MP blasts bishops over welfare reforms

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RIPON MP Julian Smith has launched a scathing attack on the city’s bishop – accusing the Rt Rev John Packer of showing a “complete disconnection” with taxpayers.

The Conservative MP’s comments come after 18 Church of England bishops – including the Rt Rev Packer – wrote an open letter to the Observer newspaper, published on Sunday, over the coalition Government’s proposed welfare reforms.

In the letter they voice concerns that the proposed capping of benefit entitlements to individual households could see thousands of children made homeless and plunged into poverty.

Mr Smith said: “I am stunned by the Bishop of Leeds and Ripon’s entry into the debate on the Government’s proposed benefits cap.

“It shows a complete disconnection with the reality of how hard people and businesses are having to work at the moment to pay the taxes that fund the benefit system and how popular the Government’s decision to cap benefits has been amongst the majority of voters.

“Many of my constituents comprise a large part of the Bishop’s diocese and regard the £2,000 a month cap as not only reasonable but generous.

“This is the third high-profile interference by the Church of England into politics in the past year. It is time democratically elected Government Ministers are left to run the country and church bishops stop these political forays which just don’t represent the facts on the ground.”

In their letter to the Observer, the bishops said they felt “compelled to speak for children” in response to a planned £500-a-week benefits cap for families as part of the Welfare Reform Bill.

Their intervention is backed by the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, who just weeks ago called for an overhaul of the tax system in a stinging attack on the divide between Britain’s rich and poor in which he warned some of the wealthiest in society are avoiding paying their dues.

The bishops are concerned the policy will leave children facing “severe poverty and potentially homelessness” and have supported a series of amendments to the Bill – discussed in the House of Lords this week – which have been tabled by Bishop Packer and drawn up with the help of the Children’s Society.

In response to Mr Smith’s criticism, Bishop Packer said: “Politics is concerned with the welfare of people – and the church is concerned with the welfare of people. So it is important the church is involved in political debates which could affect the welfare of thousands of children in this country.

“It is the care of children which is particularly important to me in this whole debate about welfare and the way in which people are treated in our society.

“We hope the Government will listen to the concerns that we, and indeed many others, are voicing, and act for the sake of some of the most vulnerable in our society.”

The Children’s Society has warned that a cap on the total benefits households can claim could make more than 80,000 children homeless and push many thousands more into poverty.

It has proposed the Bill should be altered to remove child benefit from household income for the purposes of calculating the level, suggesting certain vulnerable groups could be excluded, with a grace period provided for newly-unemployed families.

A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions said the cap would be the equivalent of an annual salary of £35,000 before tax.

He added: “It simply isn’t fair that households on out-of-work benefits can receive a greater income from the state than the average working household gets in wages.”

Tweeting on Sunday, the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, said: “I hope the Government will listen to the concerns that are being raised regarding the Welfare Reform Bill.

“The Government must ensure that children, especially the most vulnerable, are protected from cuts to family benefits.”

l Do you believe the bishops’ concerns over the welfare reforms are justified? Or do you think the amount of benefits any household can claim should be capped? Email your views to news@ripongazette.co.uk or write to: The Editor, Ripon Gazette, 5A Kirkgate, Ripon, HG4 1PA.

-– See letters, page 10.