Dear Secretary of State,

21 June 2023

Open letter of concern

We write to express our deepening concerns about the proposed budget cuts following the 2023/4 budget announcements.

As a united voice from Christian organisations, our faith motivates us to care for our neighbour and especially the most vulnerable members of our society. We believe that everyone is made in the image of God, and believe all life is valuable and worthy of dignity. We are compelled by Christ’s teachings to work alongside a devolved administration for a society where every person is enabled to thrive in life, and not just survive.

As representatives of over 30 churches and faith organisations (all of whom are charities) we are committed to offering a comprehensive range of holistic services and support in our communities. However, we must highlight to you that these services are under threat because the demand is overwhelming. With the buckling pressure of poverty, we are shouldering greater burdens – we are continually stepping into the gaps created through failing statutory provision in terms of both policy and finance. Now, with existing budgets stretched and cuts being proposed, even the safety net’ of faith-based charitable care is in doubt. Additionally, having to deal with growing numbers of people experiencing poverty, we are recognising a form of moral distress’ affecting volunteers who serve those in need. 

In this second year of our coalition, member organisations have published disturbing reports about poverty in Northern Ireland. In April 2023, The Trussell Trust announced that they provided 81,084 emergency food parcels between April 2022 to March 2023; more than 35,000 of these were provided for children. More than 26,000 people in Northern Ireland used one of their food banks for the first time this year — this number equates to the population of a town like Antrim. Because of this, we are asking why so many people in Northern Ireland are forced to use food banks in order to physically survive, even though they are citizens living in the sixth largest global economy. In May 2023 Christians Against Poverty (CAP) launched their annual client report which highlighted that the impact of poverty on people is not just financial. 55% of clients across the UK report having mental ill-health and 50% of CAP clients report having attempted or considered suicide as a way out of debt before seeking free debt help. St. Vincent de Paul has reported that, in the last 12 months, in Northern Ireland alone, they spent £3.5 million in supporting people to avail of food, gas and electric and home essentials. This situation is both disturbing and unsustainable.

Back in August 2022, we raised concern through an open letter to MLAs, which highlighted the disproportionate impact that rising costs were having on those on the lowest incomes. Members of the coalition then met with representatives from various political parties to outline the crucial role played by the Faith Sector in helping those in need. We also highlighted the strain experienced both by these organisations and volunteers as services and finances have been stretched beyond breaking point.

Christian organisations and volunteers provide essential safety nets’ for people across Northern Ireland, but the recent budget announcement has unfortunately confirmed that those who are vulnerable are not the government’s primary concern.

You have argued that this is not a punishment budget, rather “[…] it’s to make sure services can continue in the absence of devolved government,” However, since the announcement, every government department has expressed deep concern that the cuts needed to meet the allocation will affect the most vulnerable in society. In addition, high rate of inflation and outstanding pay demands point to the real need for additional financial support.

Jane Brady, as Head of the Civil Service warned in a letter to Sinn Féin, the DUP, the Alliance Party, and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), that enacting this budget would leave “[…] the accounting officer in the invidious position of having no lawful means to ensure full compliance with the duty to remain within budget limits”.

We recognise that enacting this budget will result in difficult decisions, all of which seem likely to mean deteriorating public services for so many vulnerable people in Northern Ireland.

Secretary of State, we urge you to prioritise the well-being of vulnerable children, families, and those who are already living in poverty. As the inevitable cuts unfold, we are asking you to consider the following two requests to protect the most vulnerable:

  1. We ask you to ensure the UK Government embeds the Essentials Guarantee’ in the Social Security system. Launched this year jointly by The Joseph Rowntree Foundation and The Trussell Trust, it is based on the principle that, at a minimum, Universal Credit should protect people from going without essentials https://​www​.jrf​.org​.uk/​r​e​p​o​r​t​/​g​u​a​r​a​n​t​e​e​-​o​u​r​-​e​s​s​e​n​tials
  2. In the ongoing absence of the Anti-poverty Strategy, a statutory obligation outlined in section 28E of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, we ask you to prioritise policy decisions that could transform the lived experiences of people trapped in poverty and destitution.

We urge you to consider the impact of the budget decisions on those who are most in need. We believe that a just and compassionate society is one that prioritises the well-being of its most vulnerable members. Please work collaboratively with communities and stakeholders like churches and faith organisations to find solutions that ensure that no one is left behind.

Yours Sincerely,

Danielle McElhinney

Evangelical Alliance

On behalf of Coalition of Christian Voices Against Poverty NI

List of signatories

  • Alan Carson Storehouse Centre 
  • Belfast City Vineyard
  • Alan Walker Executive Officer, Elim in Ireland 
  • Brian Anderson East Belfast Mission
  • Bruce Gardener-Crehan South Belfast foodbank 
  • City Church, Belfast
  • Chris Leech Emmanuel Church Lurgan and Portadown
  • Clive Atkinson Willowfield Parish Church
  • David Clements Methodist Church’s Council on Social Responsibility
  • David Smyth Evangelical Alliance, Northern Ireland
  • Diane Holt Thrive Ireland
  • Garath Baxter Christian Fellowship Church
  • Gerardine Cunningham SVP, North Region
  • Heather Purdy Willowfield Parish Community Association
  • Jenny Thompson Hope Magherafelt
  • John Loughrey Cornerstone, Derry
  • Jonny Currie Trussell Trust NI
  • Jonny McGreevy Portstewart Baptist
  • Laura Bell Christian Fellowship Church
  • Louise Ferguson The Larder Community Food Hub
  • Lynsey Agnew Lisburn City Church
  • FR. Martin Magill St. John’s Parish Church, Belfast
  • Neil Webb Salvation Army
  • Malachy McKernan Northern Ireland Catholic Council on Social Affairs (NICCOSA)
  • Norman Hamilton Contemporary Christianity
  • Neil Young Causeway Coast Vineyard
  • Alison Flanagan Christians Against Poverty (CAP)
  • Peter Rollins Ballymoney Foodbank
  • Ricky Wright Vineyard Compassion, Coleraine
  • Stephen Adams Contemporary Christianity
  • Steven Moore
  • Mark Houston The Link Family and Community Centre, Newtownards
  • Bishop David McClay Diocese of Down and Dromore