The bad news was arriving in a brown envelope. Now emails and PDFs keep Devon Scott up at night as high energy and other utilities costs force a single father of two from Birmingham to cut back on his expenses.
“Everything goes up. Gas bill, phone bill, internet. You think,” Wow. I don’t get enough money to keep paying for these, “so you limit yourself to other things you’re spending on,” says the 43-year-old.
Scott, a former security officer who has worked in nightclub doors and building lobbies across the West Midlands, says it’s hard to find work with two boys to take care of. Only £60 left after bills are paid each month in comprehensive credit benefits.
He expects more bad news from his energy supplier in April of this year in Britain’s deteriorating living emergency. However, Scott won’t see his benefit payments increase anywhere near government plans.
“It’s a blow to the teeth,” says Scott, who also has to pay £60 a month in bedroom tax for his council house in the suburb of Stirchley. We do not ask for handouts. There are people who are trying to organize their lives and trying to get the benefits to get a decent job. But these things make it more difficult.”
Pressure is mounting on Chancellor Rishi Sunak to use his spring statement on Wednesday to announce a new package of emergency support to help Scott and millions of others struggling to make ends meet amid the worst pressures on living standards in decades.
UK household incomes are set to post their biggest annual decline since at least the mid-1970s this year, with energy bills set to rise 54% from the start of next month. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine pushed gas prices to record levels – leading to warnings of another jump in October. On the back of rising wholesale energy costs, average gas and electricity bills will rise by around £700 to almost £2,000 a year from April, and experts say the fallout from Vladimir Putin’s war could push average bills up to £3,000 a year from October.
Before the Russian invasion, Sunack announced a £9 billion support package to deal with the crisis, providing a £150 council tax credit in April and a £200 loan outstanding from October. Vulnerable families who qualify for the warm homes discount on their bills can get another £150.
However, activists say more urgent steps are needed to prevent a sharp rise in poverty this year – saying the most effective step the Chancellor could take in the spring statement would be to further increase the value of the overall credit benefits.
Such a move would help Scott and many others in Birmingham, which has the highest number of benefit claimants of any major UK city. Official figures show that more than one in 10 working-age adults receive state subsidies in some areas of the city, one of the places most likely to be hit hardest by the cost of living crisis.
Liam Byrne, a former Labor government minister and candidate for mayor of the West Midlands, represents Hodge Hill. This area to the east of Birmingham has the largest proportion of benefit claimants in the UK, which makes its citizens the most vulnerable.
“What residents are talking about is basically the ability to set fire to one room of the apartment for a few hours a day and that’s it,” he says. “If you are a single mother and you have a young child, you will make sure that the child gets enough food. But the consequences of that are that the child will grow up cold.”
Under current plans, the government will raise the value of pensions and working-age benefits by 3.1% from April, the rate of inflation recorded in September. However, the Bank of England expects inflation to be more than double that rate – with expectations that the annual rate of rising cost of living will reach a 30-year high of 8%.
For the 9 million families across the UK on proven benefits due to lower incomes – both on and off the job – the scheme would mean an average reduction in real terms of £500 a year, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. As a result, up to 400,000 people could be dragged into poverty.
“It is completely separate from what is going on in the lives of poor families today. It is just outrageous,” Byrne says. “It is unethical to raise universal credit by anything less than the cost of living. If you don’t, you’re basically saying that families are going to get poorer because inflation is going up.”
After a decade of cuts, the UK’s main benefits scheme is already at its lowest value in 30 years, while Sunak has already pushed through a £20-a-week writedown on universal credit in October – removing a temporary increase granted in response to Covid -19- Despite the warnings about the fermentation of the emergency cost of living.
says Imran Hussain, policy and campaigns director for Action for Children, which has been lobbying the chancellor to raise universal credit at least at an inflation rate.
“Many families are caught up in a cost-of-living crisis with rising energy, fuel and food bills, which are likely to get worse as it looks like the conflict in Ukraine may raise the cost of living even more.”
For Colette Brown, a mom of two from Morecambe, the surge in energy bills couldn’t come at a worse time. On universal credit due to her ill health, she stopped running central heating in her rented home privately to cut costs.
“Before all this crisis happened, we spent a few years getting rid of energy debt,” she says, adding that she and partner Aaron were able to get a gas meter prepaid and utility bills deducted last year. “We were getting over debts and bills, and now this just came along and flooded everything.”
The family turned to food banks and pantries for survival, choosing which rooms were to be heated with electric heaters. Brown is one of thousands of parents who have reached out to Citizens Advice for help in recent months. The charity’s front line employees helped nearly 16,000 people with energy debt in the first two months of the year alone, a 33% increase over last year.
Claire Moriarty, chief executive of the charity, said the number of families in distress would only rise in April when energy bills rose again. The government must do more. We urge them to increase benefits immediately in line with inflation to help people keep up with costs.
Christians Against Poverty – the charity that supports Devon Scott with Debt Help in Birmingham – is appealing to the government to use everything at its disposal to help the poorest of society over the coming months. The organization had a 47% increase in calls to its helpline in January, and it wants global credit significantly more than planned.
The government said several measures had been taken to help people, including universal credit reforms, a minimum wage hike, a freeze on car fuel surcharges and a £9 billion energy subsidy package. “We understand the pressures people are facing in relation to the cost of living, which is why we are providing £21 billion in support this next financial year to help,” she said.
Brown said the government needs to do more, saying the money being spent is not helping those who need it most. “How do they find money for wine and cheese parties, second homes, or MPs’ salaries to go up? They can always find money for it but not for workers’ wages, and to lift children out of child poverty, and to increase universal credit.”
“People are going to get stuck in a big hamster wheel. We have child poverty in this country: How does this country have that? The cost of living is so high. When is this bubble going to burst?”