ONE of Britain's most senior Catholic figures has criticised the Government's welfare reform programme as a "disgrace" that is driving people to destitution.

In one of the most strongly worded attacks yet by a senior church figure, Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, said that the so-called bedroom tax and other reforms of benefits had taken away a basic safety net.

The leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, who is a Cardinal-designate, described two problems with the reforms introduced last year.

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He said safety the net that should guarantee people are not left in hunger or destitution "has actually been torn apart. It no longer exists, and that is a real, real dramatic crisis."

He added he had also been told the administration of social assistance had become "more and more punitive."

The church leader said this means if "the applicants don't get it right then they have to wait and they have to wait for 10 days, for two weeks - with nothing.

He added: "That's why the role of food banks has become so crucial for so many people in Britain today. And for a country of our affluence that quite frankly is a disgrace."

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said reform had been needed because the old ­benefits system was "trapping" people it was designed to help.

He said: "It's wrong to talk of removing a safety net when we're spending £94 billion a year on working-age benefits and the welfare system supports millions of people who are on low incomes or unemployed."