UK Politics

David Cameron rejects Archbishop of Canterbury's claims

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Media captionDavid Cameron: "I profoundly disagree with many of the views he's expressed"

Prime Minister David Cameron has mounted a robust defence of government policy following criticisms by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Mr Cameron said Dr Rowan Williams was "free to express political views" - but he "profoundly disagrees" with them.

Dr Williams criticised the coalition's flagship welfare reforms and branded the PM's Big Society "stale".

And he said "radical" policies "for which no-one voted" were being pushed through with "remarkable speed".

Mr Cameron was asked about the remarks in Dr Williams's article for the left-leaning New Statesman magazine, the latest edition of which the most senior cleric in the Church of England guest-edited.

In the magazine, the Archbishop said the government was facing "bafflement and indignation" over its health and education plans: "With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no-one voted. At the very least, there is an understandable anxiety about what democracy means in such a context."

He added: "The anxiety and anger have to do with the feeling that not enough has been exposed to proper public argument."

He also said there had been a "quiet resurgence of the seductive language of 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor" and he wrote that Mr Cameron's own Big Society initiative was viewed with "widespread suspicion" and the term had become "painfully stale".

But Mr Cameron, in Belfast ahead of addressing the Northern Ireland Assembly, rejected the criticisms.

He said: "I've never been one to say that the Church has to fight shy of making political interventions, but what I would say is that I profoundly disagree with many of the views that he's expressed, particularly on issues like debt and on welfare and education."

Mr Cameron said he saw nothing "good or moral" in passing national debts to the next generation, trapping people on welfare or in schools that were not offering a good education.

'Deserving poor'

The prime minister added: "I am absolutely convinced that our policies are about actually giving people greater responsibility and greater chances in their life and I will defend those very vigorously."

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, whose sweeping welfare reforms aimed at making work pay came in for some criticism, said the Archbishop was entitled to his views but added: "I think in this respect it's a little unbalanced and unfair."

Mr Duncan Smith denied resurrecting the Victorian concept of the "deserving poor" and said the welfare system he had inherited from Labour had left many people abandoned on benefits, with a record number of workless households and "broken homes".

He added: "All of this is going on in a system which is, in itself, damaging the very people it seeks to save. There is no kindness in that."

Business Secretary Vince Cable told the BBC he welcomed debate with Dr Williams but said he was "wrong on the specifics" about health reforms - as there was a "very big debate" about them at the moment..

And he rejected the suggestion the coalition government did not have a mandate for its work: "The two parties of the coalition got substantially more than half of the total vote at the last election... so I don't think that criticism has much weight."

But Dr Williams got some support from the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Rev Christopher Hill, who said his remarks had been "eminently reasonable".

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Media captionReverend Tim Stevens: "He's not taking a partisan position"

"Government cannot at any stage simply abrogate its responsibility. One of the prime, core functions of government is the care of all in society, especially those at the bottom," he told the BBC.

And the Bishop of Leicester Tim Stevens told the BBC it was "right and natural" for an archbishop to draw attention to disquiet over government policies and said he had been "absolutely balanced in what he says".

Dr Williams is no stranger to controversy and has previously criticised the previous Labour government on various issues, including the Iraq war.

In his article he also appeared to question what Labour's "achievable alternatives" were.

He said that the prime minister's "Big Society" initiative was viewed with "widespread suspicion", but "we are still waiting for a full and robust account of what the left would do differently and what a left-inspired version of localism might look like."

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair said there was a long-standing tradition of archbishops criticising government.

"Obviously people used to criticise our policies, not just on Iraq and foreign policy, but on domestic policy and reform as well. It's just part of the way things work," he said.

Labour's shadow education secretary Andy Burnham said: "Rowan Williams is saying what many people are feeling and the government in my view is very wrong to dismiss out of hand what he is saying - I think they should reflect a bit more carefully."

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