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Urgent help is required for struggling families  

30 September 2022

Rising fuel bills and benefits that fall behind inflation mean that churches’ support is more vital than ever, says Gordon Brown

FOR centuries, the Churches and people of faith have been at the centre of pressure for social progress. Almost every campaign for justice has been built on the strongest of moral foundations.

From movements for the abolition of slavery to debt relief and making poverty history, men and women of all faiths have pressed for social improvement. Realising, in a practical way, the biblical injunction to help the poor, the weak, and the infirm has been a guiding mission of religious organisations.

Now, today, in 2022, as there is unprecedented fuel poverty, homelessness is on the increase, and many face destitution, the Churches and other faith groups are leading the philanthropic response.

All religious faiths speak of our duties to our neighbours, and tell us how our society is richer when we care for the poor, and stronger when we care for the weak. And, this month, as I look at announcement after announcement by faith groups of practical help for families facing virtually unpayable gas and electricity bills — most recently, the announcement of the Warm Welcome campaign, a national effort to align all churches and community venues as easily ac­­cessible warm spaces (News, 2 September). I have nothing but praise for the hundreds of churches opening their doors to the elderly and the poor this winter.

By offering families in need and pensioners a warm space when heating bills are overwhelming household budgets, churches are doing what they can with the resources at their disposal to ease pain and suffering. They are doing this — going the extra mile to help people in need — even when churches are themselves facing rising gas and electricity bills.

This help comes in addition to the food collection points that churches have created over recent years — many, as in my home town, actually housing some of the country’s 3000 foodbanks themselves.

I WANT to join all those helping to crowd-fund money for the warm-rooms and heating-hubs project. I encourage churches that can offer their buildings as warm spaces to consider doing so. This not only will help people who cannot afford to turn on their own heating at home, but will rebuild around the country the strong sense of community in many neighbourhoods which was undermined in the period of isolation during the Covid years.

The need is now overwhelming. Tomorrow, when the cap on energy bills will rise to an unprecedented £2500 a year, the typical family dependent on Universal Credit will be £28 a week, or nearly £1500 a year, short on last year.

How is the loss so great? This is because, even as the new cap is introduced, family fuel bills will increase by an average of £10 a week, which is on top of April’s rise of £14 a week. According to Jonathan Bradshaw and Antonia Keung, at the University of York, fuel costs will consume an unprecedented 20 per cent of the income of 4.1 million families.

Although the government package has awarded households on Universal Credit £24 extra a week (£1200 a year if you received a council-tax rebate), it is not enough to prevent hardship.

That same family is already £20 a week worse off as a result of the £1000-a-year cut last October, and yet another £25 a week down because benefits rose by only 3.1 per cent when inflation hit ten per cent. When the October gas and electricity increase is added to their weekly costs, they are worse off by £28 weekly, according to calculations by Donald Hirsch at Loughborough University.

FAMILIES with more than two children are even harder hit, as are disabled people, despite the £150 that they are due to receive from this week. This is because the flat-rate payment of £13 a week (£650 a year) to those on benefits takes no account of family size or special needs, and offers only £2.60 a week per person when it is spread across a couple and their three children — hardly enough to cover the extra and rising costs of food, fuel, travel, telecoms, clothing, laundry, and toiletries. Not even a generous April 2023 rise in benefits will undo the damage now being done.

The low-paid suffer, too. Like most, they receive just £550 in government help, despite facing this year’s £1300 rise in fuel bills and escalating food and other prices. A wage rise of five per cent will still leave millions facing their biggest cut in living standards for 50 years.

So, the need is great, and the requirement for help is urgent. As winter approaches, the desire among the people of this country to come together in support of one another — seen so vividly in the commemoration of the death of Queen Elizabeth II — is unmistakable. The campaign led by churches and faith groups for compassion and justice deserves all our support. And it is by recognising the importance of the words of the Sermon on the Mount — and acting on them — that we make our country fairer and stronger.

Gordon Brown is a former Prime Minister. He is now UN Envoy for Global Education and WHO Ambassador for Global Health Financing.


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