Covid-19: Household Debt — [Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:23 pm on 8th July 2021.

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Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous The Second Church Estates Commissioner 2:23 pm, 8th July 2021

Unsustainable debt destroys lives, marriages and couple relationships, and causes misery to families up and down the country. As in so many areas of life, prevention is always better than cure. That is why we need to start by looking at the reasons why people end up with unsustainable debts.

Dealing with the causes of debt is at the heart of preventing the misery that unsustainable debt is responsible for. The United Kingdom stands as a real outlier internationally in that so many people who start their lives in entry-level jobs end their lives in entry-level jobs. Why is that such an issue for the United Kingdom? Why is it less so for other countries? What can we do about it?

When I served on the Work and Pensions Committee, I was taught about the ABC approach to eradicating poverty. In the Church circles that I move in, that acronym stands for our current wonderful Archbishop of Canterbury but in this context it stands for a job, a better job and a career. That is the mindset that we need to encourage and enable so that people have the opportunity perhaps to go to night school or study at weekends while they work in order to improve their skills and earn, say, £22.50 an hour rather than £9 an hour. That is exactly what the Government’s newly introduced lifetime skills guarantee sets out to facilitate, and what programmes such as the nursing associate scheme enable. Helping as many people as possible to get into work in the first place and recreating that British jobs miracle that the Government have done before is absolutely key.

Secondly, we have to do something about the ridiculous cost of housing for far too many people. That is more of a problem in some parts of the country than others, but I have long been convinced that the unavailability and unaffordability of housing is the root cause of debt and poverty in this country. Of course we need to build the houses we need in the right places and with the infrastructure going in at the same time—we have not always had the best record in achieving that—but quite simply, far too much of people’s income goes towards housing costs, which leaves far too little for food, utilities, clothing, transport and other items.

That brings me on to zero energy bill homes—precisely what we need to do now to expedite our journey to net zero but, equally important, to eradicate poverty now. Yes, we can have a home today where we do not have gas and electricity bills because the house sends more energy back to the grid in the summer than it draws down in the winter. British architect Bill Dunster OBE is already building houses that do exactly that, and no, they are not more expensive than conventional houses.

Financial literacy also matters, and we need to make sure that people have the skills to make sure they do not get ripped off with overpriced deals on all manner of items. We are doing more in this area in our schools, but we need to keep going to make sure that those skills are ingrained among the whole population.

When money is owed to local authorities, it is especially important that a reasonable and compassionate approach is taken. Some people can afford to pay and I have no problem with the full panoply of the law being used against those who can pay their bills but choose not to. Other people simply cannot pay, and local authorities have a particular duty to behave well in those circumstances. I welcome the proposal for an enforcement conduct authority to make sure that bailiffs behave reasonably as well. It is overdue and I look forward to its establishment.

I am also a strong supporter and indeed a member of a credit union, the Chalkhill Blue, in my constituency. More people should use them. For those who are in debt, amazing help is available if only people know it is there and choose to take it up. Over the last year or so, I have watched at close quarters in awe and admiration the work of a debt coach for Christians Against Poverty. I have seen—anonymised, of course—examples of people with debts of £30,000 or so who have become debt-free and able to save a little every month and live within their budget.

The tragedy is that too many people do not know that help is available or do not use it. The citizens advice bureau and the Salvation Army have a similar brilliant service in my constituency, and I am aware of other amazing charities such as Crosslight working in this area as well. If someone is suffering with problem debt that they cannot manage, they should immediately seek help from organisations such as those. Help can be at hand and people can be free of their debts, as many people are able to testify.