Friday, September 30

‘Starve and shiver with Sunak’ is the reality show for millions. The chancellor can – and must – stop it | Gordon Brown

We are only in mid-June, but the 30 staff at the Kirkcaldy Cottage Family Center in the community where I grew up are dreading October, and what will happen when family fuel bills start to average an unprecedented £55 a week.

Already volunteers and staff are stocking up on blankets, duvets, sheets and pillows, warm children’s clothes, and even sleeping bags and hot-water bottles.

Once our focus was on keeping houses warm; now our ambitions have had to narrow: just keeping children and pensioners warm.

And so, starting with one church in Gateshead that has already received funding to open a warm safe space, many faith groups I know are discussing how to designate their buildings as places where you can come to keep warm – local heating hubs. One consumer champion is suggesting local authorities open up what would literally be “hotspots” where, just like heated station waiting rooms, people looking for warmth can come inside from the cold, when every room in their own home is freezing and too expensive to heat.

For despite his promises to do what it takes, the chancellor has left millions of families even worse off than last year and facing their most difficult winter ever. Nothing Rishi Sunak offered in his third budget in a year will prevent child poverty moving beyond 5 million for the first time since statistics were published, 60 years ago.

Already, as impoverished families face the choice between feeding themselves and feeding their gas and electricity meter, we are seeing the rapid spread in Wales, with the support of Mark Drakefordof the fuel bank – joining food banks, bedding banks, clothes banks and baby banks substituting for the welfare state as our last line of defense against poverty.

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Now too, social prescribing is a rising subject of discussion. But doctors who can only give out information about nutrition or keeping warm at community cafes with tea and toast know the best prescription they could dispense is not a course of antidepressants but food and help with heating.

Why are things so difficult even after the Treasury’s £15bn package of support? Take the fate of one of Kirkcaldy’s out-of-work families on universal credit, already hit hard in April by a £700 a year rise in their electricity and gas bills alone. Then universal credit and other benefits, such as child benefit for their son and daughter, should have risen by 9% this year in line with inflation – not the 3.1% they rose by in April – and so this family requires an extra £850 a year.

But as the chancellor himself had to recognize last month, yet more help for the year ahead will be needed to cover the second gas and electricity price rise – this time £800 – from October. So to prevent a steep fall in living standards they need a total of £1,650 – £850 from April and £800 from now on. Instead that family will receive the council tax deduction of £150, the energy-bill loan turned into grant of £400 and £650 (paid in two installations and supposed to cover the year ahead). This is just £1,200 in total – leaving them £450 worse off from price rises this year. And when that comes on top of last October’s £20 a week cut in universal credit, that family’s standard of living is down by £1,450 on last year – or by a huge £28 a week.

Research from the Trussell Trust charity indicates that six in every 10 working-age food bank users have a disability. Take Mary, also from Kirkcaldy, whose husband is on long-term sick leave and who receives a disability premium for one of her three children who is visually impaired. Uprating all her benefits from ella by 9% – not 3.1% – would have increased her family income by an additional £1,400 a year and she needs at least £800 more to cover her additional heating costs from October – £2,200 in all. But even with the new £150 disability premium added to her £150 council tax deduction, the £400 energy payment and £650 benefits help to give her a total of £1,350, she is still £850 worse off and, of course, she too has lost the £1,000 a year that universal credit recipients received before last October – that’s £35 a week.

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The position of many families I come across is even more perilous, not least because the government’s new, flat-rate payments take no account of family size or special needs and with larger families already subject to the two-child limit, an overall cap on benefits and a prior decision not to meet rents and council tax bills in full, they may be £40 a week, or more, worse off. And I’ve found that half the families on universal credit locally are also subject to monthly deductions, partly as a result of loans taken on to cover the gap in payments as they moved on to universal credit. A compassionate government would have frozen deductions for at least the next year.

Sadly, loan sharks will be in their element as desperate families, who can no longer turn to the Department for Work and Pensions as their last resort, fall prey to exorbitant interest rates as they borrow simply to pay for their basic needs.

And for parents with school-age children about to be on summer holidays, the rapid decline in living standards starts now despite the holidays fund and the doubling of locally administered welfare provision. Not only are 1 million children living in poverty still denied free school meals but this year much of the support that the footballer and activist Marcus Rashford fought for last year is reduced or no longer available.

Amid defeats and disappointments, my belief in what George Orwell called the “common decency” of the British people has never wavered: that when we see a wrong, we will insist on righting it. And it is time for all people of conscience and goodwill – faith groups, charities and foundations, local councilors and mayors and concerned business leaders in all our country’s nations and regions – to call on the chancellor for a fourth budget to prevent what is likely to be the biggest rise in family poverty we have seen in our lifetimes.

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In another winter of crisis, that of 1948, the ministers of food and fuel, John Strachey and Emanuel Shinwell, were lambasted for their failure to do more. “Starve with Strachey and shiver with Shinwell” was the jibe. Much more will have to be done to prevent another harsh, cruel winter of austerity if we are not to hear the slogan “Starve and shiver with Sunak”.

This article is an introduction to a new series, the heat or eat diaries: dispatches from the frontline of Britain’s cost of living crisis.

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