Martin Lewis, founder of website Money Saving Expert recently said that autumn household bills were looking “awful.” The public have been writing to him about the cost-of-living crisis and some already have tightened their belts to the point where they can’t be tightened further.
I find his emotion relatable, as a co-director of the Devon based not-for-profit, Food in Community. I regularly speak with people with financial and other struggles. Our food box scheme for households experiencing hardship has grown by 326 per cent over the past two years, with referrals up 16 per cent since the beginning of 2022.
I call a new client, our third referral today. They fell behind with bills following divorce and ill health. I empathise and they quickly accept a referral for money advice, we fill out the form together, discuss other sources of help and I organise their food delivery. I ask them about fuel and cooking facilities.
Most clients are billed by their energy company, but households with more costly key meters face more of a struggle with affordability. Food banks everywhere are struggling with record demand combined with reduced donations and their users are increasingly requesting foods which require minimal cooking due to high fuel costs.
This latter issue has been less prominent for our clients, as fresh produce we deliver can largely be enjoyed as is, or needs only light cooking, and we sometimes add vouchers when our budget allows so people can choose what they need.
People are nonetheless worried about energy costs. South Hams Citizens Advice has advised people who are anxious about direct debit increases following the April energy price hike, to challenge unreasonable increases.
A majority of those we help have limited paid work options due to caring responsibilities, poor health, age, or disability, so are reliant in varying degrees on benefits. The chair of the work and pensions committee has indicated that “people on benefits received an uplift of just 3.1 per cent at a time when inflation rose to nine per cent,” so it’s little wonder that so many have been struggling.
Citizen’s Advice has recommended among other measures to uprate benefits in line with the current rate of inflation. Lewis for his part simply makes an impassioned plea that “the country needs more help”.
Households surviving on low incomes are typically very resourceful, but the level of price increases are simply not manageable for many.
The Chancellor’s package of measures funded by a windfall tax on energy companies is hot off the press, and while we need to look more closely at the detail, on first impression there are specific measures for households claiming benefits, disabled people, pensioners and the wider population.
It looks as though they will be of some help, although more action will be needed to reduce the need for food aid in the longer term and reduce all of our dependences on fossil fuels.