20/11/2011 01:36 GMT | Updated 19/01/2012 05:12 GMT

Anglican Bishops Call For Welfare Cap To Be Eased

Anglican bishops have called for the government to drop its plans to cap benefits at £500 per week for families, saying that it could push some of the most vulnerable children in the UK into poverty.

In an open letter published in the Observer on Sunday, the 18 clergy, including the bishops of London and Manchester, wrote that the proposed Welfare Reform Bill could affect more than 200,000 children and could leave up to 80,000 homeless.

"The Church of England has a commitment and moral obligation to speak up for those who have no voice. As such, we feel compelled to speak for children who might be faced with severe poverty and potentially homelessness, as a result of the choices or circumstances of their parents. Such an impact is profoundly unjust."

The Welfare Reform Bill is due to be debated in the House of Lords on Monday. The bishops called for the bill to be rethought, and asked politicians to consider taking child benefit out of household income when assessing families for the cap. They also suggested that vulnerable groups could be exempted from the cap, which is expected to affect around 50,000 families.

Among other proposals, the bill introduces a universal working credit to replace the various existing means-tested benefits. Its aim is to increase incentives for people receiving benefits to return to work, its proponents say. The £500 per week cap is equivalent to a household income of around £35,000 per year. The UK's average household income, according to figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, is around £38,500 per year after tax.

However, charities have called for vulnerable groups to be exempted from the reform over fears that child poverty rates may grow. The Children's Society published figures in October showing that 320,000 out of the UK's 800,000 disabled children live in poverty.

Liam Byrne, Labour's shadow work and pensions secretary, said: "We support the principle of a benefit cap, because a life on benefits should not be seen as an option for those who can work. But we’ve been saying for months that the method the Tory-led Government is proposing for introducing a benefits cap is so badly thought through that it risks putting up the benefits bill by putting up the costs of homelessness - with a massive impact on our country's children. When a change like this could end up costing more than it saves, it's time to go back to the drawing board."

According to the Observer, the church's two most influential leaders - Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Archbishop of York John Sentamu - have also given their full backing to the opposition to the bill.

Williams in particular has attracted criticism and support for weighing in on issues of economic reform, writing in the Financial Times earlier in November to support a financial transaction tax, a policy being proposed in Europe but deeply unpopular in the Treasury.

The Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, has also faced opprobrium for his handling of the Occupy London protests, after the chancellor of St Pauls resigned over plans to have the camp removed by police.