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Government plan to reduce energy hardship still expected to leave families struggling

08 September 2022

Trussell Trust estimates millions of Universal Credit claimants are skipping meals


AS THE new Prime Minister, Liz Truss, lowered the energy price cap to combat the cost-of-living crisis, the largest foodbank provider in the country reported that two out of five Universal Credit claimants were skipping meals to survive.

Speaking in the House Commons on Thursday, Ms Truss announced that an average £2500 cap would be put on household energy bills for two years from next month, when the cap was due to rise from £1971 to £3549 (News, 19 August). Businesses would get what Ms Truss described as “equivalent support” for six months.

New research published on Tuesday by the Christian charity Trussell Trust estimated that more than two million claimants had missed meals during the previous three months to meet with other essential costs.

The YouGov survey found that almost 40 per cent of the 1846 people interviewed had gone a whole day without eating, or had had just one meal, because they could not afford to buy enough food.

One in five (21 per cent) was unable to heat food because they could not afford to use their cooker, while almost one quarter (23 per cent) could not afford public transport or fuel to travel to work or for essential appointments.

Almost two-thirds (64 per cent) of Universal Credit claimants had already spent the £326 governemnt payment to meet rising food prices.

The chief executive of the Trust, Emma Revie, expressed deep concern about the figures. “Winter approaches, and this is only going to get worse for people who already struggling to get by. It’s wrong that people are missing meals and are unable to afford to cook, because they are sick or disabled or caring for someone.

“The reality is that, instead of providing a lifeline when our circumstances change, financial support such as Universal Credit is leaving people — 41 per cent of whom are working — without enough income to stay warm, fed, and dry. It’s pushing people to the doors of foodbanks, and that’s simply not right.

“If people are to have enough money to live with dignity, we need strong systems that lift us out of hardship rather than plunging us deeper into poverty.”

While the Prime Minister’s proposals “might help prevent some people from being driven to foodbanks”, the cap alone was not enough, she said. She called on the Government to use the emergency budget expected on 21 September to at least double the additional support offered to people on the lowest incomes.

Speaking to Andrew Marr on LBC Radio on Tuesday, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, said that, increasingly, people using foodbanks were asking for provisions that did not need cooking, or could be heated in a microwave or with boiling water, because they were uncertain that they could pay rising energy bills.

“There are growing numbers of people who never thought they would be doing this” he said. “It’s people in work as well as those out of work, low-paid work in particular; people who might have had two incomes, but now have only one for a variety of reasons; refugees, a whole raft of different people; particularly those who have had a slightly higher income [and] who are now finding that they are really struggling.”

Responding to the new price cap on Thursday, Bishop Butler said that he welcomed the “bold initial actions being taken by the Government to alleviate what would otherwise have been an enormous price increase.

“Nevertheless there is no doubt that, even with these temporary measures, many people will still be placed in poverty this winter. . . Future actions must be targeted at the most vulnerable — both people and businesses. We recognise this is an enormously complex area where there are no easy answers.”

The announcement received a more muted response from social charites, however. The director of external affairs for Christians Against Poverty, Gareth McNab, agreed that the package was bold, but said that it did not go far enough. “Many will see far higher energy bills in practice than £2500 because they need more energy to stay safe and well than the typical household.”

Debt Justice, which campaigns to end unjust debt and the poverty and inequality that it causes, agreed. Its executive director, Heidi Chow, said: “Despite this intervention, energy bills will almost double for millions of households this year. Coming at a time of falling incomes and soaring inflation, energy bills are still unaffordable and will force more people into debt. The Government must write off energy debts that have already built up to give people in debt a fighting chance of surviving this winter.”

The chief executive of the Children’s Society, Mark Russell, also said that the cap fell “far short” of what low-income families needed. “Families are already struggling to pay bills and feed their children,” he said. “Under these plans, the typical household will still face a further £500 increase in their annual energy bill, meaning they will pay twice what they were paying around this time last year.

“We are worried sick about the devastating conditions families and children will face over the coming months if they don’t get this extra support. We fear many children will be left cold and hungry this winter as their families are plunged into debt and homelessness. We want the Government to go further and faster and offer more help to the poorest families.”

The Cinnamon Network, a charity supporting churches’ social-action projects, has announced a new initiative, the Connect Academy, to help churches to support their communities while dealing with their own financial and personnel challenges.

Amanda Bindon, the Network’s chief executive, said: “Church and project leaders are under so much pressure right now. Cinnamon Academy isn’t just a learning opportunity: it’s a supportive community where leaders can share ideas and frustration with their peers.”

Over the next nine months, the programme will seek to equip church leaders, volunteers, and activists to set up, lead, and sustain church-led social projects. A key part of the course is aimed at helping churches to identify the resources and connections that they already have, and how they can maximise and manage them for the benefit of their community.

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