By Catherine Pepinster
Church organisations and other faith groups are calling on the government to extend into next year its weekly £20 “benefits uplift” to help people struggling from the financial fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
The extra £20 was first provided by chancellor Rishi Sunak as part of a year-long support package for people affected financially by the pandemic and was due to end in April 2021. But with unemployment likely to rise sharply when the furlough scheme finishes in March, faith groups working with the most disadvantaged people say that cutting the extra money then would be catastrophic.
A plea to extend the scheme was first made in a joint report from the Church of England and the Child Poverty Action Group, and endorsed by other faith bodies during an online discussion organised by the Religion Media Centre on the ways they were meeting the needs of vulnerable people struggling with poverty during the pandemic.
The benefits extension was backed by the Ven Rosemarie Mallett, the Archdeacon of Croydon; Paul Morrison, policy adviser for the Baptist Union, Church of Scotland, Methodist Church and United Reformed Church; Abdullah Rehman, of the Bahu Trust, a Sufi Muslim community organisation, Niall Cooper, director of Church Action on Poverty, and theology professor Stephen Pattison.
They spoke of the extent to which families have seen incomes plummet and have had to cut back on food; they have not been able to pay off their debts and have racked up even more through loans for their survival. They fear that the situation will get much worse in the spring when more people lose their jobs. The standard allowance in Universal Benefit and the basic allowance in Tax Credit being raised by £20 a week means an extra £1,040 annually for all claimants.
Paul Morrison said people who had never experienced joblessness before had been hit by the downturn in work caused by Covid.
“People who had budgeted were just about managing,” he said, “but they were the first to lose their jobs in the gig economy.
“Church leaders say that there are people who were making ends meet who have now not paid their bills and have clocked up more debt. They have not been chased by companies yet but they will from next year.”
Archdeacon Mallett pointed out that the Church of England/CPAG report showed that the number of people hit by the economic consequences of the pandemic is rising, with eight in 10 reporting that they experienced a decline in living standards in July, but this had now risen to nearly nine in ten. She said: “I know of one family that has gone from earning £2,500 a month to receiving £74 a week. Parents are eating less so that their children can eat.”
As a result of the pandemic, the report said, nearly six in 10 families said they were struggling to cover the cost of three or more basic essentials, including food, utilities, rent, travel or child-related costs. About half of all families said they had a new or worse debt problem.
Food poverty was a marker of economic problems, said Archdeacon Mallett, but people’s physical and mental wellbeing was also being profoundly harmed by the pandemic. According to Niall Cooper, the work of churches among marginalised people showed: “Poverty is a visceral experience. It robs people of their dignity.”
“It won’t make sense for the uplift to come to an end next April,” he added, and warned that more financial squeezes would lead to more stress.
Faith groups’ efforts to help people coping with poverty during the pandemic has meant many volunteers have been helping to supply food parcels and meals, and have also become involved in befriending services for those isolated by the need to quarantine and shield because of the virus.
According to Laura Marks, founder of the Jewish social action organisation Mitzvah Day International, loneliness “has been an epidemic of massive proportions” during lockdowns but it has been matched by a huge rise in the number of people willing to volunteer to help others.
However, the desire to help others, which all faith groups reported on during the RMC session, has been made complicated by volunteers struggling to cope with demand.
Fadi Itani, chief executive of the Muslim Charities Forum, said mosques and churches were struggling to respond to the huge needs of people. “They are all overstretched,” he said. “The demands on us are likely to keep going for another year and there is an issue about how our organisations are going to survive.”
While many faith groups support food banks, there is a growing concern that they have become accepted as a mainstay by the government and have become part of the accepted response to food poverty, and so are prolonging it, rather than solving it.
Now faith groups are considering alternatives and Church Action on Poverty is looking at supporting food clubs. They work by people joining a membership scheme and they then choose the food the want rather than being given a box of food supplied for them.
When Mr Sunak introduced the uplift, he said it would “strengthen the safety net” and “benefit over four million of our most vulnerable households”. The extra sums together with local housing allowance rates being increased has cost the government an extra £9.3bn. But with more people likely to be claiming benefits next year as unemployment rises, the uplift bill is also likely to soar.
The Department of Work and Pensions said: “We are committed to supporting the lowest-paid families through the pandemic and beyond. That’s why we have raised the living wage, boosted welfare support by billions of pounds and introduced the £170m Covid Winter Grant Scheme to help children and families stay warm and well-fed during the coldest months.
“As we have done throughout this crisis, we will continue to assess how best to support the economy, which is why we will look at the economic and health context in the new year,” the spokesman added. “As it stands, spending on working-age welfare this year is — at over £100bn — already set to be at its highest level on record, both in real terms and as a percentage of national income.”