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Launch of "Parents, Pennies and Pounds" Website

Monday 8th December 2003

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, was invited to 'switch on' the Parents, Pennies and Pounds website at Portcullis House, Westminster. The site aims to help families deal with debt and offers helpful advice on everyday money matters.

Thank you very much, I apologise for the working clothes – but I have to go on to do something else shortly afterwards.

It is, I think, about seven years since the Church in Wales began to concern itself about issues of domestic debt. I'd like to begin my remarks simply by putting that in context and telling you a little about what moved us in Wales some years ago to begin to pick up this question.

Like many other Christian bodies in the United Kingdom we had been fired by the Jubilee 2000 campaign for addressing questions of international debt. At one meeting at which we were discussing this, somebody said "but what about debt on our doorstep?" I was then the chair of the division for social responsibility of the Church in Wales and from that chance remark there arose a project called debt on our doorstep, which took us through some three years of research and planning, to a point where we were able to produce a pack for every parish in Wales on issues about handling debt, locally, and share the sponsorship of a development worker with the Wales Cooperative Society to move towards creating more credit unions in Wales.

Because of the research we did in launching this project we had, of course, a very vivid picture of what debt meant on our doorsteps. A lot of my work at that time was in the context of the valleys of South East Wales, a region where traditional ties and bonds were very much under strain, where economic deprivation is often quite severe and not always as visible in the public arena as it might have been. And where, time after time, the parish clergy would speak to me about the stress for ordinary families caused by debt and by loan-sharking activities, and by the way in which the pressure of debt was one of the major factors leading to the unravelling of family life and the further weakening of social bonds in those deeply stressed communities in South-East Wales.

Now I don't for a moment imagine that the situation in South-East Wales was unique in the United Kingdom. And when I see the statistics nationwide my view on that is amply confirmed. We're told that some 70 percent of family breakup of various kinds identifies as a major contributory cause stress occasioned by debt. We are aware of figures which, at this time of year, remind us of the strain on families once again of incurring debt in the run-up to Christmas. Another statistic which I've come across recently is that one in five of people living rough on the streets of London at the moment ascribe their position to family breakup with financial implications.

So, I welcome this initiative wholeheartedly, because it seems to tackle more than just a financial problem.

I'll say a bit about that.

If all that this project achieves is to provide a helpful ambulance service for financial counselling then - I hope the organisers will forgive me for saying this - it will have failed. Its purpose is to say something in our society more widely about what a healthy family looks like, and why it matters. Its purpose is to establish those channels of healthy communication that make families work, on the assumption that unless you have working families you don't have a working society.

I'll say a little more about this, because I think that background is of immense importance for where we are.

Part of what this project seems to do is to assist families in talking honestly to each other. As Alistair Burt MP has said, there is a great unmentionable, which is money, but behind that lies that other great unmentionable, which is the immense cost of a situation where generations don't talk to each other within families, because there is not enough stability and trust to secure and nurture and take forward that kind of conversation.

Children growing up in an environment of instability where they can't fully share their problems, where they are not encouraged into adulthood themselves by love and stability – that's a very sad situation, such children grow into adults but don't know how to be adults.

Now that, to put it very broadly, is to say really that what this project is about is something to do with the whole process by which our society helps people mature, or fails to help people mature. Nobody's made any secret of the Christian convictions that lie behind this project. The Christian conviction about the family is that stability, promise and covenant are things without which no-one – no individual – grows to maturity. Insofar as debt undermines and threatens stability and covenant, the family relationship, then we see that it is something affecting the whole of humanity.

So, not about financial counselling in the abstract, but about what people need in order to mature. About stability. About what we as Christians believe to be God's gift of faithful nurture through stable relationships, a covenanted relationship, which is the background for children to grow.

We can talk about the pressures on families at this time of year to provide the best for their children for Christmas, and we all know something of the figures about the levels of debt that will be incurred around Christmas, the way in which basic needs are sometimes deferred or put on hold while Christmas gifts are bought. It's a great tribute to the generosity of parents and families that they seek to give the best to their children, but to make a point that has been made often enough before, the best gift any family can give is stability, faithfulness.

The best gift anyone can give is stability and faithfulness, whether at Christmas, or at any other time of year.

This project is about that vision.

It's not a social environment, or a political environment, that is always friendly towards such a vision of the family. But also, this project will seek to keep an eye on that public sphere, to ask, both by implication and directly, awkward questions, about how society in general, and government in particular, supports stable, nurturing family environments. We're learning that the relativising, or undermining, of marriage doesn't work to make people more mature. We're not quite learning, I think yet, that collusion with financial irresponsibility of other sorts, incurring debt, not only incurring debt in the consumer world, but incurring debt in gambling, is hardly the best recipe for stable covenanted backgrounds for people to grow to maturity.

So there are questions then, that need to be addressed. It is very good news that today we shall be able to be discussing, later on, the government initiative about consumer credit. Although I haven't seen the details of this, I welcome quite simply the fact that it is there on the agenda. It needs to be kept on the agenda and I'm sure that those on all sides in this House will wish to keep it there, and to pursue the fundamental questions which arise in connection with it.

But, it's everyone's job, the job we are trying to address today. Everyone's job to work towards a situation where a family is a stable, nurturing environment, an environment where it is possible to talk about the most difficult matters, an environment where people learn how to manage their lives because they feel trusted and they know there are trustworthy people alongside them.

So, the counselling, support, the systems, and I hope, the vision this project offers will have very wide implications. I welcome it with all my heart. It's a good Christmas project, but it's a good project for the day after Christmas as well and the day after that, and the day after that.

I hope that those who supported it today will continue to support it in that vein, with that vision in mind.

I'm greatly privileged to be able to be here this morning, to welcome this, to say a few words about why it matters so desperately, why it addresses such fundamental things in our society, and I'm very glad to be able formally to launch it, if I can remember which button to press.

There's something here which says "launch the site", so I'll try ...

© Rowan Williams 2003

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