Plans to make the long-term unemployed do unpaid manual labour for their benefits could push vulnerable people into a "downward spiral of despair", the Archbishop of Canterbury warned yesterday.
In a forthright intervention into the debate on welfare, Rowan Williams said he had "a lot of worries" about the scheme, which will be formally unveiled this week by the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith.
His comments will irritate Coalition ministers – particularly the Tories, who remember their party's fractious relationship with the Church of England under Dr Williams' predecessor in the 1980s, Robert Runcie.
Mr Duncan Smith's plans will see unemployed people made to undertake a 30-hour-a-week work placement if job advisers think they would "benefit from experiencing the habits and routines of working life". Postings are likely to be provided by charities or councils and would include jobs like litter-picking and gardening. They will offer jobless people the opportunity to gain work discipline while benefiting their local community.
Anyone refusing to take part or failing to turn up on time could have their £65-a-week Jobseekers Allowance stopped for three months.
Defending the plans yesterday, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, said that the Work Activity placements would be used as a "sanction" against benefit claimants who failed to take advantage of available support to find employment.
He denied that the Government was seeking to treat the long-term unemployed like criminals doing community service. "People on benefits ... have a responsibility to take advantage of the support and help being offered to them," he told the BBC's Politics Show. "We are seeking to extend [existing] sanctions ... and say to people, 'Take advantage of this help'."
Dr Williams told BBC radio in the West Midlands: "People struggling to find work and a secure future are driven further into a downwards spiral of uncertainty, even despair, when the pressure is on in that way. People are often in this starting place not because they are wicked or stupid or lazy but because circumstances have been against them."
TUC senior policy officer Richard Exell said: "The reason we have got such high unemployment isn't because of a problem with the work ethic, it is because there aren't enough jobs for people to do. We have got 2.5 million unemployed people and fewer than half a million job vacancies. Unemployed people are the victims here, not the villains."