Poverty on our Doorstep: A joint conference held at the Diocese of Hallam Pastoral Centre, Saturday, 1 March

Representatives from Sheffield’s Churches came together to examine the reality of poverty in the city and the impact of welfare reform.  Organised by the Hallam Justice and Peace Commission and the inter-denominational Church Action on Poverty, the conference heard from Dr Simon Duffy, Director of the Centre for Welfare Reform, Paul Blomfield MP, Cllr Mazher Iqbal, and members of the Listen Up project.

Welfare State a good thing, but designed wrong

The Welfare State, said Dr Duffy, was both good and necessary, and the extent to which is could be made better comes from a point of faith.  It exists for one very good reason and that was to enable us to support each other. While the UK was the seventh wealthiest country in the world it was, at the same time, the third most unequal in terms of social justice.  The debate is not between the Left or the Right, nor was the market economy appropriate to the level of expenditure on welfare.  In fact, free markets do not reduce inequality and poverty.

More debt, more borrowing

Those greatest in need have been hit hardest by the Coalition Government’s cuts in public expenditure, which bears no correlation with the implementation of social justice.  To get out of debt people have been forced into more borrowing.  Among those affected by cuts are people on disability benefits.  “Disability is real, has many causes and can happen to any one of us,” said Dr Duffy, “and what counts as welfare reform is an act of great injustice.”  The underlying cause of poverty over a number of years had been the encouragement of over-lending and private borrowing.  The poorest 10% were being marginalised by VAT and Council Tax, and many had still to pay income tax.

Living in a “mediandemocracy”

Dr Duffy urged that we examine ourselves as a society.  Not just the government of the day but all political parties had to stop accommodating the “swing vote”, those people in the middle income bracket, and steer away from the prejudices leading to stigma, shame and scapegoating.  The true facts of poverty and benefits were lacking in large sections of the national press.  He called for a more assertive promotion of human rights.  Here the Church had a positive role, to play and he welcomed the intervention of the Anglican Bishops and Cardinal Vincent Nichols.

“The Church may not have all the answers,” he said, “but it is able to ask the right questions.”

Real stories, real people

The conference heard stories from the Church-led Listen-Up Project, hearing about those on the poverty line from Longley and Manor Top.  These were experiences from people having to exist on their benefit entitlements and having also to combat the cuts as a result of welfare reform.  Getting information from different sections of the Department for Work and Pensions often proved difficult.  Communities were fragmented as a result of buy-to-let tenancies, reducing further public housing stock, and the so-called bedroom tax imposed unfair restrictions on living standards.  What was encouraging, however, was the determination of residents to support each other and revive community life, but this alone was not sufficient to overcome the anomalies of welfare reform.

New ideas

Paul Blomfield, MP for Sheffield Central, explained the purpose of his Private Members Bill on payday lenders.  Even though they are not the problem, rather they are the symptom, by which poor people seek loans.  A growing wealth gap had emerged whereby falling incomes were not coping with the payment of rising bills.  There existed a regressive credit market in which people were forced to borrow in order to make ends meet.  Pay day lenders are not regulated in this country, and yet in the USA – the greatest advocate of the free market economy – there are stringent federal laws!

Although the Coalition Government was not supportive of Mr Blomfield’s measure he has been able to secure cross-party collaboration in Parliament and others outside.  “You can will change,” he said in combatting the methods used by pay day lenders and protecting vulnerable people.

Cllr Mazher Iqbal, Cabinet Member for Communities and Inclusion, spoke about Sheffield City Council’s initiative to promote the scheme, “Financial Inclusion in Sheffield”, by setting up a new company and preparing a case

for investors. “There is a large and growing non-standard consumer credit market in Sheffield,” he said, and the solution was in providing fair finance.  “Service levels will be as good as, or better, than mainstream banks, pay day lenders and other financial services.”

Chair of the Hallam Justice and Peace Commission, Fr Shaun Smith, in thanking the speakers said that there was a role for Christians in exercising their faith in reaching out to people on our doorstep who are trapped in poverty.  Churches were instrumental in organising food banks and acting in solidarity with those in need of guidance and support.