Christian charity sounds illegal loan shark warning amid cost-of-living crisis

The cost-of-living crisis could push people in Northern Ireland into the arms of criminal loan sharks, a Christian charity who help people overcome debt problems has warned.

Young homeless boy sleeping on a bridge
Young homeless boy sleeping on a bridge

Fuel, energy and food costs have soared in recent weeks with the economic toll of the war in Ukraine adding to already sharp inflation rises.

Paul Livingstone, Northern Ireland partnership manager for the charity Christians Against Poverty — a UK-wide organisation specialising in debt counselling — has expressed concern that more people could find themselves in serious financial difficulty.

He also warned that people in financial difficulty in Northern Ireland are being forced to skip meals so their children can eat, or go without warm homes to save money.

“We are absolutely worried,” he told the News Letter.

“The worry is that for those people who could previously manage, who had a budget set aside for oil and electricity, that when prices go up so much they will start to borrow.”

Earlier this week, the News Letter revealed that some credit unions are offering discounted rates on loans for home heating, amid a doubling of delivery costs over the fortnight since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine.

Mr Livingstone warned, however, that some people will find themselves relying on less “responsible” credit sources.

“Credit unions doing preferential rates is fantastic, but it is still a loan that has to be repaid,” he said.

“That would be a real concern that people will start to borrow.

“And then of course there are people who do not have access to the responsible borrowing, who may then look elsewhere — payday loans, credit cards and even illegal money lenders.”

Mr Livingstone also warned about the human impact of financial hardship, saying: “It can impact in so many different ways. Clients sufferfrom stress, anxiety and worry which can manifest itself in physical and mental illness. We have a high proportion of clients who would visit the GP and maybe require medication.

“The figure, from our survey, is that around a third of clients would have considered or attempted suicide because things have just got so bad.

“It can also have a real impact on your day-to-day life. We are seeing clients who will skip meals to make sure their children are fed, who will turn off the heating or see the electriticity disconnect.”

He continued: “Relationship breakdown is a big one. We see people getting into debt following relationship breakdown, but getting into debt can put a relationship under strain and lead to it breaking down so then you have that cycle.”

He added: “It impacts right across the board. It’s health, wellbeing, it’s not going out of the house because you feel embarrasment or shame. People can shut themselves away from friends and family.”

Speaking as party leaders met in Stormont, Mr Livingstone urged the local government to “make poverty a priority”.