Welfare reforms are moral, says Cameron

PAPrime Minister David Cameron has rejected Archbishop Vincent Nichols' criticisms of welfare reform

David Cameron has been forced to defend his welfare reforms from strong criticisms levelled against them by Britain's most senior Catholic leader, Archbishop Vincent Nichols.

The Archbishop has made a series of public statements against the welfare reforms in the last few days.

Speaking to The Telegraph last week, he said the "safety" net to ensure people are not left in hunger or destitution has been "torn apart".

"It no longer exists and that is a real, real dramatic crisis," he said. 

He also claimed that the administration of social assistance "has become more and more punitive".

Then in The Spectator, Archbishop Nichols said he accepted the case for reform and that the country needed to be careful with spending.

"I don't believe for a moment that destitution is intended by the policies but this is the reality on the ground," he said, adding that "people should take the trouble to read what I said" in The Telegraph.

Mr Cameron has denied this and argued that there is a moral case for the welfare reforms, saying they were about "building a country where people aren't trapped in a cycle of dependency".

Talking about the way welfare was organised under Labour, he said: "It was a system where in too many cases people were paid more to be on benefits than to be in work."

He repeated previous comments he made on welfare that "those who can should, those who can't we will always help".

He also denied that the welfare safety net was gone: "If you're over 25 and looking for work you receive £71.70 a week in Jobseekers' Allowance – £6.25 a week more than at the last election.

"If you're under 25 the figure is £56.80 a week – £4.90 more per week than at the last election."

He also suggested that the welfare reforms were moving in the right direction because the number of people going into work was increasing.

"A key test of a welfare system is whether it supports people into work.  That simply didn't happen under Labour," he said.

"We saw a situation where almost a million and a half people spent the last decade out of work – and the number of workless households doubled."

Colin Bloom, of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, told Christian Today that Mr Cameron's response was "reasoned and balanced".

"What we'd like to know from the Archbishop is, if what we're spending on welfare isn't enough how much should it be, and where are we going to get the money from?" he said. 

"The UK currently spends £100 billion on welfare. Would £200 billion be too much? Would £150 billion be too much? And where is the money going to come from?"

Commenting on Cameron's reaction, Stephen Beer, the political communications officer of Christians on the Left said: "Inequality is now rising again and that is in large part due to cuts in social security for those on low incomes, while excessive pay continues in the financial sector.

"Nowhere does David Cameron mention this in his response to the Archbishop of Westminster.

"The Archbishop is concerned that for many people the safety net does not properly exist. He is also concerned that the system is heartless in the way it works. We can see evidence for this in the large numbers of people who rely on foodbanks. Our economic system does not recognise the equal worth of everyone, that we are all created equal."

The Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN), the social action arm of the Catholic Church, agreed with the Archbishop, saying it was "unrealistic" for the Prime Minister to claim that a proper safety net was in place "when we are seeing record numbers people being evicted from their homes and turning to food banks".

"Catholic charities up and down the country are experiencing increased demand for their services because of unprecedented cuts to the benefit system," said CSAN chief executive Helen O'Brien.

"They are supporting families who can no longer afford to pay their rent, turn on the heating or even buy a decent meal."

Ms O'Brien also questioned Mr Cameron's focus on the unemployed as the primary burden on the welfare system.

"Most of the UK's welfare budget goes to pensioners, disabled people and low-paid workers," she said.

"The vast majority of unemployed people are trying hard to get back into work, but their job-hunt is often made harder when vital support for their families is withdrawn."

The Department for Work and Pensions previously claimed that the new system would make three million households better off.

However, these claims were strongly denounced by the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church.

In a joint response, they claimed that the DWP figure along with a lack of proper context was misleading the public and "airbrushed" the reality of the situation.

They fear that the new system will leave another 2.8 million households worse off. 

They also suggest that these numbers are too isolated and do not take in the context of other government policies.

The group of churches said in a statement: "Analysis by the Institute of Fiscal Studies shows conclusively that, taken together, the raft of tax and benefit changes that make up welfare reform will increase the levels of both child and working age poverty.

"Welfare reform is the driving force behind the predicted increases in both relative and absolute poverty in families with children over the next decade.

Paul Morrison, public issues policy adviser for the Methodist Church: "People are entitled to take different views on the merits of welfare reform but they should be given a clear and fair picture of the reality. The British public deserve better than the diet of half-truths and skewed statistics they are currently being fed."