Justin Welby accuses big firms of 'leeching off the public'

By Nazia Parveen and Jessica Elgot

In one of the most strident speeches of his career, the archbishop of Canterbury has attacked the benefits system and criticised multibillion dollar firms like Amazon for “leeching off the public”.

Justin Welby was given a standing ovation at the annual Trades Union Congress in Manchester following the controversial speech in which he levelled criticism at politicians, the government and corporate bosses.

During the speech the archbishop took a swipe at Amazon for paying “almost nothing” in taxes and said he was pleased the payday lender Wonga had gone bust. He also condemned the government’s flagship reform programme, universal credit, calling for it to be halted, saying it had left people worse off.

Welby’s remarks came as the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, attacked Theresa May during prime minister’s questions over the government’s record on welfare, citing the National Audit Office’s June report, which said thousands of vulnerable claimants were in hardship.

Corbyn said universal credit was “flawed and failing” and cited the government’s own survey, which found many families were in rent arrears. “Most of us are well aware of the pain universal credit is causing when people come into our advice bureaus,” he said. “Universal credit is not making work pay, it is taking money away from families and putting more families into poverty.”

During his speech Welby revealed that his family had previously relied on benefits, saying they needed working tax credits and child tax credits when he was a vicar in 2007.

In a question and answer session after his speech, the archbishop was asked for his view on universal credit.

“It was supposed to make it simpler and more efficient. It has not done that. It has left too many people worse off, putting them at risk of hunger, debt, rent arrears and food banks,” he said.

“When universal credit comes into a local area the number of people going to food banks goes up. What is clear is if they cannot get it right they need to stop rolling it out.”

The speech in Manchester comes less than a week after he was criticised for backing a thinktank report proposing tax rises for the rich.

Just hours before taking to the stand he signalled that his speech could be potentially controversial. He tweeted a link to his blog post titled: Is mixing faith and politics worth the risk? with the tweet: “I’m often told that archbishops should ‘stick to religious and spiritual matters’ and ‘stay out of politics’. I have a feeling today might be another one of those days, so I’m just going to leave this here.”

During the speech Welby spoke out on a number of topics but it was when he hit out at big corporations that he got the loudest applause.

He said: “Not paying taxes speaks of the absence of commitment to our shared humanity, to solidarity and justice. If you earn money from a community, you should pay your share of tax to that community.”

The archbishop, an Eton-educated former oil company executive, added: “I was in business, and I know that, within limits, it’s right and proper for people to arrange their tax affairs, and for companies to do so.

“But when vast companies like Amazon, and other online traders, the new industries, can get away with paying almost nothing in tax, there is something wrong with the tax system.

“They don’t pay a real living wage, so the taxpayer must support their workers with benefits; and having leeched off the taxpayer once they don’t pay for our defence, for security, for stability, for justice, for health, for equality, for education.

“Then they complain of an undertrained workforce, from the education they have not paid for, and pay almost nothing for apprenticeships. Those are only a fraction of the costs of aggressive tax management.”

He also hit out at the gig economy and zero-hours contracts, saying they were nothing new, and adding: “It is the reincarnation of an ancient evil.”

He added: “Pensions are just one example of the profit motive leading to the weakest being given the most risk and the strongest the most protection.”

Welby also spoke out about antisemitism and Islamophobia criticising both Boris Johnson and Corbyn equally and warning about the use of “insensitive” language about minority groups.

“On both left and right we have seen language that has been insensitive to the very real vulnerabilities of those who are often talked about, much less often talked with,” he said.

He added: “When any vulnerable group is objectified, trolled on social media, dismissed, then all of us are diminished. Such things are not worthy of our country.

“In these areas, and in employment rights, and in many others, we see that where inequality and profound injustice seem entrenched, insurmountable, it leads to instability in our society: divisions between peoples, and vulnerability to the populism that stirs hatred between different ethnicities and religious groups, the rise of ancient demons of racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia and xenophobia.”

Meanwhile, in response to Corbyn’s criticism, May said unemployment was at record lows because more people were getting into work.

“I remember the single mother who came to see me when Labour where in government who told me she wanted to get into work and set an example to her child, the job centre told her she’d be better off on benefits,” she said.

Corbyn said that the evidence showed more people were worse off under the new system. “Everywhere you look this government is failing: 1 million families using food banks, a million on zero-hours contracts, 4 million children in poverty, wages lower today than 10 years ago and on top of that there is the flawed and failing universal credit,” he said.

“And the prime minister wants to put 2 million more people onto this. The prime minister is not challenging the burning injustices of society, she’s pouring petrol on them.”

An Amazon spokesperson: “We pay all taxes required in the UK and every country where we operate. In May 2015, to ensure we had the best business structure to serve our customers going forward, we established a local country branch of Amazon EU Sarl in the UK, with all retail revenues, expenses, profits and taxes due now accounted for in the UK.”