In a letter to the Times, the Catholic Archbishop of Southwark, Peter Smith, today highlighted his concern for the “thousands of families” who will be affected by the Welfare Reform Bill and the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill , both currently being debated in the House of Lords.
The Archbishop added his voice to the growing number of faith leaders calling for child benefit to be exempt from the proposed cap on household benefits, stating that this would at least mitigate the impact upon families who face being forced to cut back on essentials or even losing their homes.
He also called for the removal of new provisions that will leave benefit claimants liable to repay debts accumulated as a result of administrative errors.
A number Catholic charities, have expressed concern about this aspect of the Bill, including the Passage in Westminster, where Chief Executive Mick Clarke explained “I have no doubt that these proposals, if allowed to go through unchecked, will drive people further into poverty.”
The Archbishop’s letter went on to address the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, following on from his recent correspondence with Peers which stated that “we must not restrict access to justice for the most vulnerable of society.”
The Church’s social action arm, Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN), has emphasised that children will be one of the groups hit hardest by the legal aid cuts, particularly in light of the estimated 140 000 cases per year in which parents will no longer receive support.
Director of Brentwood Catholic Children’s Society, Steven Webb highlighted “we know that in situations where parents have problems it is often the children who suffer the most… This is not something that a civilised society should be prepared to tolerate.”
The Archbishop also drew attention to the likely negative impact upon domestic abuse victims, echoing the concerns of CSAN and the National Board of Catholic Women that the Bill’s restriction on the type of evidence accepted and the length of its validity will leave many victims without adequate recourse to legal aid.
CSAN Chief Executive Helen O’Brien warned that restricting legal aid in these cases “risks trapping many in a cycle of abuse or fear.”
Bishop Patrick Lynch, Chair of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales Office of Migration and Refugee Policy, expressed further concerns around the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, regarding victims of human trafficking and those involved in family reunion immigration cases, who he emphasised were “at risk of losing fundamental and potentially irreplaceable support.”
The Welfare Reform Bill is currently at Report Stage; the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill is currently in Committee. CSAN and the Church will continue to address the effects of both bills on the poor and vulnerable as legislation progresses.
Public Policy and Public Affairs Officer
Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN)