THE new Bishop of Durham has set himself on a collision course with the Government before he is even installed, condemning the coalition’s welfare reforms as forcing people into food and fuel poverty.

Just days before his Durham Cathedral enthronement, the Right Reverend Paul Butler has put his name to an open letter published in today’s (Thursday, February 20) Daily Mirror saying too many people were having to choose between heating and eating following cutbacks and failures in the benefit system.

The letter, signed by 40 faith leaders including 27 bishops, says politicians have a moral incentive to do more to control food price hikes and to make sure that the welfare system offers the poor an essential safety net from hunger.

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In a personal statement, Bishop Butler added: “I am deeply concerned about the growth in need for food banks and how they are now being relied upon in order to combat hunger.

“I have been made well aware of the issues of poverty and specifically the need for food banks and concern about hunger by those working on the ground in our parishes.

“I have been championing this cause for a while now and will continue to do so here in the North-East.”

The letter came after the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, said it was a disgrace that in such a wealthy country there were people who could not afford to feed themselves.

And it prompted Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg to defend the coalition’s welfare programme, saying it was right to withdraw benefits from claimants who refused to look for work.

Speaking on his weekly radio phone-in on LBC, the Liberal Democrat leader accused Archbishop Nichols of exaggerating the extent to which people had been hit by the changes and he insisted at a time of major public spending cutbacks, the welfare budget could not escape unscathed.

For Labour, shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves said the bishops’ letter should be a wake-up call to David Cameron.

Bishop Butler will be enthroned on Saturday after being welcomed to the Durham Diocese in traditional style tomorrow (Friday, February 21), as he is presented with a falchion at Croft Bridge.