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Social Justice

Thérèse Coffey criticised for not knowing answers during cost of living crisis meeting

One MP labelled the work and pensions secretary’s appearance in front of the committee “embarrassing” and asked if she was about to resign.

Work and pensions secretary Thérèse Coffey was asked if she “has one foot out the door” after she struggled to answer questions at a parliamentary hearing to address the cost of living crisis.

The Work and Pensions Committee heard evidence from third sector and economics experts about how the cost of living crisis is affecting the UK’s poorest households, and what they think the solutions are.

But when Thérèse Coffey appeared in front of MPs on the committee, she said the support already announced by the government was enough to help people cope with soaring energy and food bills and rejected the idea of additional help via the welfare system.

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She also struggled to answer questions on increasing food bank use and fuel poverty, saying they were within the remit of other Westminster departments – even though experts said they were a result of Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) decisions.

Policy specialists from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Citizens Advice, the Trussell Trust and the Institute for Fiscal Studies emphasised the cost of living crisis will hit disabled people, who already have hugely inflated living costs, the hardest.

Labour MP Neil Coyle quizzed Coffey on the DWP’s previously piloted ‘yellow card’ scheme, which gave benefit claimants the chance to appeal sanctions they received. Sanctions, which mean an individual’s payments can be cut for sometimes months at a time, have been linked to higher reliance on food banks and rent arrears, particularly for disabled people.

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But the secretary of state said she couldn’t “recall” what the MPs had previously been told about it and didn’t know if the scheme would be returning.

“I’m at a loss,” Coyle said. “It’s really disappointing that you’ve turned up and been unable to answer so many questions. It is embarrassing.

“There was a rumour the secretary was going to resign. Is that the reason you can’t answer any questions today, because you’ve got one foot out the door?”

Coffey dismissed the claim. “Don’t be ridiculous, Neil,” she responded. “If you want to bring up gossip I can bring up stuff that happened downstairs,” likely referring to recent reports that Coyle had been temporarily suspended from a number of House of Commons bars for alleged aggressive behaviour.

“I can discuss that any time,” Coyle said, before chair Stephen Timms returned the meeting’s focus to the cost of living crisis.

Morgan Wild, head of policy for Citizens Advice, said the organisation has seen more people coming to them for support over the past month than any other time since the start of the pandemic, as well as reaching an all-time record for the number of people they have referred for support such as food banks.

“And that’s before the significant increase in energy bills comes down the line,” he said. Ofgem recently announced the energy price cap would rise by 54 per cent this April, meaning the average annual fuel bill could reach £2,000.

“The government is going to have to come back after the coming months to help households who are already drowning.”

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The experts agreed the support package announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak last week – which includes a £150 council tax rebate for households in bands A-D and a £200 loan on fuel bills for all later this year – was welcome but would not be effective enough.

“People are already saying there are no further cutbacks they can make unless they start going without,” Rory Weal, senior policy and public affairs manager for the Trussell Trust, told MPs.

And the energy bill increase will have a “cascading impact” on the cost of living, warned Peter Matejic, deputy director of evidence and impact at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

“Every production cost will go up,” he said. “You’ll see food costs increase and everything else will increase as well. We’re seeing low-income single adults who will be spending over 40 per cent of their money, after housing costs, on energy. That leaves them with £4 a day to spend on everything else.”

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