MINISTERS are scapegoating benefits claimants – many of whom cannot help themselves – for ideological reasons, a church leader told a welfare summit today (Tuesday, April 30).

Rev Dr Philip Bee, chief officer for the Churches’ Regional Commission for Yorkshire and Humber, said selling welfare reform as “skivers versus strivers” was unhelpful and greatly concerning and Christians must work to restore neighbourly values.

Addressing a conference in Easington Lane, Wearside, the Leeds-based Methodist minister said: “There is no longer a sense of belonging with each other. But we have to support each other.

“The language is a wholly different ideology. I’m very concerned about that.

“They are scapegoating the people at the bottom of the pile who, very often through no fault of their own, cannot pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”

Rev Bee’s recent report 'Am I My Brother’s Keeper?' extols the founding goals of the welfare state and calls for a return to neighbourly values, which he called a fundamental Christian message.

He has written to the Prime Minister on the issue, although he said changes had taken place throughout the last Labour Government and he suspected austerity cuts would have been implemented regardless of the outcome of the last General Election.

Today’s conference came the day after the first claims were made for the new universal credit payment, which will replace a range of other benefits between now and 2017.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith says the shake-up will simplify the system and mean work always pays better than benefits.

Today’s summit, also called Am I My Brother’s Keeper?, was organised by the cross-church Faith In Our Community (FIOC) group to debate how churches can respond to welfare reform.

Bernadette Askins, FIOC’s chief officer, said the Government was creating a “new landscape” and, while it remains difficult to foresee the impact, she predicted “significant problems”.

“We’re going to have a much bigger job to do, with fewer resources,” Mrs Askins said.

Margaret Hope, from church charity Hetton New Dawn, said her group was living “hand to mouth” as it tried to feed and help people in very deprived areas.

“We haven’t yet seen people living in pure hell, but it will come later this year,” she warned.