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Bishop's Stortford Food Bank 'on cliff edge' as fuel bills rocket for poorest families



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The chairman of Bishop's Stortford Food Bank fears the charity is "on the edge of a very tall cliff" as the town's most hard-pressed families face rocketing fuel bills.

Yearly electricity and gas bills for around 18 million households on standard tariffs rose 54% this month from £1,277 to £1,971.

And there are fears the Russian invasion of Ukraine could escalate the cost of living crisis from October, further hitting fuel and food bills.

Methodist Church, Bishop's Stortford – short ceremony and blessing for the newly refurbished food bank premises, featuring the Rev Gill Hulme, chairman Bill MacDonald, staff, trustees and volunteers. Picture: Vikki Lince
Methodist Church, Bishop's Stortford – short ceremony and blessing for the newly refurbished food bank premises, featuring the Rev Gill Hulme, chairman Bill MacDonald, staff, trustees and volunteers. Picture: Vikki Lince

The rises are worse for energy pre-payment customers, who are often the poorest. They will see an average annual increase of £708 – from £1,309 to £2,017.

At the end of April people in council tax bands A to D in England – around 80% of homes – will receive a one-off £150 discount from the Government to help with fuel bills.

In October, customers will receive a £200 rebate on their energy bills to be repaid at £40 a year for five years, starting in April 2023.

Bill Macdonald, chairman of Stortford's food bank, said: "Helping people in fuel poverty is becoming a more important part of our work and is likely to be more so when gas and electricity price rises hit home."

The referral system is the same as for food parcels. Recipients are given a fuel voucher from an approved outside agency, such as Citizens Advice East Herts. The food bank, based at the Methodist Church in South Street, is then able to top up clients' pre-payment cards.

"The amounts vary depending whether it's winter or summer, but at the moment we give £20 towards electricity and the same amount towards gas. We've looked at how we could help those who pay by direct debit but haven't been able to work out a suitable mechanism to do this so far.

"In most cases, however, people in need have tended to have pre-payment cards – which incidentally are a very expensive way of buying gas and electricity."

Bishop's Stortford Food Bank logo (55703470)
Bishop's Stortford Food Bank logo (55703470)

There is a three voucher limit for people coming to the food bank for help with utility costs.

"We don't have the resources to provide long-term financial support to people, and even if we did I think we would be reluctant to help people indefinitely as, just like food vouchers, we would be concerned about creating long-term dependency," said Bill.

"Like many food banks, we sometimes worry that we may just be dealing with the symptoms of poverty rather than the underlying causes. Simply giving someone a box of food or a small amount on their meters is really not enough.

"For this reason, we're talking to Citizens Advice about how we could work in partnership to provide individual debt and other advice/support for clients."

The food bank's bank balance has been bolstered by a generous anonymous donation from a local business and contributions from the community.

"For the time being our funding is still pretty healthy and we're managing to balance incomings and outgoings OK, even though we're helping more than twice as many people as we did before the pandemic," said Bill. "But – and it's a big but – this may all change pretty shortly. In fact, in some ways, it feels like being on the edge of a very tall cliff.

"Once the cost of living rises, particularly energy bills, and the decision not to raise benefits, including Universal Credit, start to have an impact on people who are just about managing, we worry that demand may spike still further and whether we would be able to cope."

'Global Goalkeepers' from Windhill21 Primary School handing over food collected for the food bank to Hana Hainsby (left) and volunteer Laureen Wright. Pupils, back from left, Charlotte, Sienna, Alice and Mason, front Lauren and Nathaniel. Picture: Vikki Lince
'Global Goalkeepers' from Windhill21 Primary School handing over food collected for the food bank to Hana Hainsby (left) and volunteer Laureen Wright. Pupils, back from left, Charlotte, Sienna, Alice and Mason, front Lauren and Nathaniel. Picture: Vikki Lince

According to the House of Commons Library, the cost of living has been increasing across the UK since early 2021. In January, inflation reached its highest recorded level since 1992 and consumer prices, as measured by the Consumer Prices Index (CPI), were 5.5% higher than a year before.

Prior to the war in Ukraine, inflation was expected to peak this April, when the new default price cap on household energy bills came into effect. In early February, the Bank of England was forecasting the CPI inflation rate to peak at 7.25% before easing. However, on March 2, the National Institute for Economic and Social Research think tank released new forecasts that included an expectation that UK inflation would peak at 8.1% in the third quarter of this year. Some economists have suggested 10% is possible.

At the same time, household budgets are being squeezed by changes in taxes and benefits including an increase in National Insurance contributions from April. Wages are forecast to rise more slowly than inflation.

Low-income households spend a larger proportion than average on energy and food so will be more affected by price increases. Benefit increases from April are based on the figure for inflation in September 2021 (3.1%), so there will be a fall in their value in real terms.



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