Opinion

Our next PM must make sure a trip to the food bank isn't the new normal

At Citizens Advice we’re helping 6,000 people a day with cost of living issues – that’s one person every five seconds

Keir Starmer in front of Labour's campaign bus with the 'change' slogan written on the side

Keir Starmer is promising change – but is that enough? Image: Keir Starmer/Flickr

The first leaders’ debate in this election frenzy kicked off with a simple question. Paula, from Huddersfield, is finding it very difficult to make ends meet. She asks Starmer and Sunak: “What can you do about that?”

Both speak in vague terms about bold plans and fixing the economy. Neither addresses the concrete ways they would help people like Paula so she doesn’t have to scrape by week to week. After 45 seconds, the debate moves on.

It’s a moment that crystallises the failure of political parties to address living standards during this short campaign, despite this being a top priority for voters. In fact, nearly half say the cost of living or living standards are among the most important factors that’ll influence their decision at the polls.

At Citizens Advice we’re helping 6,000 people a day with cost of living issues – that’s one person every five seconds. Sadly, Paula’s story is no surprise to us. We hear day in, day out what’s keeping people awake at night. How do I pay the rent? Cover the bills? Put food on the table?

We’re breaking records every day. There’s now five million people trapped in the red, no matter how hard they try to balance their budget. Our staff and volunteers are helping nearly 50% more people with cost of living issues than a decade ago.

They use all their expertise to try and make money stretch that little bit further. But too often, for too many people, it’s not enough. Where a referral to a food bank or a crisis charity grant was once an emergency measure, it’s now often the default because the people coming to us have already cut back on everything they possibly can.

It’s heartbreaking to admit this as the leader of the nation’s biggest and best-known advice provider, but sometimes advice simply isn’t enough. One staff member from a local service said they felt like they were trying to hold back the tide with a bucket.

And new groups are being pulled into the swell. Mortgage holders and workers on what once would have been considered a reasonable income are struggling and contacting us when they never thought they’d have to.

Some of the worst hit are disabled people and people whose circumstances mean that a steady job just isn’t an option. We recently supported Mark, who wants to work but has a serious mental health condition and has been turned down by employers.

He’s £75 short each month and says he feels like he’s at the bottom of a pit, with no ladder out. These are the real people behind the rhetoric of ‘sick note culture’. The ones calling our advice line and queuing for a drop-in appointment because they’ve nothing in the fridge and can’t top up their meter.

We’ve scrutinised party manifestos to see what tangible measures might stem this onslaught, and they fall short. There is no ladder out.

When we give advice, we see the whole person. We know the importance of investment in housing, the NHS and economic growth. All these things can help with living standards, but they take time to deliver. In the meantime voters need to know how they’re going to pay the next bill. They will measure the next government on their ability to tackle the landslide in living standards.

As a former permanent secretary I understand the difficult choices about spending the government has to make. But it rings hollow to suggest that people like Paula and Mark are at the whim of huge forces that no one can control – that they need to sit tight until ‘growth’ emerges. There is an opportunity here to do better.

The ambition for our next leader has to be that a trip to the food bank isn’t the new normal. That people can provide for their families and have enough left over to do more than just survive.

And there are building blocks to get there: fixing the benefits system so it’s more efficient and keeps up with the real cost of living; making sure the minimum wage can cover people’s essentials; and tackling the runaway cost of household bills.

With just a few days until polls open, politicians of all parties need to keep the voices of real people front and centre. They need to have an answer to the tough but simple question of how we tackle living standards.

Dame Clare Moriarty is chief executive of Citizens Advice and an ex-permanent secretary in the UK government.

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