ROSSENDALE and Darwen MP Jake Berry has been challenged to defend the government’s benefit changes after criticism from prominent churchmen.

Labour councillor Peter Hollings has written to the Tory backbencher claiming that only charity is stopping the poor from starving.

He quotes Dean of Blackburn Christopher Armstrong’s recent letter to Chancellor George Osborne saying: “I dread to imagine the consequences of any further cuts here in Blackburn.”

Bishop of Burnley John Goddard joined the attack, saying it was “incredible” and “grossly unfair” that the richest benefited from tax cuts while the vulnerable suffered and child poverty increased.

Councils and advice groups have reported an increase in inquires from worried residents about the “bedroom tax” on social housing tenants with spare rooms and a reduction of up to a fifth in council tax benefit for all residents.

Coun Hollings, who represents Sunnyhurst ward in Blackburn with Darwen, tells Mr Berry: “Interfaith groups and keen volunteers can only do so much and it is the generosity of those better off that are keeping the poor and disadvantaged in our society from starving.

“We are fast approaching a society that keeps its citizens alive through charitable donation rather than through a welfare state.”

He invites Mr Berry to the annual meeting of Darwen Town Council on May 14 to discuss “protecting the vulnerable”.

Blackburn with Darwen borough resources boss Andy Kay said: “The number of inquiries about benefits, especially the bedroom tax, is increasing.”

Lynda Clegg, manager of Burnley and Pendle Citizens Advice Bureau, said: “We are starting to see an increase in inquiries about benefits and expect a sharp rise in the coming weeks.”

Ribble Valley borough reports a “slight increase” in inquiries while Pendle Council saw a six-fold rise after the letters about the changes were delivered.

Mr Berry, who cannot attend the town council meeting, said: “The government has confronted the bills from a decade of debt and started to rebuild, putting our public services and the welfare state on a sustainable footing.

“To make the system sustainable, get people back to work, and cut down on benefit fraud, it has undertaken comprehensive reforms.”