Britain’s most senior Catholic cleric has described the coalition’s welfare reforms as a “disgrace” and said they have removed even the most basic safety net for those threatened by poverty and left society’s most vulnerable facing “hunger and destitution”.
Cardinal-designate Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, attacked the reforms led by Iain Duncan Smith. The work and pensions secretary is a practising Catholic.
He said that the welfare system had become more “punitive”, leaving people with nothing if they fail to fill in forms correctly.
His move follows attacks by prominent figures in the Church of England against the government’s programme.
“People do understand that we do need to tighten our belts and be much more responsible and careful in public expenditure,” the archbishop said.
“But I think what is happening is two things: one is 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.
“It no longer exists and that is a real, real dramatic crisis. And the second is that, in this context, the administration of social assistance, I am told, has become more and more punitive.”
The archbishop also told the Daily Telegraph: “So if applicants don’t get it right, then they have to wait for 10 days, for two weeks, with nothing – with nothing. For a country of our affluence, that, quite frankly, is a disgrace.”
In March last year, Anglican clergymen, including the archbishops of Canterbury and York, accused Duncan Smith of ignoring the concerns of ordinary people when they signed a letter claiming that capping benefit rises would have a “deeply disproportionate” effect on children.
But the work and pensions secretary – a millionaire who drew derision when he claimed he could live on the £53 per week that one claimant said he was allotted – hit back. He said the system was out of control and simply “giving more and more money” would not help.
“There is nothing moral or fair about a system that I inherited that trapped people in welfare dependency,” he added.
Cardinal-designate Nichols is one of 19 senior clerics chosen by Pope Francis to be elevated to the Roman Catholic clergy’s second highest rank.
It means he will be granted a place at the conclave that will elect the next pope. The archbishop is one of only two Europeans on a list of clergymen to be made cardinals next week, aside from those already holding senior offices at the Holy See, with the rest hailing from the developing world.
Since his election as pope in March last year, Francis has cultivated a radical image, challenging politicians over their treatment of immigrants and adopting a more tolerant stance towards homosexuality.