Reset the Debt – Churches call for action to help people forced into debt by COVID-19

04 October 2020

A campaign calling for debt cancellation for people who have been swept into unavoidable debt in recent months is launched today by a group of four denominations representing two-thirds of a million Christians and ecumenical charity, Church Action on Poverty.

The Baptist Union of Great Britain, Church Action on Poverty, The Church of Scotland, The Methodist Church and The United Reformed Church call for the Government to create a Jubilee Fund to provide grants to pay off and cancel unavoidable debt accrued by the poorest households during the lockdown period, giving them a more stable platform from which to face the difficult winter ahead.

It is thought that 6 million people in the UK have fallen behind on rent, council tax and other household bills because of coronavirus and almost one in five have borrowed money to pay for every day essentials such as food.

Low income families have been particularly badly hit, in particular those with children. Younger workers, those from BAME communities and those with caring responsibilities have been disproportionately affected by job losses due to the pandemic, and many therefore have been forced to borrow to make ends meet. 

The Revd Richard Teal, President of the Methodist Conference, said:

“This call comes out of what churches have seen in communities throughout the country. We know that during lockdown people have focused on keeping themselves and their families safe and fed – and for many that meant bills or even some rent had to go unpaid. These families are now facing a crisis and this is simply not right.

“The fact that Covid debt has disproportionately affected low income families demands a compassionate and just response. For the benefit of families and wider communities, the aim of this campaign is to bring stability and a more hopeful future for millions of people currently struggling to cover the basics of life. These people cannot be forgotten as we move into what will be a challenging winter ahead.”

A Jubilee is an ancient Biblical concept of ensuring a just society where no one is trapped in poverty because of the debts they accrue. According to Jubilee, on a regular basis land would be returned to people, resources shared, slaves freed, land rested, and debts forgiven.

Rachel Lampard, Team Leader of the Joint Public Issues Team for the four Churches, said:

“As Christians, we see Jubilee as being about more than just economics. The Jubilee principle allows relationships to be reset, communities to be re-balanced, and people’s dignity to be restored. This is the well-being that God desires for all people.  That is why we are asking the Chancellor for a Jubilee Fund to pay and cancel the debts of people who have been swept into debt by Covid-19.

“Covid-19 has shown us that we are all far more reliant on each other than we had previously acknowledged.  Yet those we have come to rely on for our essentials are often those who have been hit hardest by lockdown debt. Without a debt Jubilee, those who are least able to bear it will continue to carry the heaviest financial burden long into the future.”

Director of Church Action on Poverty, Niall Cooper, said:

“Over a third of families with children lost income as a result of lockdown.  The past few months have been hard enough for all of us, but for those families who have lost income and been saddled with unpayable debts and possible eviction, the pressure is unbearable. To enable these families to get through the hard months ahead, it is essential that the burden of unpayable Covid-19 debts is lifted.”

Churches have seen for themselves the impact of debt in recent months. The Revd Dave Warnock, the minister responsible for 5 churches in and around Wythenshawe, South Manchester, has recently opened a debt counselling service in one of his churches:

“Being near the airport many people have lost their jobs since the decline of air travel due to Covid. We have seen an increase in demand for food donations (most days one of our churches does about 10 deliveries of food to local families) and digital poverty means the government support that is available can often not be accessed because everything is done on the phone or internet.”

Supporters of the campaign are asked to write to their MP, and support the campaign online and in their church communities.

Speaking about the value of community in overcoming the challenges of Covid related debt, the Revd Clare Downing and Mr Peter Pay, Moderators of the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church, said:

“During the pandemic, we’ve all learnt how much we rely on one another. Communities have come together to make sure everyone has what they need. We have to make sure this continues as we move forward, especially for those being pulled into difficulty by debt. A Jubilee would be a chance to make sure everyone is treated with the dignity and care they deserve”.

Very Rev Dr Susan Brown, Convener of the Faith Impact Forum, Church of Scotland, said:

“This campaign grew from relationships in local communities, where churches include and live alongside those who are struggling with poverty and see the damaging consequences of debt. This call for action comes from our belief that change has to start with these experts by experience. Resetting the Debt is an important step in making sure everyone is part of our recovery.”

Speaking about the disproportionate effect of Covid related debt on the those living on the breadline, Diane Watts, Interim Faith and Society Team Leader of Baptists Together, said:

“It is not right that those with the fewest resources should bear the heaviest economic burden of the lockdown, potentially for years to come. As churches, we’ve been at the forefront of supporting those who’ve struggled throughout the pandemic. We know that action needs to be taken now, to ensure that everyone is included as we move into the next phase”.