I congratulate Yvonne Fovargue on securing today’s debate.
Being British, we do not tend to talk much about debt, or money issues at all, but I showed an early interest in the subject by explaining to my first primary school teacher that my parents were worried about their overdraft—I think my parents were most surprised to have that discussion at school.
Debt in whatever form is a worry. I have direct personal experience of it, and of the invaluable support available from charities such as StepChange and from our churches through organisations such as Christians Against Poverty. I have a maths degree, yet when I lost my business, I still needed help to sort through creditors, understand which bills really were essential, properly to sort out my budgeting and to get my finances back on track.
As the pandemic has progressed, our understanding of exponential growth has also improved. One suspects that this is the same growth rate for both the number of our constituents in debt and the debt they carry. I already have constituents being evicted because of rent arrears and, as there is no temporary accommodation in North Devon due to the surge in the number of holiday lets, the nearest is up to 100 miles away in Bristol. That is clearly unacceptable, as local people will be uprooted from their communities.
Debts have built up where rent or council tax has not been paid, and through credit cards and overdrafts being used to buy everyday items to make ends meet. Far too many families do not have savings for a rainy day, and the pandemic has been positively torrential. As a former maths teacher, I find alarming the number of people who do not understand compound interest or who are unable to budget, which I think stems from not having enough financial education at any stage of the school curriculum.
Given the scale of the issues with which so many families living in our constituencies are dealing with, we need to put extra resource in debt management and give people and companies more time to get their businesses back up and running after the last year and a half of restrictions. Although we did an excellent job deploying extra staff to help to get those who needed it on to universal credit at the start of the pandemic, I worry that we have not seen a comparable increase in the number of debt counsellors in our excellent citizens advice bureaux, for example, so that new claimants could turn their finances around.
While the focus is rightly on getting people back to work, we need to recognise the level of debt that they might have built up during their time not working. Many vacancies are becoming available for jobs that might not pay enough to cover that additional debt on top of a family’s cost of living. Many people have had to retrain and are starting again. We should encourage them back to work by doing everything we can to help them to spread out their repayments and balance their books. Many people who moved on to universal credit during the pandemic will have also found that they have historical tax credit debts, which they now have to repay, along with any advance they may have received ahead of their first universal credit payment.
Universal credit is a working benefit, so many claimants are working, and while additional hours might now become available for some families, for others the numbers do not add up. Although I have heard and understand all the arguments as to why the £20 temporary uplift to universal credit will end in September, I hope the Minister will have some explanation as to how families who already cannot make ends meet are supposed to do so when it goes. For many families who are unable to work, the uplift may represent 20% of their weekly income. How many people have household budgets that will tolerate a 20% drop in income?
The pandemic has already produced a health crisis, and the debt crisis it is generating cannot simply be brushed away by us hoping that everyone can work their way out of it. Many can and will, but debt accumulates. The impact on mental health is devastating, but the relief of resolution is immense. I urge anyone worried about debt to seek advice as soon as they can. I did not become an MP to see families in my North Devon constituency and across the country become destitute. Levelling up, to my mind, is about ensuring that everyone, in every community, has a fair chance to get ahead and that our economy raises the standard of living for everyone. I fully recognise how much the Government have already spent and the work undertaken by the Treasury team to save businesses and jobs. We are now a nation in quite a lot of debt, but we know it will not be repaid immediately. With so many families in the same position, can they not be afforded the same luxury?
Debt and poverty are about families and people. It is not about the billions we have already spent or how much it will cost to give those people a leg-up; it is about doing the right thing to help those families to build back better. The Minister knows as well as I, albeit on a macro level, that debt cannot be repaid if outgoings continue to exceed income. We cannot allow bigger gaps to open up in our society. That is not levelling up, which the Government set out to do. I hope we can still deliver.