Chancellor Rishi Sunak has been criticised for failing to support families through the cost of living crisis. Image: HM Treasury/Flickr
The cost of living crisis is having a “catastrophic” impact on families across the UK, experts have said, as nearly one in five households with children struggled to put food on the table in April.
More than seven million adults had difficulty finding the money to feed themselves, according to new research from The Food Foundation, and 2.4 million went a day without food as incomes fail to keep pace with rising taxes, food prices and energy bills.
“The situation is rapidly turning from an economic crisis to a health crisis,” said Anna Taylor, executive director of The Food Foundation. “Food banks cannot possibly be expected to solve this. The government needs to realise the boat is sinking for many families and it needs to be fixed. Bailing out with emergency food parcels is not going to work.”
The research showed a “rapid” jump in food insecurity compared to January, with 7.3 million adults going without food in April, compared to 4.7 million three months earlier.
Several changes to prices and taxes came into effect on April 1 which put a huge dent in household finances practically overnight.
National insurance contributions, council tax, VAT, social housing rents, and energy bills all increased at a faster rate than the pensions, benefits and the minimum wage, plunging millions into poverty who had been just holding on through the pandemic.
Anti-poverty campaigners had long been calling for a support package following the cut to universal credit in October 2021 and steadily rising inflation. Chancellor Rishi Sunak faced heavy criticism for failing to do enough to support families with his Spring Statement.
Meanwhile, MPs gave themselves a pay rise of £2,000 in April and oil company Shell reported profits of over £7bn for the first three months of 2022.
John Ashworth, Labour’s shadow secretary for work and pensions, joined calls for greater government action in light of the “devastating” figures.
“The Tory cuts to Universal Credit, rocketing energy bills, their punishing tax rise and real terms pensions cut is pushing more and more working people, families and pensioners to food bank queues,” he said.
“With warnings of inflation heading to 10 per cent it’s clear Boris Johnson has lost control of the cost of living crisis causing devastating hardship across the country.”
A government spokesperson said: “We recognise the pressures on the cost of living and we are doing what we can to help, including spending £22 billion across the next financial year to support people with energy bills and cut fuel duty.
“For the hardest hit, we’re putting an average of £1,000 more per year into the pockets of working families on Universal Credit, have also boosted the minimum wage by more than £1,000 a year for full-time workers and our Household Support Fund is there to help with the cost of everyday essentials.”
The Office for Budget Responsibility, set up by former Chancellor George Osborne in 2010, was less effusive about the impact of government measures, predicting the largest drop in living standards since the 1950s and a 40-year high for inflation.
Food banks are reporting not only an increase in the volume and frequency of clients needing regular help but a growing complexity in the issues they face.
Charlotte White, who manages the Earlsfield Foodbank in south London, recently wrote for The Big Issue about a mother called Carrie who attends the food bank but is also struggling with health, employment and housing troubles.
“It is damp and there’s lots of dust from unfinished repair work,” she said. “This has caused her son’s asthma to worsen, and as a result, he’s frequently off school. This has created school attendance issues, which is deepening Carrie’s anxiety. And then the DWP is chasing her regarding her employment search – she has had to miss interviews due to needing to take care of him.”
Another guest, Colin, hadn’t visited the food bank since June 2021 but is now back every week.
“He’d managed to pay off his debts and was doing OK,” Charlotte wrote. “Now with the universal credit cut and soaring bills, he’s back to where he started and knows it’ll get worse.”
“We’re spending all our money on gas and electric,” Colin told her. “We can’t do food as well… I’m worried we’ll need to borrow again, just to feed the kids.”
The Food Foundation is calling on the government to make healthy food more accessible by expanding free school meals and rebalancing food prices, as well as increasing benefits and the minimum wage in line with inflation.
Vic Borrill, director of Brighton & Hove Food Partnership, which convenes the city’s emergency food network, is calling for a full inquiry into the growing role of food banks and said: “The number of meals and food parcels delivered by Emergency Food Network members continues to rise as the cost of living increases and household incomes decrease.
“We are seeing increasing numbers of people who have never needed a food bank before and getting more requests for ‘no cook food’ as people self-disconnect from their energy meters to manage their money. This is not sustainable, and the situation is desperate.”