“I have sat down with a father who has told his wife and children that they are going on an adventure and will be moving house when he knows they are going to a bed and breakfast that day, I have seen mothers considering selling themselves on the street to feed their children, I have seen people so overwhelmed with years of unemployment, they have no hope that anybody will even talk to them, let alone give them a job.
“In all of those circumstances, I have seen lives and families transformed.”
There can be few people in the country who better understand the crushing weight of unsustainable debts – and how it feels when such a life-ruining burden is lifted – than John Kirkby, founder of Christians Against Poverty (CAP).
The charity, which provides practical and emotional support to people in tackling debts that have ended relationships, lost homes and led to suicide attempts, started from a small office in Bradford back in 1996 but now helps more than 20,000 people per year, has sister projects in Canada, Australia and New Zealand and is supported by Prince Charles, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and MoneySavingExpert founder Martin Lewis.
But the methods of the charity – which in addition to practical support in reducing debts also involve praying with clients and encouraging them to attend church and become religious – have not been universally welcomed.
In 2011, CAP parted company with AdviceUK, an umbrella group representing advice workers, after the latter body said the promotion of faith was incompatible with its membership criteria. AdviceUK chief executive Steve Johnson described the offer of prayer as an “emotional fee” being imposed on vulnerable people.
But Kirkby, a 56-year-old father-of-five and grandfather-to-three, has now opened up the organisation to fresh scrutiny for an access-all-areas documentary being shown on BBC Two tonight. He admits the decision to participate in the show, called The Debt Saviours, was a difficult one but having now seen the finished version, believes it was the right call - saying his organisation has nothing to hide about its beliefs and methods.
“First of all, we work with very vulnerable clients and we needed to be totally confident the film would be done responsibly and their welfare was protected and the BBC and the people involved have delivered that,” he says. “Secondly, we are very open about our Christianity and our faith. We were conscious we needed an unbiased documentary that was after the facts, not an agenda. We were convinced that was the case.”
Kirkby was inspired to set up the organisation after battling with debt problems himself, following a failed business venture and the collapse of his marriage. After his circumstances were transformed by finding Christianity, he decided to dedicate his life to helping others change theirs.
He had a difficult upbringing, with his father dying at 18 following a long battle with terminal illness and his mother also falling seriously ill. Kirkby initially became a door-to-door debt collector and worked in the finance industry, going on to get married and have two children. But his life came crashing down in his early 30s. “In the early 1990s, I lost everything including my marriage, I ended up massively in debt. I had not led a particularly good life and had a failed business as well. I wasn’t in a good place. In the midst of that, I found faith in 1992. That began a four-year journey of getting myself out of debt and negotiating with creditors. In many ways, I was the first CAP client before it had even started.”
The day after coming back from honeymoon with his new wife Lizzie, John set up a debt counselling service in Bradford.
“My life had transformed. I got a real sense I wanted to help other people. We started with £10 in 1996, helping a few people in Bradford. I knew it was the right thing after I saw our first ever client, a lady called Debbie. I knew exactly how to help her because of my expertise of the finance industry and also knowing the real pain of debt. It was quite a moment.”
He says getting the charity off the ground was no easy task. “We had nothing, we were poorer than some of the families we were helping in the first few years.”
Now with hundreds of debt centres based in local churches helping thousands of families each year and plans to expand into America next year, Kirkby received a CBE earlier this year for his work over the past 22 years. The new BBC documentary comes just days after a London School of Economics report praised the charity’s work in helping people out of poverty and debt, with their approach improving clients’ mental health, relationships and confidence. The LSE study calculated the benefit of CAP’s work to society at £31.5m per year compared to its annual expenditure of £8.7m on poverty relief.
Researchers also spoke to clients, finding only a small minority expressing any reservations about the faith-based aspect of the support they received.
The report said: “Clients recognise the impact of getting free from debt. It restores people’s confidence, sense of freedom, and in many cases provides a sense of community belonging. Getting involved in the church, which some do, clearly provides this.
“Clients praise CAP’s non-judgemental approach and appreciate the practical help based on kindness. They are struck by the fact that it is free. Clients find it hard to find any criticisms of CAP but several mention a feeling of being pushed about church membership. This makes them feel awkward, even though CAP workers stress that there is no obligation to join or participate more.
“Overall, the clients we interviewed are immensely grateful for the help they have received.”
Many clients have fallen into unsustainable debt as a result of poor health, either physical or mental, which led to the loss of employment. Relationship breakdown or the death of a partner who managed household finances are other common contributing factors.
As well as credit card, loan and store card debt, many people are in arrears on rent, council tax and utility bills and see no way out of their desperate situations when they contact CAP.
The charity helps people draw up budget and repayment plans and dealing directly with creditors for them. Even with the support, for many people it can take several years to clear their debts.
“If someone requires a debt relief order [a form of insolvency], we can fast-track a family through in three to four months,” Kirkby explains.
“But a debt repayment plan can be anywhere between one to five years to complete. It is an extremely intensive process to get one person debt-free but it is worth it. Every working day, CAP gets 10 people debt-free. Every day when I sit down with my children to have dinner, I think there are 10 families out there having their first debt-free meal, people who might have worked for five years to achieve it, people who had no hope who now have hope. If you didn’t see the results, we wouldn’t be able to continue because it would be too overwhelming.”
He says his own personal experiences make it even more meaningful.
“If you have never been there, you don’t know how you are judged. When my kids didn’t have enough and you couldn’t even buy them a magazine or sweets in the shop, the crushing nature of debt is overwhelming. When I got out of it, I wanted to tell people at the bus stop ‘I’m debt-free’.”
Kirkby feels he has been called by God to do his job and is clear about the importance of the religious aspect of the charity’s work. But he is keen to stress that getting support from CAP is not dependant on becoming religious. CAP’s own figures say only around four per cent of the people they help choose to become Christians.
“Every single person we help who sees a change in their life is a success. One-third of our clients are suicidal. I believe we are keeping thousands of people alive. Every client who becomes debt-free is an unbelievable success. These are people in the hardest and most difficult situations you can imagine.
“As a Christian, when you see someone choose to engage with the more holistic side of what we do and find faith and community, then I’m really happy. But no one forces anyone into any faith. Our clients tell us by the thousands they felt really cared for when our advisers offered to pray for them. We feel our holistic approach is actually part of the success, regardless of whether a client should find faith or not.”
Kirkby says demand for CAP’s services has greatly increased in recent years. “In our first 10 years we had 50 centres. Now we have got to 500. When you sit and listen to the incoming phone calls by their hundreds, you realise the extent to which society is in need. But I’m not a politician, we are just helping as many people as we can. The need I experienced from Debbie 22 years ago and the needs we are meeting today are still overwhelming.”
Documentary follows vulnerable clients
Tonight’s BBC documentary follows some of the charity’s debt coaches and clients, as well as John Kirkby.
One of the debt coaches featured is Gaz, who has overcome homelessness, dependency issues and losing a marriage before becoming a born-again Christian. He now works for CAP, and in the programme travels to meet donors in Jersey to help raise funds for the charity and to share with CAP’s clients the story of his road out of debt.
Among the clients featured are Holly, who can barely afford to heat her home and Ronnie, who lives alone in a bedsit, suffers from mental health issues and thinks his previous life in jail was better.
The Debt Saviours is on BBC Two tonight at 9pm.