Charge of the bishops: Religious leaders shock coalition with massed attack on welfare reforms

Religious leaders have united to condemn the government's welfare reforms, in an outspoken letter broadening the faith community's assault on the coalition.

Coming just one day after David Cameron claimed the government's "moral" approach to welfare reform offered benefit claimants "new hope", the letter signed by 27 Anglican bishops and 16 other clergy is being viewed in Westminster as a huge setback for ministers.

The letter's signatories also include two Quakers, three leaders of the United Reform Church and ten Methodist chairs of district.

It begins by pointing out Britain is the seventh richest country in the world "and yet people are going hungry", pointing to 5,500 people having been hospitalised because of malnutrition last year.

It says Britain must face up "as a society" to the fact that people are being forced to resort to food banks "by cut backs to and failures in the benefits system".

Recently released figures showed 818,000 benefit claimants have been hit by the coalition's determined effort to reduce the welfare budget since the autumn of 2012.

"There is an acute moral imperative to act," the religious leaders wrote.

"Hundreds of thousands of people are doing so already, as they set up and support foodbanks across the UK.

"But this is a national crisis, and one we must rise to."

The letter calls on ministers to investigate "failing" food markets, "make sure that work pays" and ensure the welfare system "provides a robust last line of defence against hunger".

Around 500,000 people have visited food banks in the last year – and the executive chairman of their largest organiser, the Trussell Trust, has warned this year is going to be even worse.

"2014 is going to be even more difficult for more people than 2013," Chris Mould said.

"This is not a time to breathe a sigh of relief because the economy has started to turn a corner.

"That growth has not been very substantial and there is no guarantee it will trickle down and benefit the people who need it most. This problem is not going away."

Shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves said the prime minister needed to view the letter as a "wake-up call".

"His government's policies are making life harder for families with a cost-of-living crisis making workers £1,600 worse off and the bedroom tax forcing hundreds of thousands to food banks," she said.

"This Tory-led government's welfare reforms have penalised, rather than helped, those doing the right thing."

Yesterday Cameron argued the government's moves to rationalise six benefits into the universal credit was motivated as much on "moral" grounds as it was by deficit reduction.

That followed criticism from Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the leader of the Catholic Church in England who will be made a cardinal at the weekend, who said the "destitution" faced by many in Britain because of the changes was a "disgrace".

Today's clash is now prompting a broader debate about the role of the Church in political debate.

"They're right to point this out," former Labour welfare minister Frank Field told the Today programme.

"We're now in an age when people are hungry. We must deal with the hunger now… that's where the three main parties don't have any answers."