with in collaboration with voluntary organisation in Leeds.

Although he opened with a statement that it had been "a real privilege to serve in the [House of] Lords", he also concluded by saying that he was looking forward to returning more permanently to the North East of England, where he is retiring to.

Some of his plans during his retirement include getting involved in credit unions in the Newcastle Area, although he added he was going to enjoy the simple pleasure of attending church "as a Christian, rather than taking services".

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