Government ‘not taking cost of living crisis seriously’

·8 min read
Sixty-four per cent said they were buying cheaper food brands as the cost of living crisis bites - Andy Rain/Shutterstock
Sixty-four per cent said they were buying cheaper food brands as the cost of living crisis bites - Andy Rain/Shutterstock

More than two in five people believe the Government is not taking the cost of living crisis seriously despite almost two-thirds of the public already struggling to pay energy bills, a new poll reveals.

A survey of 2,011 adults found 55 per cent believed it could do more to tackle the effect of rising costs. Asked how seriously the Government was taking the crisis, 36 per cent said “seriously” but 43 per cent said “not seriously”.

The findings are likely to pile pressure on Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak over their policy offerings to help with rising costs.

The poll also suggested support for widespread industrial action could grow, with 53 per cent of those surveyed saying that strikes would be “justified” if workers do not get pay rises in line with inflation. Only 30 per cent said such strikes would not be justified.

Ms Truss is preparing to scrap the National Insurance rise and suspend the green levy on energy bills. On Saturday she said that although she would “look at what more can be done”, her favoured approach was “lowering the tax burden, not giving our handouts”.

Andrew Bowie, an ally of Mr Sunak, said the former chancellor would “look at all options” to help people with rising energy bills.

The survey, by Public First, found 62 per cent of people are already finding it difficult to afford energy bills ahead of the sharp rise expected in October for the 24 million households whose bills are governed by the price cap. Some two per cent said they were finding it impossible to afford their energy bills and had “not been able to pay them”.

More than two thirds (70 per cent) of people said they were taking action to deal with price rises. Of those, 72 per cent were cutting back on all “non-essential” purchases, 64 per cent were buying cheaper food brands, 59 per cent were turning off lights at home when they would normally have them on, and 46 per cent were driving less.

Thirty-eight per cent said they were cutting back on entertainment subscriptions such as membership of Netflix and Amazon Prime, while 24 per cent reported driving differently, such as slower, in order to conserve petrol.

Almost one in five people – 18 per cent – said they had cancelled a holiday plan in the last month because it was too expensive, while a similar proportion had not been able to pay for items like clothes.

Asked which policy interventions would provide the most help, 59 per cent opted for a cap on energy bills, 41 per cent for caps on rent, food and energy, and 26 per cent for a VAT cut.

Mr Sunak has said he would remove the five per cent VAT charged on household energy bills for 12 months

Amid a debate over the extent to which the Bank of England should raise interest rates to bring down inflation, 45 per cent said continued high inflation would be more of a problem for them and their family’s finances than higher interest rates, while 10 per cent of people said higher interest rates would be more problematic for them.

Ed Shackle, a consultant at Public First, said: “The leadership race has encouraged candidates to talk broadly about their philosophy and introduce a whole host of policy plans.

“In truth, when the winner walks into Number 10 next month, they’ll be dealing overwhelmingly with one issue – reducing living costs. Our focus groups and polling reveals the fear, and increasingly the anger, that is surging through different communities.

“Leadership candidates need to show voters they are taking this seriously, and start effectively communicating how they will practically help people cope with surging prices.”

‘Everything seems to be going up’

Leon had long planned to “take things a little bit easier” this year, having recently retired after 39 years as an NHS paramedic. But his plans have had to change.

In recent months the 56-year-old’s grocery costs have risen by up to £150 per month, while gas and electricity bills have “doubled”. As a result, he has taken up a 20-hour-a-week job delivering medicines for a chemist.

“I’ve done 39 years in the health service, I’ve been through the virus, and I’ve worked every other weekend, nights ... I planned to just take things a little bit easier,” he said. “Unfortunately, things change, but you adapt to circumstances don’t you?”

Leon, who lives in Oldham, Greater Manchester, was speaking as part of a focus group of working class voters convened last week for The Telegraph by Public First, a polling firm that has carried out work for Downing Street.

Like every other member of the group, Leon’s deepest concern was saved for  the “perfect storm” expected to hit in the autumn as the weather turns colder and the energy price cap is expected to rise to more than £3,000 per year.

Ms Truss has promised an emergency budget to tackle the crisis, while Mr Sunak has insisted he will “grip” the issue.

Among the eight members of the focus group, all of whom voted Conservative in 2019, Ms Truss was seen at the candidate who is more “for people like us”.

Tracy, a housing officer from the West Midlands said: “I’ve noticed the price of milk. We use semi-skimmed, but my granddaughter, who lives with us, is lactose intolerant. Her dairy free products are going up by a ridiculous amount. We are probably spending double now than what we were spending before.”

Kerrie, a school receptionist from Manchester, said she had noticed an increase in the cost of fresh produce such as fruit, vegetables and fish. Supermarket reductions that previously brought items down to 99p are now £1.30 “and it’s costing probably about 30 to 40 per cent more each week on a food shop”, she said.

Ben, a father-of-two who lives in West Yorkshire and works in IT, says: “The general food shop is going up a lot ... by around £40 a week. Utility bills are going up astronomically, as well as fuel costs for our cars. Everything seems to be going up.”

Sonny, who works for a ship repair firm in Portsmouth, said: “My gas and electric [bill] has gone up from £100 a month to £180 a month. I’ll have to work more, and just watch the pennies a bit more.”

He and Leon are far from alone in taking on extra work to cope with rising costs, or planning to do so by the autumn. “I’m doing some private tuition on the side of my main job, because that’s a good way of getting a little bit of extra income,” said Katie, a 28-year-old teacher in East Anglia.

Jos, a mobile cleaning supervisor from Portsmouth said she “rarely got luxuries anyway”, but has been selling some belongings to make ends meet.

Tracy, the housing officer from the West Midlands, said: “I’ve actually switched the whole of my heating off and got rid of the tumble dryer as well ... I made a bit of money from it. I’m charging my phone at work as well.”

In a separate focus group of middle class voters, several were yet to significantly feel the impact of the rise in the cost of living, although most were being more careful about the products they bought and where they shopped.

In both groups, there was anger at what was described by some as the “greed” of energy companies making significant profits amid the crisis.

Kerrie, the receptionist from Manchester, said ministers “need to look at the likes of the energy suppliers ... because they all seem to be taking a nice big share away there. Their profits are significantly higher”.

Members of the working class group suggested they would be unlikely to take part in the growing campaign for people to boycott energy bills in the autumn. There was concern about the risk of their supplies being cut off.

There was, however, no consensus on how the Government could help. Several of those in the groups said tax cuts were needed. Leon said the income tax personal allowance should be increased from its current level of £12,570, which was frozen by Mr Sunak.

Whatever the solution, said Sonny, “I think it’s the Government’s responsibility to help us. We pay a tax on everything. It is completely their responsibility to get us out of this situation.”

Five of the eight members of the working class group said they were leaning towards Ms Truss, when asked for their preference between her and Mr Sunak.

“I do like Liz Truss as a candidate. I think she's more for people like us – not people with a silver spoon in their mouth,” said Leon. “It’s a very difficult situation for anyone to be in at the moment. But I do think she will fight harder for people like us than Rishi Sunak.”

But Sonny said he had “lost faith” in the Conservatives, adding: “I honestly wouldn’t know who to vote for if there was an election now.”

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