There was dancing and singing at our food bank yesterday when people learned that the Ofgem energy price cap was being lowered from October to £2074 a year to a trifling £1923. Out came the prayer mats – we are based in a church, after all – as people gave praise to The Great Leader Rishi Sunak. “Thank you, Rishi,” they all chanted, “for knocking £150 a year off our fuel bills from October.” The mood wasn’t even spoiled by the news that from January 2024, the cap is likely to go up again to £2082, which is actually slightly higher than it is now. “We might all starve to death this winter, if we don’t freeze to death first, but the blessed Rishi has given us an extra £37.50 between now and the New Year. It might be nothing to you, but it’s next to nothing when you can’t afford to eat anything.” Or maybe there wasn’t dancing and singing at all, just the grim recognition that things are going to get worse before they get even worse.
The reality is that announcements like this will not even cross the radar of hungry people because there is little difference between being unable to pay a bill they can’t afford to being unable to afford a tiny bit lower bill they can’t afford to pay. We are skipping gently around the edges of food and fuel poverty, but this does not stop government ministers hopping aboard the media airwaves and, metaphorically at least, tipping a large bucket of shit over the poorest and most desperate people in the land.
Sunak was presumably too busy counting his money to tour the TV and radio studios himself and instead sent out a complete nobody called Andrew Bowie, who is an energy minister, to tell us how great things were.
This is a “positive day” and the drop in the energy price cap is “heartening“, said Bowie.”Many people will be looking at this worried about the cost of their energy bills“. No shit, Sherlock. But don’t worry: “It’s heading in the right direction,” he continued, forgetting to add that it’s only heading in the right direction until the end of the year. He didn’t have time to add that this was not a cap on bills, nor that the standing charge has actually gone up, but they are, one imagines, mere details.
All this is a million miles from the reality we see every week at our food bank. We weren’t exceptionally busy yesterday but we nonetheless provided emergency packages of food without which families would go without food. And we had some big packages this week for families with two and three children. You do wonder about the moral standing of country that tolerates a situation in which food poverty, and now fuel poverty, has become the norm and not the exception. “I never thought I’d have to come to a place like this,” is a familiar comment from people who, perhaps, thought things would never get quite so bad that they’d need to ask for free food. While it is mainly people from the working class and the increasing underclass – no, I don’t like the term, either, but it’s true – the working poor form an increasing part of the demographic we serve.
For the first time since I’ve been at the food bank, many of the volunteers went for a post food bank drink at a local pub. Obviously, we removed our food bank T shirts and ID tags – it would have been absurd to have worn them in a boozer – and spent a couple of lovely hours in the kind of place denied to many of our callers. We are not unaware of that irony, but what can you do? We already invest time and in some cases money to support what we do. Life can be very unfair but in the case of food and fuel poverty, it stems directly from the political choices we as individuals make.
Minister Bowie ended his scripted media waffle by trotting out the government line that the energy price cap coming down showed the government’s plan to halve inflation and get the economy under control was working. In the lives of ordinary people, this means absolutely nothing, but then it’s not supposed to mean anything to them. It’s a slogan for the consumption of swing voters to give the impression that things are getting better. They aren’t. For some people they are getting less worse. For those in food and fuel poverty they are literally just words that won’t feed you or keep you warm.