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Plea for more churches to support people struggling with spiralling debt

by Donna Birrell

Charities are warning of a debt crisis for millions of families in the UK after research revealed the number of households on low incomes in arrears has tripled since the pandemic hit.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation says that around 1-point-4 million families are behind on their council tax, electricity, and gas bills with 950,000 also in rent arrears.

Christians Against Poverty (CAP) says it has also seen more people seeking help over the last 18 months and is calling on more churches to partner with the charity.

Its Policy Manager, Rachel Gregory told Premier the scale of the increase is worrying:

"The report out today from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is what we're seeing every day at Christians Against Poverty. This is a daily experience for so many people. These figures reveal to us that a third of households on lowest incomes are behind with their bills compared to just 11 per cent of them before the pandemic and so it is incredibly concerning how fast we've seen the situation spiralling when we were already in a position that 5 million people were over indebted before we came into the pandemic.

"It shows how difficult it is just to balance household budgets, how difficult households are finding it at the moment. When you look at the types of debt that people are coming forward for help with, they're things like rent and mortgage arrears, council tax, and energy bills. It's the basic essentials that people are struggling to cover and that's for a whole variety of different reasons. But the most common reason that we see at CAP is simply low income. 

"We know that the cost of living pressures is significant and that many people have seen reductions in the hours they work or have had long periods on furlough. The impact of that doesn't go away when people return to work. Universal Credit has also been reduced this month. 

"This all has a knock-on effect, not only in terms of what households can afford, but also which bills they're able to pay.

"You just see how that situation spirals. Too often with Christians Against Poverty, people have struggled for many, many years - on average two to three years - before coming forward for help and the situation just gets worse and worse. 

"So we'd really encourage people to get advice and support as soon as possible. This is a very clear warning shot, that we haven't created the right economic conditions for people to be able to keep their heads above water."

"We'd really encourage people to reach out. We know it's incredibly anxiety-inducing, we know lots of people struggling with debt are too worried to open the post that comes through the door and they tend to hide the situation from friends and family because of the shame and guilt.

"But if there's one solace from the news today, it just shows people how they are not alone in this situation. It's a really common experience, a frightening, common experience, but the help is out there." 
Rachel says volunteers at Christians Against Poverty deal with many "incredibly heart-breaking" stories. 

She describes how some families who were regularly using foodbanks before coming to CAP for support were beginning to make progress, especially with the £20 a week uplift to Universal Credit payments during the pandemic. She says they were working towards getting back to work although things have taken a turn for the worse and they're really struggling to know how they will continue in the future.

"That's really difficult when we just see that sort of work undone."

"Even just this week, we were hearing of a client who had about three to five pounds a week left after essential bills to pay for food. She had serious physical health problems that have been created from malnutrition and was being treated in hospital. 

"The situations we're seeing are incredibly heart-breaking."

But Rachel says it's important to remember there is always Hope:

"I think for us as Christians we can absolutely be praying, remembering the people in these situations. We know people that will be in our communities, that will be in our classes at school, even in our workplaces who are struggling. 

"We can be really active as Christians; all of our frontline services are run by volunteers in local churches. I think this is definitely a time now more than ever for us and our churches to be thinking about what role we can play in our communities, in supporting people that are facing these challenges. 

"There are lot of places where there isn't a CAP centre, and we'd love to hear from any people in churches all across the UK who would like to find out more about partnering with us to support people in their communities."

A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokesperson said that Universal Credit continues to provide a "vital safety net for millions".

"The Household Support Fund is helping the most vulnerable with essential costs through this winter, and is distributed by councils, who are best placed to ensure those in need in their local areas can be identified and supported as soon as possible." 

For support and information, CAP's freephone number is 0800 328 0006  and the website is

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