CLERICS working in the areas where Universal Credit (UC), the Government's flagship welfare reform, is being piloted, have added their voices to those of critics of the programme.
On Monday, the Archdeacon of Warrington, the Ven. Peter Bradley, said that there were "grave concerns as to whether we are losing the safety net that the benefit system should provide".
Through UC, six means-tested working-age benefits are consolidated into a single monthly payment.
The Government intends that it will incentivise people to find jobs by "making work pay": benefits are gradually withdrawn as income increases.
It estimates that almost three million people will be better off under the scheme.
A pilot was launched in Ashton-under-Lyne, Greater Manchester, in April, and expanded to Oldham, Warrington, and Wigan in July.
"I can see several good bureaucratic reasons for bringing in the UC system, but I fear that the needs of the individual may be lost in the process," Archdeacon Bradley said on Monday.
He reported that a delay in receiving benefits seemed to be the "main reason" why people were visiting foodbanks in his area.
"It feels very much that the burden is placed on the most vulnerable in society," he said.
On Tuesday, the Priest-in-Charge of Holy Trinity, Warrington, the Revd Stephen Parish, said that the Borough Council's arms-length housing association, Golden Gates Housing Trust, had reported a 23per-cent increase in rent arrears in the three months since the pilot started.
On Tuesday, the Archdeacon of Rochdale, the Ven. Cherry Vann, said: "I think there is an understanding that the Government is trying to promote people to actively search for work . . . The system is not achieving that, and actually penalising those at the hardest end of our community."
She reported that claimants were being sanctioned for up to four weeks' worth of benefits, for missing a single meeting: "Nobody is asking why they are missing it. The assumption is that they can't be bothered, but it might be a perfectly legitimate reason."
Last month, Manchester Citizens Advice Bureaux published a review of the impact of benefits sanctions on clients and claimants.
Of the 376 respondents, almost a quarter said that they did not know why they had been sanctioned, and "many" said that they had been looking for work, but that the rules had been interpreted narrowly.
One respondent, for example, was tasked with applying for seven jobs a week, but applied for five in one week and ten the next, and so was penalised.
Last week, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) reported that, since October last year, 580,000 sanctions had been issued.
The employment minister, Esther McVey, said that the Government was "ending the something-for-nothing culture".
Archdeacon Vann suggested that it was a "myth" that claimants were unwilling to work.
"There are clearly people who don't want to work and who want to make the most of a life on benefits . . . but that is a very small minority. Most people want the dignity of having a job."
On Thursday of last week, the Public Accounts Committee published a scathing report on the progress of UC, the implementation of which had been "extraordinarily poor".
It suggested that much of the £425 million spent so far would have to be written off.
Despite its concerns about implementation, Citizens Advice Bureau told the Public Accounts Committee that UC was "too important a project to abandon".
If the Government looked again at the benefit, "then UC could go a long way towards achieving [its] aims."