The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, stepped up what the Daily Mail described as his ‘war of words with the government over welfare’ today, challenging Government ministers over food banks and their derogatory language about people in poverty.
Dr Welby’s riposte to Lord Freud on foodbanks
Dr Welby’s comments came in an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning (9 July). He specifically challenged Government minister Lord Freud who suggested last week there was an “almost infinite demand” for the free food supplied by food banks.
The Archbishop questioned where Lord Freud “got his information from” on food bank use after the welfare reform minister was reported last week as saying: “It is difficult to know which came first – supply or demand.” Mr Welby highlighted Church analysis that showed that in Durham 35 per cent of people using food banks were referred by social services because they were entitled to benefit that had not been paid.
He added: “Maybe he’s got different figures but those were certainly the figures we kept in the churches because we don’t do it by ourselves, we work with a number of other churches. We are very strict about our statistics and we don’t just hand out food, you have to be referred, usually by social services.”
Dr Welby’s comments only serve to strengthen the pressure for an urgent Parliamentary Inquiry to examine whether changes in the welfare system are at least in part driving the huge surge in demand for food aid – following Church Action on Poverty and Oxfam’s report Walking the Breadline, which found that half a million people having had to turn to foodbanks to feed themselves in the past year.
Archbishop joins debate on truth and lies about poverty
In remarks which are already making the headlines, Dr Welby also strongly criticised Minister for using “completely unfair and untrue” language to stigmatize people in poverty.
“We have to be very careful about how we talk about people across a range of those who receive benefits. You can use derogatory terms. It is just important not to do so. There is a danger from time to time that people are categorised, that all people on benefits are seen as scroungers, and that’s clearly completely unfair and untrue.”
As the news headlines are already reporting it:
Don’t call people on benefits ‘scroungers’, Archbishop of Canterbury warns ministers (Daily Mail)
‘They’re not all scroungers!': Welby reignites row with Government over benefit claimants (Express)
The Archbishop’s comments echo the findings of the Truth and Lies about Poverty report published by the Baptist, Methodist, United Reformed Church and Church of Scotland earlier this year – and Church Action on Poverty’s own report The Blame Game, produced for Poverty and Homelessness Action Week in January.
Dr Welby’s comments today follow on from a succession of Church leaders from across the denominations who have now gone on record in calling on politicians from across the political spectrum to temper their language, and to focus on the real challenge of protecting the poorest and most vulnerable from the increasingly severe impacts of austerity and economic crisis.
Only last month, an alliance of Churches representing Christians from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (and including yours truly) wrote to the Prime Minister asking for an apology on behalf of the Government for misrepresenting the poor. Church leaders, including Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester, and Nick Baines, Bishop of Bradford, pointed out that in recent weeks senior members of the Government have given out misleading and inaccurate information about people on benefits. Outlining the inaccuracies, they asked for them to be corrected and for an apology to be offered to those who were misrepresented.
The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, speaking at a conference on the ‘Catholic Response to the Poverty Crisis’ also in June, echoed the concerns raised in our Walking the Breadline report, that Government cuts had undermined the basic principle that the state should provide a safety net to prevent hunger and destitution.
“A social safety net that leaves people without life’s necessities is not worthy of the name.”
All this amounts to a powerful and increasingly united voice from the Churches: The question is – are the politicians listening?