Nichols touches a nerve: Cameron defends ‘moral’ welfare reforms

The coalition's welfare reforms offer "new hope" to people stuck on benefits, David Cameron has insisted, in a direct response to criticism from Archbishop Vincent Nichols.

Nichols, the head of the Catholic Church in England, will be made a cardinal by the Pope this weekend. He has been outspoken in his criticisms of the government's efforts to make work pay.

Cameron has hit back with a Telegraph article which declared political leaders should not "be afraid to respond" to criticisms from religious figures.

His attempt to confront the issue is only serving to highlight Nichols' criticisms of measures like the benefit cap, which prevents families receiving more than £26,000 a year, and the introduction of universal credit.

The reforms are leaving many facing "destitution", the archbishop said yesterday.

With 500,000 people needing support from food banks last year, according to the Trussell Trust, Nichols has said the present state of affairs is "disgraceful".

"My concern is to echo the voices that come to me of the circumstances today – people are hungry, destitute," he said at a press conference.

"There must be something wrong with the administration that has that effect on so many people's lives. I believe that is an issue that can be tackled."

Nichols' criticisms will be of concern to No 10 because there are five million Catholics in Britain, of which one million regularly attend mass.

"We are in the middle of a long and difficult journey turning our country around," Cameron wrote.

"That means difficult decisions to get our deficit down, making sure that the debts of this generation are not our children's to inherit.

"But our welfare reforms go beyond that alone: they are about giving new purpose, new opportunity, new hope – and yes, new responsibility to people who had previously been written off with no chance.

"Seeing these reforms through is at the heart of our long-term economic plan – and it is at the heart, too, of our social and moral mission in politics today."
The prime minister's article will be a welcome relief to work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, whose department was embarrassed by finally admitting the rollout of universal credit had fallen behind schedule last year.

Its flagship reform remains in peril, however. Whitehall sources cited by the Financial Times newspaper have suggested universal credit risks being abandoned by the next government if substantial achievements cannot be shown by 2015.

The £2 billion programme could have to be reviewed even if the Conservatives are returned to power after the general election, it reported.

A key test is likely to come this November when the new digital system for administering universal credit, which will replace the struggling existing one, will be rolled out for the first time.

But the reform, struggling to get off the ground, saw £225,000 spent for every person receiving it by the end of 2013.

Labour pointed out the number of adults left on unemployment benefits for over two years has quadrupled since the general election.

It said two-thirds of the 660,000 people hit by the 'bedroom tax' are disabled and that women have been hit twice as hard as men by changes to benefits and tax credits.

"Under David Cameron's government, for the first time more people in poverty are in work than out of work," shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves said.

"No wonder David Cameron has presided over a tenfold rise in people relying on food banks.

"This Tory-led government's welfare reforms have penalised, rather than helped, those doing the right thing.

"The idea that disabled people hit by the bedroom tax, young people desperate for a job but stuck on benefits, and working families struggling to survive on low pay have been given 'hope' by David Cameron is preposterous."

Labour's vision of a welfare state is threatened by the coalition's drive against benefits, however.

Research by the think-tank Theos found that nearly a quarter of Brits think the welfare state will not exist "in any form we would recognise it today" in just 30 years.

Nine out of ten British adults said the welfare state was facing "severe problems", with 57% saying they expect benefits to shrink or disappear in the coming decades.