Food bank bosses say a growing number of middle-class Britons are coming to them in “desperate” need of help, as chancellor Rishi Sunak was urged to rethink his offer to families struggling with the cost of living crisis.
Charity chiefs told The Independent they had seen a surprising rise in people with full-time jobs who cannot cope with rising energy bills and food prices – and expect the trend to get worse.
“We’re getting middle-class parents coming to us in a way we’ve never seen before,” said William McGranaghan, manager at the Dad’s House food bank in London’s West Brompton area. “They’re embarrassed because they don’t want to ask for help. But they’re desperate.”
He added: “We’re seeing students and university graduates. Some are struggling with their freelance work, some work in retail and hospitality, some have debts from the Covid period – and they just can’t cope with rising living costs. You might look at them and think they wouldn’t be struggling. But looks can be deceiving.”
Mr McGranaghan said he “without a doubt” expected to see more middle-class people at food bank doors when gas and electricity bills shoot up in April, adding: “People who have never experienced poverty will be pulled into hardship this year.”
Mr Sunak has been criticised for his failure to set out any extra help with energy bills in his spring statement – beyond the previously-announced £200 loan coming in October – and his decision not to raise benefits in line with inflation.
The Resolution Foundation think tank has warned that around 1.3 million Britons will be pushed into poverty by the cost-of-living squeeze this year – including some on “middle-incomes”.
Michael Becketts, manager of the Trussell Trust food bank in Colchester, has seen demand “spiral” in recent months and predicted more people from the “squeezed” middle-class would be pulled into poverty.
“My concern is when energy prices go up again in October – it will be a big crunch for the squeezed middle who will pushed over the line into real trouble”, said Mr Becketts.
“We’ve seen more people who are in work whose living costs have pushed them over the edge for the first time. We’ve already seen a few nurses and care home workers who have been referred to us by their union. Unfortunately, I think we’ll see more of that.”
Tina Harrison, who runs the Trinity Foodbank in Bury, said demand for food parcels has risen over the winter from 100 to 150 individuals and families a week. She expects the number to rise to 200 households a week in the months ahead.
“We’ve seen a rise recently in people who have never been to food banks – people who are working full time, people in retail, hospitality, people who are carers and can’t cope with rising bills,” she said. “I worry we’ll see a lot of people in fairly decent jobs needing our help. I think it’s tip of the iceberg.”
Emma Revie, chief executive of the Trussell Trust network of food banks, said it was “not right” that benefits were only set to rise 3.1 per cent next month when inflation is expected to push past 8 per cent. “Many more people will have no option but to use a food bank.”
Some Conservative MPs shared concerns with Mr Sunak that he had not done enough to ease the burden of living costs when the chancellor appeared at the 1922 committee of backbenchers on Wednesday night.
John Stevenson, Tory MP for Carlisle, told The Independent: “I think the chancellor will have to revisit energy bills in the autumn. It’s going to be a testing time for people. But I do understand that he has to make sure he has some financial headroom … to see how the land lies in the autumn.”
But senior Tory backbencher Stephen Crabb said the chancellor would have to do “more” to help in the spring and summer – arguing it would not be “sustainable” to wait until the budget in autumn.
Mr Sunak was confronted by Hzul, a mother of two from Crawley, on an LBC phone-in about her struggles to feed her children because of the rise in living costs.
She told the chancellor she “has a good job on paper and what’s considered a good salary” but could not afford to turn on the lights or heating – and had even been forced to take on extra work delivering for Uber Eats to “make sure the kids get what they need and they’re fed”.
There is growing concern about existing poverty in Britain becoming much more intense in the months ahead. Consumer expert Martin Lewis has said some people could “starve or freeze”, while food campaigner Jack Monroe also warned dire poverty could prove “fatal” in some cases.
Iceland’s managing director Richard Walker said some food bank users were “declining potatoes and root veg because they can’t afford the energy to boil them”.
Food bank managers confirmed that some of the most desperate families cannot afford to run cookers or fridges when their pre-paid electricity cards run out.
“They’re having to make heartbreaking decisions”, said Mr McGranaghan at Dad’s House.
“Mums and dads say they can’t make hot meals because they can’t afford to put the cooker on. Parents are skipping meals themselves to feed their kids. I’ve had people break down in front of me. It’s a nightmare out there.”
Jonathan Ashworth MP, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, told The Independent that “already struggling families are facing impossible choices.”
He condemned Mr Sunak for imposing “severe real-terms cuts to vital support like Universal Credit” while offering “no plans to help with the soaring cost of energy”.
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