Millions of poorest people faced sweeping cuts to their benefits as the biggest shake-up of Britain’s welfare system in decades kicked in on Monday as part of the government’s controversial austerity measures to bring down the deficit.

Critics, led by churches and charities, described it as a “black day” but the government defended the move arguing that it would make the welfare system “fairer”.

The cuts, which will affect all categories of benefits — from unemployment and housing to disability and council tax — are expected to save the exchequer £2 billion a year, while leaving some of the most vulnerable families poorer, at a time of deep economic crisis when they need help most.

‘Bedroom tax’

Among the most controversial cuts is what has been dubbed the “bedroom tax”. Families living in government-subsidised homes will lose some of their housing benefits if they have a spare room. According to one estimate, two-thirds of the people to be affected by the “bedroom tax” are disabled.

The Labour Party said that an average family would be £900 a year worse-off as a result of the proposed cuts, changes to tax credits and other government policies.

Vulnerable

“Today is a day of big winners and big losers — you’ve got millionaires who are getting a whopping great tax cut of £100,000 per year and everyone else is taking a hit to tax credits,” said Liam Byrne, Labour MP and Shadow Secretary for Work and Pensions.

A coalition of churches said the poor and vulnerable would have to bear a “disproportionate” burden of the government’s austerity drive. It also accused the government and sections of the media of stereotyping all benefit claimants as “lazy” and “scroungers”. The government insisted that over the years the welfare bill had “ballooned” out of control.

“The reality is that successive governments have come in and when they’ve had a problem they’ve cut welfare bills and then later on they’ve ballooned again. What I’m trying to do... is to change the process so that we end up restructuring the culture so that people find that work always pays. It doesn’t right now,” said the Tory Work and Pensions Secretary Ian Duncan Smith.

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