Churches in Britain have criticized a government plan to remove benefits from unemployed people if they refuse to accept jobs offered to them by labor officers.

“There is a serious danger that people living in poverty will be stigmatized by government announcements that they are lazy or work shy,” said the Rev. Alison Tomlin, president of the Methodist Conference.

The government minister for work and pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, told lawmakers on Nov. 11 that plans for benefits to be removed for up to three years from claimants who refuse to take work opportunities are part of a new “contract” with unemployed people.

He said the plans for a new system of benefits will make 2.5 million of the poorest people better off and reduce the number of workless households by 300,000.

Churches and campaign groups said they welcomed plans for a simplified benefits system, but warned that the proposed reforms are based on inaccurate assumptions about the poor.

“The government seems to assume that if people are forced into working they will comply and their lives will be made better,” said Tomlin. “The poor we meet are seeking to better their lives in difficult circumstances. They are willing to work, but face difficulties in finding jobs, in meeting caring responsibilities and in living on the wages offered.”

The Baptist Union of Great Britain, Church of Scotland, Methodist Church, and United Reformed Church joined Housing Justice and Church Action on Poverty in saying that government welfare policy needs to be based on a realistic assessment of those living in poverty and what they really need to get back into the work force.

“Rather than stigmatizing unemployed people, the government should be focusing on training, job creation and support for new enterprise,” said the Rev. Ian Galloway, convener of the church and society council of the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland.

In advance of the formal publication of the welfare reform proposals, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, spiritual head of the (Anglican) Church of England, said he has “a lot of worries” about the plans.

“People who are struggling to find work and struggling to find a secure future are, I think, driven further into a downward spiral of uncertainty, even despair, when the pressure is on in that way,” he said. “People often are [on benefits], not because they’re wicked, stupid or lazy, but because their circumstances are against them.”