ALMOST 500 church leaders have signed an open letter to the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, asking him to work with communities, churches, charities, and creditors to create a comprehensive and just solution to lockdown debt.
The leaders write: “Our ambition must go beyond delay or avoidance of eviction. This Christmas is a time to give families burdened by debt a fresh start and a more hopeful future.”
The letter came at the same time as a video, broadcast last weekend by BBC News and showing desperate and starving people in Burnley, Lancashire, went viral. It featured scenes of the Vicar of St Matthew’s, the Revd Alex Frost, and a Street Pastor, Mick Fleming, being driven to tears of distress as they tried to support their poor and isolated community. It sparked an immediate response: more than £90,000 was donated in three days, from all over the world.
The letter to Mr Sunak is signed by representatives of the Church of England, the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church, the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Salvation Army, and the Roman Catholic Church.
They write: “We are writing because we are gravely concerned about the growing crisis of household debt that millions of families are facing this Christmas. As Church and Christian leaders from across the country, we have witnessed the hardship experienced by low-income families during the pandemic. We have heard countless stories from people who have faced awful choices, such as between affording food or falling behind on rent.
“We know from experience that this situation is exceptional, and therefore requires an exceptional response.”
They say that the Covid-19 pandemic has hit the lowest-income families hardest, cutting incomes and increasing the price of essentials. By August, six million people had fallen behind on at least one household bill, and it is thought that later lockdowns have increased the problem (News, 2 October). Up to 350,000 households face possible eviction over rent arrears.
In the BBC report, Mr Frost wipes away tears as he says: “I am visiting a family who have no carpet, no settee, who had no gas, no electric, no food. That broke my heart, because nobody cared for them; they fell through the crack. The first lady who came to our foodbank on Saturday broke down; her daughter had killed herself. You have to try to find words. I am sorry about getting upset because you carry people’s burdens. You try to tell them that its all right, it’s so upsetting.”
He said that the scene had provoked concerned calls. “It caught me at my most vulnerable, at the end of a long week, but I am OK. I have a wonderful family around me. I was a bit raw in that moment. I try to keep a balance, I get sustenance from my prayer life, walking my dogs, and being with my family.
“The response has been extraordinary, worldwide. I was offered a shipment of rice from Johannesburg, people have contacted me from America and Germany. I never expected that. People’s generosity has been quite fantastic. I have had a lot of conversations with quite well-to-do ladies in the south of England, saying they didn’t know this was going on; they just didn’t know. That has been quite stark for me. People didn’t know that this level of poverty is around in our own country.
“Burnley has had years of deprivation. Like many other working-class towns, the problems have been there and Covid has exacerbated that.”
He praised the response of the townspeople when the foodbank launched early in the pandemic. “We started from the back of a car in the hope we might fill it, and we did. The following week we filled a van, the next week we filled a quiet vestry, and then a church hall, and it just grew from there. We also offered some prayer, counselling, and pastoral attention, and I think that built the foodbank a reputation as a bit of a sanctuary.
“The pandemic has opened up hundreds of new conversations outside the regular Sunday mass. The idea of reaching out into the wider community is not what some people do, but most of my church have embraced it; there seems to be a real desire in the main body of the congregation to help.”
Mr Fleming, who runs the Church On The Street charity in Burnley, said that he was surprised by the public reaction to the BBC video. “I thought it was quite tame,” he said. “I could have taken them to far worse situations. I’m with people every day for whom gas and electricity are luxuries. We take food parcels to people, but what’s the point if they can’t cook the food because there’s no gas or electric? So now we provide hot, cooked meals as well.
“Sometimes, we have children tearing the bags open to get at the food as I carry them in. That’s not all right — and it wasn’t as bad as that before the virus. The biggest part of coronavirus has been the loneliness. I try to fetch a bit of hope into people’s lives.”
Charity urges debtors to seek help. Christians Against Poverty (CAP) this week launched a campaign urging people financially affected by the pandemic in Scotland to seek help with their debts now. It follows a series of reports showing that many Scots face difficulties coping on their income, and destitution among Scots will more than double as a result of Brexit and the coronavirus. Up to 60 per cent of British people wait more than a year before seeking debt advice.
The charity said that 13 per cent of its clients were living without a bed or mattress, and more than half half (55 per cent) sacrificed meals at least monthly because they could not afford food.
CAP’s national director in Scotland, Emma Jackson, said: “We know that many people are experiencing debt for the first time, and, for others, debts are growing. You won’t be judged in any way. Help is available to support you through this difficult time and into a brighter future. Getting help as early as possible can make a big difference. We don’t want anyone going into winter and Christmas worrying about how they’ll manage, day to day.”
Read more on the story in Andrew Brown’s press column