Nick Clegg defends Government welfare reforms against Church attack

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Senior Church figures have been criticised by Nick Clegg as he sought to defend the Government's welfare reforms against attacks this week from Christian leaders.

Speaking on LBC Radio to the head of the House of Bread food bank in Stafford, Mr Clegg claimed the Government is spending "billions of pounds" on those in need of support.

He was speaking in response to claims from the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, in The Telegraph last week 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".

Mr Clegg said he had a "huge amount of respect" for the Archbishop but did not agree with his perspective.

"I like him, I've met him a number of times but I think to say that the safety net has been removed altogether is an exaggeration," he said.

Earlier this week the Government received a letter from 43 Christian leaders across a variety of denominations, including 27 Church of England bishops, calling for more action from the Government on food poverty.

"Britain is the world's seventh largest economy and yet people are going hungry," the letter said.

"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 cutbacks to and failures in the benefit system, whether it be payment delays or punitive sanctions."

Yesterday, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby, came out in support of the Church leaders.

"One of the things about the Church, both Catholic and Anglican and the other Churches in this country, is we have people on the ground all over the place," he said.

"It is from the upswell of feeling that they are reporting that sense that they're seeing in their own church communities, as priests, as ministers, as pastors, in whichever community that these letters and the comments of Cardinal Nichols are coming. And I'm entirely with him."

Clegg insisted the problem was caused by events beyond his control, saying in the BBC, "We inherited this massive black hole in the public finances.

"There's nothing fair about simply saying we're not going to deal with our debts. We're 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 [on welfare]."

The argument from economic necessity has come under criticism in the wake of David Cameron's comments earlier this month that "money is no object" in responding to the floods.

Clegg said: "What we've done is try to make sure that the way we reform welfare and we reform the tax system encourages people into work.

"What we're doing is simplifying the system and sharpening the incentive to work. It is surely better to see people in work rather than on benefits."

Speaking in opposition to the idea that benefits should be given out more freely, he said: "You can't just be given benefits, with no strings attached and with no questions asked, when you are being given support to find your way back into work."

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