A group of more than 550 food banks across Britain have warned Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak that they are close to “breaking point” from an unsustainable surge in demand during the cost of living crisis.
Soaring energy bills, rising food costs and the national insurance hike are pushing a growing number of families to the brink, with demand for help at some food banks doubling since the final months of 2021.
The Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) has written to the chancellor urging him to take immediate action to reduce “rapidly rising” poverty and hunger, in a letter first seen by The Independent.
Mr Sunak – under growing pressure over his family’s tax arrangements – has been accused of failing to protect the poorest families by choosing not to offer any extra help on bills or benefits with his spring statement.
With the chancellor’s standing among Conservatives rocked by the tax revelations, senior Tory MPs told The Independent the chancellor “ought to do more” before the autumn Budget or risk losing more support.
IFAN called on the chancellor to raise benefits by 8 per cent in line with expected inflation, end a five-week wait for benefits, and provide cash crisis payments to families in the worst hardship.
“We are deeply concerned about the scale of suffering that we are already witnessing, as well as our capacity to prevent people from going hungry in the weeks and months to come,” IFAN said in its letter, which was also sent to No 10.
The letter added: “Measures must be urgently introduced to decisively increase people’s incomes … Food banks are reaching breaking point.”
Penny Keevil, manager at Second Chance Medway in Kent, told The Independent that her food aid project was now helping around 2,000 individuals or families with parcels each month – double the number of households it was helping in October.
“It’s the worst poverty I’ve seen in 30 years,” she said. “People are coming to us in tears and saying, ‘It’s either I pay bills or feed the kids.’ And I say, ‘You pay the bills and we’ll feed the kids.’”
Some food banks have been forced to cut down on the amount of food they give out because supply cannot match demand. “We are all at breaking point,” said Ms Keevil. “It will be a real struggle to help everyone. The government has to do something.”
Paul O’Brien, coordinator of the Micah Liverpool food bank, has seen demand for help increase from 220 parcels a week in 2020 to around 400 parcels a week today – with the sharpest rise in numbers coming over the past few months due to soaring bills.
“It’s the kind of hardship I haven’t seen before; we’re seeing families living in one room to keep warm because they can’t afford to put the heating on,” Mr O’Brien said. “Some people are turning down vegetables because they can’t afford to cook them.”
The charity leader said food banks were facing “impossible” pressures: a fall in the amount of food donated by the public, financial reserves not stretching as far when buying extra supplies at the supermarket, and a huge rise in the number of people in need.
“It’s an unbelievable stretch,” said Mr O’Brien. “It’s not sustainable. Food banks can’t keep up with more and more demand. I’m afraid you could see some charities break, and some people left in destitution.”
Citizens Advice has seen a record number of people in crisis in recent months. In March, the charity referred almost 25,000 people to food banks or other kinds of emergency support – up by 44 per cent on the same time last year.
Advisers at the charity say some parents have resorted to hand-washing clothes because they can’t afford to put the washing machine on. Others, including those just out of hospital, are wrapping themselves in blankets because they can’t afford to use the heating.
Collette, a mother of two young children in Lancashire, told The Independent she was now skipping meals to make sure her kids had enough to eat.
She has been forced to turn to food banks regularly since being moved onto new energy tariffs in December, which saw her gas and electricity bills shoot up by 50 per cent.
“It’s not a nice feeling for food banks to become the norm for us – but there’s lots of parents like me in the same boat,” said Collette, who has a medical condition and receives benefits.
“I’m facing close to £1,000 in debt with the energy bills, so the idea of another price hike in October is frightening. The government has to provide more help – they have to understand what we’re all facing.”
Mr Sunak has been accused by charity leaders of failing to protect the poorest since the 3.1 per cent benefits increase coming into effect on Monday does not match inflation, expected to reach 7.7 per cent this month.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation said it represents the greatest fall in the value of the basic rate of unemployment benefit in 50 years.
Associate director Helen Barnard told Sky News on Sunday that some people were in “desperate situations”, with some pensioners riding the bus all day to keep warm.
Some Conservatives fear that Mr Sunak’s failure to expand help with bills and benefits – and his insistence on sticking with the 1.25 per cent national insurance increase, which kicked in this week – will cost the party dearly at the local elections in May.
One senior Tory figure told The Independent: “The public are not happy about the cost of living and tax rises, and they will be less happy in a month’s time once bills come in. The chancellor ought to do more before the autumn.”
Tory MP Andrew Bridgen said Mr Sunak may have to consider an emergency Budget before parliament’s summer recess. “People are in a very difficult position over the next 12 months, and we’re going to have to help.”
The chancellor did boost the Household Support Fund by £500m last month, providing more money to local authorities to help people in the worst hardship.
However, both IFAN and the Trussell Trust food bank network said councils used it to hand out vouchers or give extra funds to charities, leaving the underlying problem of low incomes unaddressed.
IFAN’s coordinator Sabine Goodwin urged ministers to take a “cash first” approach. “The chancellor cannot wait until the autumn to take action. The government must introduce measures to directly boost low incomes.”
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