Exploitation of the poor borders on evil, say clerics driven to tears by debt crisis

Harriet Sherwood
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

Pastor Mick Fleming is on the frontline of the pandemic – not in hospital wards and care homes but battling with loan sharks and landlords who are propelling debt-encumbered, low-income families towards an ever more precarious future.

Fleming, of Burnley’s Church on the Street charity, has spent months dealing with the fallout from the pandemic on the most vulnerable people in the Lancashire town. He and Father Alex Frost of St Matthew’s church have distributed food parcels and hot meals, and have helped families stretch their meagre incomes to meet life’s other basic necessities.

“I’m with people every day for whom gas and electricity are luxuries. 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,” Fleming told the Observer.

“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.”

Fleming and Frost came to national attention last week when a powerful BBC film of the priests and their work was shared widely on social media. Both men wept on camera as they talked about the challenges caused by Covid – but, said Fleming, “an average day is far in excess of what was shown in the video”.

Following the broadcast, they set up a fundraising page with a target of £10,000. It reached almost £55,000 within two days, and the pair have been inundated with offers of help and messages of support. “It’s all a bit overwhelming at the moment,” said Frost.

This weekend, a coalition of almost 500 church leaders has written to the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to highlight the growing crisis of household debt that millions of families are facing this Christmas. Their letter says: “We have heard countless stories from people who have faced awful choices, such as between affording food or falling behind on rent. Many of our churches have been on the frontline of providing food and essentials. Hundreds of churches provide debt advice for those at risk.

“We know from experience that this situation is exceptional and therefore requires an exceptional response.” Signatories to the letter include representatives of the Methodist church, the United Reform Church, the Church of England, the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Salvation Army and the Catholic church.

In August, Citizens Advice estimated that six million people in the UK had fallen behind on household bills because of Covid – a figure that is likely to have risen significantly in the past few months.

Six months ago, Step Change, the debt charity, estimated that 4.2 million people had borrowed money to make ends meet, using credit cards, overdrafts or high-cost loans. Again, the numbers are likely to have dramatically increased.

The faith leaders’ letter points out that 350,000 households face the possibility of eviction because of rent arrears. “For many, this will be a frightening Christmas period,” they say, with worry and stress potentially leading to long-term mental health problems.

The Covid crisis has exacerbated inequality, with higher earners who have saved money during the pandemic paying off over £15bn of debt while low-income groups have taken on £10bn in debt.

Chris Carroll, who runs a debt advice centre in Newcastle, said one low-income family she worked with had seen their progress to free themselves from debt go into reverse during the pandemic.

“The dad was a chef, he lost his job back in May. The mum worked part-time on minimum wage but had her hours cut. They have two children at primary school. In February, they were just about debt-free and had turned their lives around by careful budgeting. Now they’re using credit cards to put food on the table and loans to pay the bills,” she said.

“People are borrowing money on big rates for very ordinary things. It will take years for these families to get back on track.”

Not all creditors were sharks, she said; some had been wonderful. “Some have offered payment holidays or removed the interest, or even written off debts.”

Paul Morrison, a policy adviser to the Methodist church and a trustee of the Trussell Trust, which supports a network of more than 1,200 food banks, said the debt crisis was expected to worsen.

“This is the calm before the storm. We thought the storm was going to hit in the autumn but now the real crunch is likely to be January or February when the reality of debt hits families.

“Debt is treated as an individual problem but this debt crisis is caused by policy decisions relating to the pandemic. This is something for which we all have a responsibility.”

He would like to see a debt write-off, “but I’d be happy if the government recognises that action needs to be taken on this issue”. The letter asks the chancellor to “work with communities, churches, charities and creditors to create a comprehensive and just solution to the unique problem of lockdown debt”.

In Burnley, Frost said the number of people accessing the food bank at St Matthew’s had “just gone higher and higher. And we’re just one food bank in town – probably the smallest of four or five. People keep asking me, what’s the endgame? I’m not sure I know. I’m not a politician. I’m just doing what I’m called to do as a priest – helping the poor.”