British people on financial ‘knife edge’ as Brexit looms: Charity

Any economic turbulence could spell disaster for British people burdened with debts, a charity says in a new report.

British households are increasingly vulnerable to the economic shocks that Brexit might bring, the charity StepChange says in a new report [File: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg]
British households are increasingly vulnerable to the economic shocks that Brexit might bring, the charity StepChange says in a new report [File: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg]

British households are increasingly struggling with debt, at rates that are worrying charities in the United Kingdom.

Between January and June 2019, the StepChange Debt Charity said it experienced its busiest ever start to a year with a record 331,337 new clients reaching out for help with their debt problems.

The statistics painted a “bleak picture” of the scale of the UK’s debt problem, the charity said in a statement on Wednesday, marking a 2 percent rise in new clients over the past six months and a 6 percent rise since 2016.

“This should sound alarm bells for the Government, local authorities and regulators – any future economic turbulence or sharp rises in the cost of living could spell disaster for those already living on a knife edge,” StepChange said.

The three biggest causes of problematic debt were due to unexpected life events, such as low wages, unemployment and injuries or illnesses.

“These statistics provide a sobering assessment of the scale of problem debt in this country. Across the board we are seeing red flags, including worrying proportions of new clients falling into debt due to reduced income, illness or because they rely on credit to pay for day-to-day living expenses,” said Phil Andrew, CEO of the StepChange Debt Charity.

“Clearly more and more households are struggling to hang on and are ill-equipped to deal with any economic shocks the future may hold.”

The data highlighted the increasing risk to the UK’s most vulnerable households and consumers as economic growth slows and its Parliament struggles to reach a deal on the country’s proposed departure from the European Union.

Analysts have warned that Brexit may hurt the economy, resulting in food shortages and a drop in welfare payments for the homeless. This comes against an already gloomy backdrop of slowing global growth, with the UK’s economy shrinking in the most recent quarter, falling 0.2 percent.

People in vulnerable situations appear to be feeling the pressure more acutely, StepChange found. An increasing number of its clients had mental health conditions, physical difficulties, learning disabilities, hearing or sight impairment and were unable to speak or read English.

Vulnerable clients were identified as having lower incomes on average than other clients and were more likely to be behind on household bills.

Of the types of debt arrears faced by clients, StepChange found that council tax was the most common with 31 percent of new clients in arrears for the first half of 2019 compared with 30 percent in 2018.

“This is particularly worrying given that council debt is commonly passed to bailiffs – an expensive and intrusive form of enforcement that can increase hardship for struggling households,” the charity said.

Credit card debt and utility bills were also increasingly falling into arrears, StepChange said.

In a separate report, UK housing charity Shelter said that almost three million people in England are one paycheque away from being unable to pay their rent and losing their homes.

Just under half of the people renting their homes in England would be unable to afford rent for more than a month if they lost their jobs, the charity said in a report published on Thursday.

“I work two jobs, but I’m still in a precarious position. If for some reason I lost my job, I worry how quickly we’d end up homeless,” Zoe, a 44-year-old single mother, told Shelter.

Shelter’s Chief Executive Polly Neate said, “Millions of working people are now caught in an endless cycle of paying grossly expensive private rents they can barely afford – with all the insecurity that brings.”

Homelessness has been increasing in England for nearly a decade amid rising private rents, a freeze on welfare benefits and a shortage of social housing.

The introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act in 2018, which increased the obligations of local authorities, had prevented some 58,290 households from becoming homeless in the last year, according to the government.

The government also said it had committed over 400 million pounds ($500 million) to help reduce homelessness and rough sleeping – along with pledging to deliver an additional 250,000 affordable homes by March 2022.

“Our reforms have increased the amount of social housing stock by 79,000 since 2010,” Britain’s housing minister Esther McVey told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies

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