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Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has hit back at a highly political Church of England-backed campaign that claims his benefit changes are forcing people to go to food banks.
In an advertising poster that says "Britain Isn’t Eating", the charity Church Action on Poverty features the famous “queue” from the Conservatives’ 1979 election poster, which bore the slogan "Labour Isn’t Working", and was used to illustrate dole queues under Jim Callaghan’s ailing Government. But this time it places the people queuing outside a food bank. The poster reads: "Thousands are going hungry because of benefit changes. Call for urgent action."
The charity, supported by the Church of England and other Churches, says on its website that half a million people used aid from food banks this year primarily because “their benefits have been changed, delayed or stopped”.
The figures appear to come from the Trussell Trust, which runs 400 food banks in Britain, and Mr Duncan Smith accused its chairman, Chris Mould of ‘scaremongering’ and ‘political messaging’ by claiming the use of them is linked to welfare reforms.
“I strongly refute this claim and would politely ask you to stop scaremongering in this way.
“I understand that a feature of your business model must require you to continuously achieve publicity, but I’m concerned that you are now seeking to do this by making your political opposition to welfare reform overtly clear,” Mr Duncan Smith wrote.
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: "Our welfare reforms will improve the lives of some of the poorest families in our communities with Universal Credit making three million households better off – the majority of these from the bottom two-fifths of the income scale."
Meanwhile growing numbers of churches in England and Wales are opening emergency shelters this Christmas in what some are describing as the worst homelessness crisis in living memory.
Research by The Tablet has found that accommodation is being set up in parish halls, presbyteries and churches staffed by volunteers. Organisers say parishioners have been inspired by Pope Francis’ call for a poor Church for the poor.
In England, the number of households accepted by local authorities as homeless has increased by 8 per cent and now stands at 57,350.
In Slough, Berkshire, three Catholic churches are opening night shelters in January for the first time, with the support of Bishop of Northampton, Peter Doyle. John Power, coordinator the project, said the number of rough sleepers in the town had more than quadrupled in the past 18 months with reports of people sleeping in graveyards. In Newport, Gwent, All Saints’ parish is setting up 12 airbeds in its hall for people to sleep on.
The Bishop of Salford, Terence Brain, chairman of the Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN), said homelessness had worsened following cuts to welfare benefits. “Our charities are also encountering a worrying number of families receiving eviction notices and living in bed-and-breakfast and hostel accommodation: the highest level for four years,” he said.
John Battle, former Labour MP for Leeds West, who campaigns against poverty in the north-west, told The Tablet that homelessness this winter was the worst he had ever encountered. “The pressures of debt, homelessness and unemployment are higher than they’ve been in my lifetime.”
The ecumenical charity Housing Justice organises a rota programme in which churches in a designated area open their doors to the homeless one night a week. Its shelter liaison coordinator, the Revd Paul Reily, said that the number of churches involved in London had increased by eight per cent over the past year, with a similar increase across the UK.
At the Sacred Heart church in Hove, near Brighton, 15 men will sleep in a hall beneath the presbytery one night a week over winter as part of an emergency shelter scheme. A church spokesman said the parish has more than three times the number of volunteers needed to run the shelter.
Bishop Patrick Lynch, an auxiliary in Southwark and patron of the Robes Project, which runs emergency shelters at 24 churches with over 400 volunteers, said more Christians are responding to a growing need. “The response must be both pastoral and prophetic,” he said. “We must respond to the real, concrete needs of those who suffer while not forgetting to speak out about the causes, which sometimes are very complex.”
In addition to taking part in the night shelter scheme, the Diocese of Westminster is to distribute 10, 000 emergency cold weather packs to homeless people in England and Wales.
Above: Clients enjoy a hot meal before sleeping in a church hall. Photo: West London Churches Homeless Concern