Minister accuses bishops of degrading moral campaign

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The Independent Online
A government minister yesterday accused five bishops of "degrading" the campaign for moral revival by Frances Lawrence, the widow of the murdered London headmaster Philip Lawrence.

Ann Widdecombe, a Home Office minister who was made a privy counsellor in the New Year Honours, angrily responded to the claims by the five Church of England bishops that the Government had failed to give a moral lead.

Ms Widdecombe attacked the bishops after New Year's messages in which they criticised Thatcherism for encouraging individualism, at the expense of community spirit. She said: "I don't believe Frances Lawrence would want her important message degraded in that way.

"The fact is that Tony Blair offers more unemployment with his policy of joining the Social Chapter and what do the bishops have to say about that?

"Responsibility on the part of the individual is not just discharged by paying ever more taxes to the state.

"It sounds to me as if the bishops should be encouraging people to vote Conservative if they are really concerned about personal responsibility."

Ms Widdecombe, who converted to Roman Catholicism from the Church of England after it introduced the ordination of women, added: "I am not at all surprised at this . . . it is the latest in a series of party political pronouncements from the Church of England."

Another right-winger, the Conservative MP and former Minister Ray Whitney accused the bishops of "bias and want of logic"."The Bishop of Oxford, rightly calls for a renewal of personal responsibility yet condemns the Conservative emphasis on personal morality. He seeks to justify this paradox by alleging that the Government `wishes to resist fundamental economic and political changes that threaten the privileged position of its supporters'.

"He does not specify the changes he has in mind but no doubt higher taxes and increased public control of the economy would feature prominently. These were precisely the policies which impoverished Britain in the Sixties and Seventies."

The Bishop of Oxford, the Right Rev Richard Harries, one of the most outspoken bishops, appeared to offer Tony Blair an endorsement for guiding the Labour Party back to its moral roots. He said it offered the likelihood of a government which would emphasise "changing the conditions which depress and degrade the lives of so many of our fellow citizens".

Bishop Harries echoed Mrs Lawrence by saying people wanted a renewal of personal responsibility and a quest for decency after being "sickened by so much of what is going on in our society". The Right Rev David Sheppard, Bishop of Liverpool, said there was a national fatalism which was sapping the will to tackle mass unemployment and "humiliatingly low pay".

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