Nehemiah revisited

Chris Butler is a company finance director and a member of Wesley Memorial Church in Oxford. Inspired by the Bible study on Nehemiah 5 at a group exploration session about the Reset the Debt campaign in his church, he imagines an uncomfortable encounter with a modern day Nehemiah.

We thought we knew what to expect when our Chairman, Nehemiah, summoned us to a ‘Zoom’ board meeting with those awfully nice (but oh so naïve) folk from the ‘Reset the Debt’ campaign. I mean, Nehemiah heads a property and financial services group. He knows the economic facts of life. If tenants and borrowers get the idea they might not have to repay, who is going to lend or lease?

So, we assumed there’d be platitudes about the terrible toll that unmanageable debt takes on mental health and relationships, followed by a reminder of recent measures to defer evictions and improve access to debt advice. We were wrong.

The campaigners explained how Government steps to control the Covid-19 pandemic had cut the incomes of people who had barely enough to cover basic essentials. With no room to reduce spending, it was small wonder 6 million people had fallen behind on rent, council tax and other bills.

When they had finished, Nehemiah turned on the rest of us. I’m told the name means “God comforts”. His parents had a sense of humour, but he had lost his.

“Our Government has borrowed £246bn in six months, largely to cushion us from the consequences of its attempts to control this virus,” he began.

“The Bank of England created that money so that we didn’t have to find it. This in turn has pushed up the price of bonds, shares and houses, making some of us wealthier than we were before this crisis broke!”

It was turning into a rant.

“And what about these loan guarantees the Government has provided to businesses like ours?

Nehemiah shared a screen of a report by the National Audit Office.

“They reckon more than £15bn of ‘Bounce Back Loans’ may have to be written off due to fraud or default.”

The hypocrisy of it all had clearly got his goat.

“You’re quite happy to take all this state aid – and to leave your children to pick up the tab – but you won’t countenance forgiving £5bn owed by our poorest compatriots?”

Then came the practicalities.

“Pursuing a debt that cannot be repaid just causes pointless suffering and adds to strain on public services – never mind what could happen if we lift that burden and allow people to make their contribution to society.”

By this stage, we had turned off the video to avoid eye contact. But we all heard his promise to work with the campaign and to take his share of the pain from writing off Covid-related debts.

It’s one thing to talk about challenging orthodoxy. Now he wanted us to follow his example, starting with a letter to our MP.

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