Catholic archbishop slams UK welfare reform

London — The leader of the Roman Catholic church in England and Wales has called government cuts to welfare a “disgrace” and said they have left people facing hunger and destitution.

Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, who is due to be installed as a cardinal by Pope Francis later this month, told the Daily Telegraph newspaper that the way social benefits are handed out “has become more and more punitive.”

“For a country of our affluence, that quite frankly is a disgrace,” he said in comments published Friday.

Britain’s Conservative-led government has cut billions from public spending in a bid to curb the country’s huge deficit. But its critics say reductions in the amount spent on unemployment, housing and disability benefits are disproportionately hitting the poor.

Nichols said people understood the need to “tighten our belts” and cut public expenditure. But he said “the basic safety net that was there to guarantee that people would not be left in hunger or in destitution has actually been torn apart.”

“It no longer exists and that is a real, real dramatic crisis,” he said.

Britain’s Anglican leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, has also criticized the government’s austerity measures.

The Department of Work and Pensions said it spent 94 billion pounds ($157 billion) a year on benefits — not including pensions — “and the welfare system supports millions of people who are on low incomes or unemployed so they can meet their basic needs.”