Major campaign launched to tackle poverty through credit unions

(PA)Closed shopes in Bradford city centre

Payday loan companies have long been criticised for the way in which they prey on low-income individuals and families, encouraging short-term loans with huge hidden charges and astronomically high interest rates.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby, attacked unscrupulous loan companies for their behaviour earlier this year and was outraged when it was discovered soon after that the Church of England's pension fund had a £75,000 investment in Accel Partners, a company which acts as a financial backer for British payday loan company Wonga.

Archbishop Welby had met with Errol Damelin, the founder and Chief Executive of Wonga, and spoke of his plans to advocate alternative borrowing schemes, declaring openly that the Church is "not in the business of trying to legislate you out of existence, we're trying to compete you out of existence". He promised the use of church buildings for credit unions and his unyielding support for systems that are fairer to borrowers.

Following the Archbishop's lead, other church leaders have also pledged their support for fairer schemes, with Bishop Christopher Foster and Canon Nick Ralph of Portsmouth Diocese joining the Hampshire Credit Union just last month.

Now, the Anglican Diocese of Durham has also launched an initiative to support credit unions in its area.

The Right Revd Mark Bryant, Bishop of Jarrow, is seeking to recruit 1,000 people to credit unions across the diocese and actively encouraging congregations to engage in supporting the organisations. He has taken the lead by signing up to become a member of the Prince Bishops Community Bank.

The Bishop of Durham-Elect, the Right Revd Paul Butler, has signed up to Durham County Credit Union and has pledged to centre his ministry on the alleviation of poverty when he takes up the post next year.

Bishop Bryant spoke on Saturday of the Church's responsibility to support the poor, saying, "There is a real imperative for us through our local churches to see how we can best serve the most vulnerable members of our community."

He went on to speak of the current credit unions in his diocese, proclaiming it "good" that some parishes are already engaging with them.

However, he noted that despite their "sterling work", a lack of resources means their efforts and thus the number of people they are able to help are limited.

"That is why in 2014, we are committing ourselves across the diocese to recruit 1,000 more members for their local credit unions and to encourage members of congregations to offer volunteer support for these credit unions," he announced, before going on to explain that a scheme will be rolled-out in early 2014 to enable parishes to better build links with their credit unions.

This has delighted credit union officials. Lesley Richardson, Manager of the Prince Bishops Community Bank, said of the plans: "It is exciting that the Church is joining up with the bank, it will give extra credibility to credit unions and community banks.

"This is about helping people to understand how to manage their money. It will help keep them away from the doorstep lenders and get them away from the payday lenders. Signing up 1,000 people to credit unions would be phenomenal."

Bishop Foster has previously made similar comments, stating that "campaigning against this kind of social injustice is a core part of our Christian calling".