Almost 500 church leaders in Britain have written a joint letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, to say they are “gravely concerned” about the growing crisis of household debt that millions of families are facing this Christmas.
“We have heard countless stories from people who have faced awful choices, such as between affording food or falling behind on rent,” they say in the letter. “Many of our churches have been on the frontline of providing food and essentials, and hundreds of churches provide debt advice for those at risk.”
They ask the chancellor to work with churches and others “to create a comprehensive and just solution to the unique problem of lockdown debt”. They hope evictions can be avoided and that families burdened by debt can be given “a fresh start and a more hopeful future”.
Bishop of Middlesbrough Terence Drainey, chair of the Caritas Social Action Network, is the most prominent signatory from the Catholic Church, and other Catholic priests include Fr Christophe Brunet of the Chemin Neuf Community in Westminster’s Christ the King parish at Cockfosters and Fr Peter Mansfield, parish priest in Southwark’s St Aidan’s parish in Coulsdon. Other signatures include representatives of the Methodist, United Reformed and Scottish Episcopal Churches, along with the Church of England, the Salvation Army, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland and the Iona Community.
The leaders said: “We know from experience that this situation is exceptional, and therefore requires an exceptional response.” They report that rental arrears increased dramatically during lockdown and 350,000 households have been contacted by their landlords about eviction. Reference is made to the charity Stepchange, which estimates the pandemic has led to 2.87 million people being at high risk of long-term debt.
Two Church of England pastors in Burnley came to national attention last week when a powerful BBC film about their work was shared widely on social media. Both men wept on camera as they talked about the challenges caused by Covid, particularly escalating debt.
Mick Fleming, of Burnley’s Church on the Street charity and Rev Alex Frost of St Matthew’s church distribute food parcels and hot meals, and have helped families stretch their meagre incomes to buy other basic necessities. “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?” they said, “so now we provide hot, cooked meals as well.”
Fleming told the Observer: “People are getting into debt to pay for basics, and small loans quickly turn into colossal sums; it borders on evil the way some people prey on the most vulnerable.”
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