Page last updated at 17:06 GMT, Sunday, 28 December 2008

Minister rejects bishops' attack

Liam Byrne
Liam Byrne said Labour wanted to help struggling families and businesses now

The government has rejected criticism by five Anglican bishops who questioned the morality of its policies.

The Bishops of Durham, Winchester, Hulme, Manchester and Carlisle accused ministers of failing to tackle poverty and pressuring people to get into debt.

But Cabinet Office Minister Liam Byrne said Labour had fought hard to narrow the gap between rich and poor.

And Labour MP Sir Stuart Bell, who represents the Church in the Commons, called the bishops' claims "nonsense".

Another Labour MP, Commons Treasury Committee chairman John McFall, told the BBC he believed there was "a kernel of truth" in the bishops' remarks.

'Morally suspect'

In separate interviews, the five bishops attacked various aspects of Labour's economic and social policy.

Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph, Bishop of Durham the Rt Rev Tom Wright accused ministers of standing by while "the poor have got poorer".

"When a big bank or car company goes bankrupt, it gets bailed out, but no one seems to be bailing out the ordinary people who are losing their jobs and seeing their savings diminished," he said.

We are determined not to walk on by
Liam Byrne, Cabinet Office Minister

Bishop of Manchester the Rt Rev Nigel McCulloch said Labour was "beguiled by money" and "morally corrupt".

And Bishop of Hulme the Rt Rev Stephen Lowe criticised the government for urging people who were already deep in debt to spend more.

"That is morally suspect and morally feeble," he said. "It is unfair and irresponsible of the government to put pressure on the public to spend in order to revive the economy."

He added that he wanted to see an end to "the notion of greed, of getting something you want immediately using the credit card".

Third World poverty

The bishops' comments followed a similar public attack by the Archbishop of Canterbury last week, but they were roundly rejected by several Labour figures.

Mr Byrne said the government had lifted half a million children and nearly a million pensioners out of poverty since 1997.

"I don't think the bishops, in their comments today, have really done justice to some of the very hard-fought progress made over the last 10 or 11 years," he said.

What the bishops are highlighting is that Britain has suffered a wasted decade
Chris Grayling
Shadow work and pensions secretary

"We are determined not to walk on by. We want to put real help on the table for families and businesses now."

Sir Stuart, who is the Second Church Estates Commissioner, said the bishops' claims were "unbalanced".

"Not only is the government seeking to help those on lower incomes, it is leading the fight in the Third World to relieve poverty - a task Gordon Brown pursued in all his years as chancellor and since as prime minister," he said.

"It is also nothing short of nonsense to say that the government's policies are designed to win a future election. They are designed to assist all sections of the community through the difficulties that face them."

But Mr McFall told the BBC he agreed with aspects of the bishops' message.

"It's important for people to look at this in a moral dimension and to ensure that we bring back some of the responsibility that was evident many, many years ago when people had to save up for things," he said.

And Conservative shadow work and pensions secretary Chris Grayling backed the bishops wholeheartedly.

"What the bishops are highlighting is that Britain has suffered a wasted decade," he said.

"So much more could have and should have been done to tackle our broken society and Gordon Brown was fundamentally wrong to build up a mountain of debt."

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