We have been encouraged by the kindness we have seen, as individual people and families have looked out for others in need, ensuring people were not left without food, essential supplies or simple companionship.
National and local leaders also showed flexibility and speed, through measures like the introduction of the furlough scheme and providing accommodation for people who were homeless.
Crises bring our core values to the surface. During Covid-19, we have seen a renewed widespread desire for justice in our social security systems, to ensure people are kept afloat in the storm of the pandemic, rather than cut adrift.
One of the most vital lifelines in this effort has been the increase in Universal Credit, which has raised millions of people’s household incomes by £20 a week, or £1,040 a year. It has created a little buoyancy in turbulent times and for some a vital buffer.
However, just as winter comes and food and energy prices are set to rise considerably, the Government has made the decision to stop this uplift. In response, I have joined more than 1,100 other church leaders from around the UK in signing a letter to Boris Johnson, urging him to think again.
We are far from the only ones voicing concern. Across the country, frontline charities providing debt relief or emergency food aid are expecting the cut to lead to a large increase in their work. Community groups have opposed the cut, as have many MPs from all parties, including several former Conservative Work and Pensions Secretaries. The ‘Keep The Lifeline’ campaign has enormous support across the country.
As Christians, my fellow signatories and I are compelled by the gospel to prioritise the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable but this not merely a Christian matter; it is a grave concern to people of all faiths and none.
There is no doubt that the past year has hit the poorest the hardest of all. In my own area of Doncaster, local charities and community groups are filling vital gaps not least in the provision of food and other essentials.
The Reverend Adam Priestley, Vicar of Wheatley Park whose area falls within the 3.5 per cent most deprived in the country, tells me: “The buffers that most people have in place don’t apply here. People live more hand to mouth and if something goes wrong – like the pandemic – it bites a lot quicker.”
The Reverend David Berry, Vicar of St Peter’s, Bentley, offers a debt advice centre. One of the advisers, Rachel, spoke of a single mum she has been supporting, and said: “She is eligible for a debt relief order (DRO) and we will be helping her to apply for one, the fee is £90 and we’ll help with the fee through our trust fund.
“But this young mum also needed a bed for her eldest and safety gates on the stairs. She simply didn’t have the means to buy these things. We were able to provide her with a bed, a new mattress, two safety gates and bedding.
“When the uplift is removed, this particular family will face even further financial hardship. Most of those we support are in receipt of Universal Credit and have a deficit budget already.”
Our letter urges the Government to choose to build a just and compassionate social security system that our whole society can have confidence in. We are concerned that this cut will only exacerbate inequalities based on race, wealth and region, rather than reducing them.
We already know that the pandemic compounded social injustices.
Overwhelmingly, the people most severely affected were the ones already held back disproportionately. Now is the time to strive for greater social justice and compassion.
If we do that, and if we build a social security system that brings stability, we can take huge strides towards tackling poverty in our communities. We can open up new opportunities and possibilities for families and individuals whose incomes are too low, and who are therefore trapped by poverty.
We said in our letter that this is an opportunity for the Government to demonstrate that it listens, and that it recognises the pressure faced by low-income households. It is also an opportunity to start building a just and compassionate system that is fit for purpose. That would surely be a pandemic response to encourage us all.
The Right Reverend Sophie Jelley is the Bishop of Doncaster.
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