Bad news used to arrive in a brown envelope. Now emails and PDFs keep Devon Scott up at night as soaring energy costs and other utilities force the single father of two from Birmingham to cut back.
“Everything is going up. The gas bill, phone bill, internet. You think, ‘Wow. I’m not getting enough money to keep paying for these’, so you limit yourself on the other things you’re spending on,” says the 43-year-old.
A former security officer who has worked nightclub doors and building foyers across the West Midlands, Scott, who is unemployed, says it is difficult to look for work with two young boys to look after. He has just £60 left after paying for bills each month out of his universal credit benefits.
He expects more bad news from his energy supplier this April in Britain’s worsening cost of living emergency. However, Scott won’t see his benefit payments increase by anywhere near as much under government plans.
“It’s a kick in the teeth,” says Scott, who also has to pay £60 a month in bedroom tax for his council home in the suburb of Stirchley. “We’re not asking for handouts. There are people out there trying to get their life in order and trying to get off benefits to get a decent job. But these things make it harder.”
Pressure is rising on the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to use his set piece spring statement on Wednesday to announce a fresh package of emergency support to help Scott and millions of others struggling to make ends meet amid the worst squeeze on living standards for decades.
UK household incomes are set for the biggest annual fall since at least the mid-1970s this year, with energy bills due to rise by 54% from the start of next month. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has pushed gas prices to record levels – leading to warnings of a further jump in October. Against a backdrop of soaring wholesale energy costs, average gas and electricity bills will rise by about £700 to almost £2,000 a year from April, and experts say the fallout from Vladimir Putin’s war could push average bills to £3,000 a year from October.
Before the Russian invasion, Sunak announced a £9bn package of support to deal with the crisis, offering a £150 council tax discount in April and £200 repayable loan from October. Vulnerable households eligible for the warm homes discount on their bills can get a further £150.
However, campaigners say urgent further steps are required to prevent a dramatic rise in poverty this year – saying the single most effective step the chancellor could take at the spring statement would be a bigger increase in the value of universal credit benefits.
Such a move would help Scott and many others in Birmingham, which has the highest benefit claimant count rate of major cities in the UK. Official figures show more than one in 10 working-age adults receive support from the state in some areas of the city, which is one of the places likely to be hardest hit by the cost of living crisis.
Liam Byrne, the former Labour cabinet minister and West Midlands mayoral candidate, represents the constituency of Hodge Hill. This area of east Birmingham has the highest share of benefit claimants in the UK, leaving its citizens most exposed.
“What residents talk about is basically being able to keep the fire on in one room of the flat for a few hours a day and that’s it,” he says. “If you’re a single mum with a young kid, you’re going to make sure the kid has got enough to eat. But the consequences of that is the kid is going to 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 could reach more than double that rate – with forecasts for the annual rate of rising living costs to hit a 30-year high of 8%.
For the 9m households across the UK on means-tested benefits due to low incomes – both in and out of work – the plan means an average real-terms cut of £500 a year, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. As many as 400,000 people could be pulled into poverty as a result.
“It’s so divorced from what’s going on in the lives of poor families today. It’s just enraging,” says Byrne. “It is immoral to raise universal credit by anything less than the cost of living. If you’re not doing that, you’re basically saying families are to get poorer because inflation is getting higher.”
After a decade of cuts the UK’s main benefit scheme is already at its lowest value for 30 years, while Sunak had already pushed through a £20 a week cut to the value of universal credit in October – removing a temporary uplift given in response to Covid-19 – despite warnings of a brewing cost of living emergency.
“We’re going to see more children going hungry as parents struggle to make ends meet,” says Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, which along with a group of leading charities is lobbying the chancellor to raise the value of universal credit by at least the rate of inflation.
“Many families are locked in a cost-of-living crisis with soaring energy, fuel and food bills, which is likely to get worse as the Ukraine conflict looks set to push up the costs of living even more.”
For Collette Brown, a mother of two from Morecambe, the surge in energy bills couldn’t come at a worse time. Reliant on universal credit due to ill-health, she has stopped turning on the central heating in her private-rented home to keep costs down.
“Before all this crisis hit we’d spent a fair few years getting out of energy debt,” she says, adding that she and her partner Aaron managed to get off a prepayment gas meter and on to direct debit utility bills last year. “We were getting on top of debts and bills, and now this has just come and slam-dunked everything.”
The family has turned to food banks and pantries to get by, while choosing which rooms to keep warm with electric heaters. Brown is one of thousands of parents to have reached out to Citizens Advice for help in recent months. The charity’s frontline staff have helped nearly 16,000 people with energy debt in the first two months of the year alone, a rise of 33% compared with last year.
Clare Moriarty, the charity’s chief executive, said the number of families in distress would only rise in April when energy bills went up again. “The government must do more. We’d urge them to immediately increase benefits in line with inflation to help people keep pace with costs,” she said.
Christians Against Poverty – the charity supporting Devon Scott with debt help in Birmingham – is pleading with the government to use everything at its disposal to help the poorest in society through the coming months. The organisation had a 47% rise in calls to its helpline in January, and wants universal credit raised by significantly more than planned.
The government said several measures had been taken to help people including reforms to universal credit, raising the minimum wage, freezing motoring fuel duties and its £9bn energy support package. “We recognise the pressures people are facing with the cost of living,” it said, “which is why we’re providing support worth £21bn this financial year and next to help.”
Brown said the government needed to do more, saying the money being spent wasn’t helping those most at need. “How come they find money for wine and cheese parties, and second homes, or MPs wages to go up? They can always find money for that but not for working people’s wages, getting children out of child poverty, and to increase universal credit.”
“People are going to be stuck in one big hamster wheel. We’ve got child poverty in this country: how does this country have that? The cost of living is just too frigging high. When is this bubble going to burst?”