JFF: The view from Liverpool

The Archbishop of York at the opening of Northumberland Community Bank.

83% of people with a debt problem do not seek help....

Why is that?  It would seem in today’s increasingly interconnected world access to debt advice and help has never been easier and yet 83% don’t access it.  83% - yes I will keep saying it because it gets more not less astonishing – 83% of people choosing to hide letters unopened in drawers, not answering calls from numbers they don’t recognise, getting up in the middle of the night to go to the cash machine before their creditors take payments, ignoring the persistent knocking on their front doors, and 83% suffering the stress, depression and anxiety that go hand in hand with debt.

In recent years the poor have been increasingly marginalised; crisis loans for those on benefits stopped or severely restricted; benefits capped; welfare reform; gig economy; wages freezes; zero hours contracts; low pay; benefit sanctions and waiting times for benefits all contributing to falls in income; at the same time the price of food, rent, gas, electricity and water – basic necessities - have been increasing.  People without any financial buffers hit crisis point very quickly; it could be a broken washing machine, illness, shoes for the children or even just an inability to make ends meet.

In Liverpool, as in towns across the country we have seen a huge growth in recent years of payday lending outlets, rent to buy shops, doorstep lending and loan sharks, which to many people present as an answer to their financial crises; but in reality lead so many into a spiral of unmanageable debt. Debt isn’t a modern problem, Nehemiah wrote about indebtedness approximately 2500 years ago in the Old Testement; what is new is the growth of high cost credit and it’s targeting of those who can least afford to lend. To combat this growth, Just Finance has been working locally with churches communities and credit unions, to widen access to affordable credit for those who need it; to educate people about finance and to help those in debt to access help before they reach crisis point.  Many credit unions were started by churches so the link between the two goes back many years.

In the Diocese of Liverpool churches have long been at the forefront of social work within their parishes, Liverpool in particular as the birthplace of many social care firsts e.g. District Nursing, Age Concern and Legal Aid, has a rich history of people helping each other out.  Most of the foodbanks in Liverpool operate from churches and many church volunteers have been trained by Just Finance in debt signposting, so that they can recognise when someone might have an issue with debt, know where people can access help locally and prepare people for their first debt advice session.  Some churches have opened Community Money Advice centres in church halls, working often alongside foodbank and other community outreaches, getting debt advice into the places where it is most needed.  Others have trained in financial education so that they can help people to plan budgets, shop around and recognise the pitfalls of poor financial decisions. 

There is still a huge amount of work to do to change the financial systems that so adversely affect those on the lowest and most insecure incomes but with many churches often the last outposts of social justice on out of town estates – but equally at the heart of the Establishment, they are uniquely placed to be at the forefront of this change and to challenge inequality and campaign for Just Finance for all.