Bishops call for amendments to new Bills to protect most vulnerable

Archbishop Peter Smith of Southwark has warned that thousands of families will be affected by reforms to welfare and legal aid now going through Parliament.

In a letter yesterday in The Times, he called for child benefit to be exempt from the proposed cap on household benefits  and said new provisions that will leave benefit claimants liable to repay debts accumulated as a result of administrative errors should be removed.

He also said thousands of children will be affected by new restrictions on legal aid, and warned of "increased long-term public costs as well as greater suffering".

While accepting the need for cuts, it was also 'vitally important to meet the fundamental needs of the most vulnerable families to prevent them from being pushed into further hardship', he said.

The Archbishop wrote:

Sir, In coming weeks Parliament will take crucial decisions on amendments to two Bills, which will have a profound impact upon thousands of families.

The proposed cap on household benefits in the Welfare Reform Bill will especially hurt larger families because it takes no account of family size, potentially forcing them to cut back on essentials such as heating and food, and in many cases resulting in the loss of their home. This impact will at least be mitigated if the Bill is amended so that child benefit is not counted towards the capped amount. There are other issues, too, not least claimants being liable for the cost of official errors, even if they are unaware of those errors.

At the same time, restrictions to the availability of legal aid outlined in the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill will affect thousands of children whose parents are involved in civil cases, as well as victims of domestic abuse, fewer of whom will be entitled to support. The result is likely to be increased long-term public costs as well as greater suffering.

The experience of the member charities of our Caritas Social Action Network has underscored the dangers of increased poverty facing our society as a result of these changes.

While we all recognise that difficult decisions have to be made, it is vitally important to meet the fundamental needs of the most vulnerable families to prevent them from being pushed into further hardship.

The Most Rev Peter Smith
Chairman, Department for Christian Responsibility and Citizenship, London SW1

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