Poor are losers in widening prosperity gulf, says Church

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In its most damning verdict yet on nine years of Labour rule, Church leaders said, inFaithful Cities, that the gap between the rich and the poor had grown since it last reported on social exclusion 21 years ago. Then, Britain had high unemployment and was trying to come to terms with the social upheavals of the miners' strike and the Brixton riots.

The report, presented by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, concluded that, 21 years later, destitution was being used as a "tool of coercion" in the treatment of asylum-seekers.

The Church's commission on urban life and faith findings are a direct reference to the 2004 Asylum and Immigration Act, which removed the welfare benefits and housing help of asylum families whose claims have been rejected and who have "failed to take reasonable steps" to leave Britain. The Act also sanctions the removal of housing support from failed asylum-seekers unless they agree to leave the UK. If parents refuse to sign, then they are made homeless and their children are taken into care.

This, said the Church, was "unacceptable" and should be changed to allow asylum-seekers to take paid work to sustain themselves and contribute to society.

The bulk of the report is devoted to the gap between rich and poor, which is accelerating despite multi-million pound regeneration projects in many urban areas.

"The experience of the faithful on the ground is that the poor are the losers in a widening prosperity gulf," said the report's authors - church leaders, clergy, academics, practitioners from a variety of Christian denominations and other faiths. "Not only has the 'trickle-down' promise of market forces failed to deliver but a draconian asylum system consigns a small section of the population to unacceptable destitution."

The report argues that much has changed in the 20 years since the Church report Faith in the City. Yet the extremes of poverty and prosperity are not so different from those in the 1980s, said the report.

Dr Sentamu said: "This report asks, 'Why is it that young people in Britain, the fourth largest economy in the world, are the most depressed in Europe?' That question demands an answer."