This article was published in the Edinburgh Evening News on 16th September 2022. Photograph: Scott Barron photography.
An Edinburgh food bank has spoken out about the ‘woeful’ situation people are in due to the cost of living crisis – and reacted to the new Prime Minister’s solution to soaring energy bills.
Liz Truss announced that, from October 1, the price cap for energy bills will be set at £2,500 for two years, saving a typical household approximately £1000 a year.
Although this will mean the cost of energy bills is roughly £1,200 more a year for average households compared to six months ago – and twice as much as last winter – she said her strategy will “give people reassurance ahead of this winter that energy bills are going to be affordable.”
On September 8, the new Prime Minister said that government was “taking action to help people on the lowest incomes through Universal Credit” and “supplying £400 through the Energy Bills Support Scheme”.
But her strategy has seen a backlash from third sector organisations that provide emergency food in Edinburgh and throughout the UK who say current social security payments are insufficient, and more must be done to support lower income households.
Michael Innes, head of operations at Granton-based food bank, Empty Kitchens Full Hearts, said the charity was “seeing a lot of need out there” and that there has been a “steady increase” in service users as energy bills have increased.
Speaking to the Evening News, Mr Innes said an average day will see the Granton charity deliver 1,200 meals a day – up from approximately 700 meals a day in April. Mr Innes said “woeful” Universal Credit payments are not adequately supporting the poorest households.
He said: “Some people are about minus £50 after essential bills, so as those bills get bigger then obviously they have even more debt at the end of the month, so people are really really desperate right now.
“I would like to see them trying to live off the money they think households should be able to get by on. I think they would be very very shocked by just how little benefits people are on.”
Ewan Aitken, chief executive of Cyrenians, which supplies food to more than 170 organisations across Scotland, said there has been a noticeable increase in demand since October last year – but now the cost of living crisis has made circumstances for many people “much worse”.
Mr Aitken said: “Demand for our services is growing exponentially and we’re hearing the same from lots of other organisations too. The price cap will help, I’m glad it’s there and it’s welcomed but much more needs to happen because the drivers that affect things like inflation are having an impact way beyond energy prices.
“Now we are seeing a 30 per cent increase in the number of people asking for emergency food who are in work.”
Mr Aitken said the UK government “understands there is a problem but they have no idea how big the problem is or how difficult it is when you are in poverty to make payments”.
He said: “Universal Credit has been shown at the present rate to be £57 below what a family needs to survive, so every month they’re in a negative because of the price of food, travel and rent.”
Mr Aitken added: “They just haven’t got an understanding of when you have very little, a small amount of increase is a huge impact and that’s the difficulty. They need to be getting more money into the pockets of the people who are poorest."
“Let’s restore the £20 universal credit. That sounds like a small amount but actually we know that it made a massive difference because we could see the effect when it dropped off last October. That’s when emergency food use went up.”
He added: “We can’t fix this problem. But we can make sure that people can get quick access to emergency food that we provide and make sure they have clear access to the grants that are available for people."
“But in the end it becomes emotionally draining to know that we can’t sort this. We need the bigger, bolder stronger decision to come front the centre.”
Emma Revie, chief executive at the Trussell Trust, has urged the UK government to double additional support that was offered last May and hopes that the emergency budget expected later this month is used to prevent more people falling into destitution.
Ms Revie said that, although the government’s proposals “might help prevent some people from being driven to food banks”, she believes capping energy prices “is not enough.”
Reacting to the current welfare payments she said: “We know two in five people claiming Universal Credit are skipping meals right now because they can’t afford food – the current cost of living is simply unaffordable and even with a price cap many people will have to go without the essentials.
“From our latest research, we know that almost 70% of people who had received a cost of living payment had already needed to spend all of it within a month, and most of it was spent buying food.”