Poor families skipping meals and unable to afford heating, charity says

Hard-up families are skipping meals, wearing coats indoors to stay warm, and living in the dark because they can’t afford to switch on the lights, according to a leading children’s charity.

Action for Children said in one case a boy it worked with had been off school with sore feet caused by chilblains. The boy told charity workers that the house was cold all the time because the heating was not on, and he and his siblings were wearing coats inside and sharing beds at night to keep warm.

In another case, a parent told charity workers she would take her toddler to bed with their tea when they got back from nursery “just to keep warm”. Other clients described being unable to afford school uniforms, struggling to afford food, and trying to heat a room with a single gas hob.

Current levels of severe and persistent hardship among families supported by the charity’s children’s centres, triggered by cuts to universal credit and rising energy bills, were among the worst it could remember, said Action for Children’s director of policy, Imran Hussain.

“The worst pain and misery of the cost of living crisis is being felt by children in low-income families, yet the government is refusing to target help for these children or accept that it needs to rethink its huge cut to universal credit,” he said.

Ministers have refused to commit to extra direct help for families despite an average annual £700 rise in household fuel costs since April, and rising food insecurity. Families face the fastest fall in living standards this year since the 1950s, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility.

A children’s hardship fund set up by the charity two years ago to provide one-off help to struggling families during the pandemic has evolved into a “permanent crisis fund” helping thousands of families, it said. Since October it has helped almost 2,500 families with grants of about £250 each, half of which were spent on food.

Leanne, a mother of two and finance officer from the West Country, said she had needed food vouchers from the Action for Children crisis fund because she could not keep up with rising food and energy costs.

“It was a struggle anyway, but things are now so much worse … A lot of people think that food banks are just for people who don’t work, but people who work like me need them now,” she said.

Analysis of the crisis fund showed that half of families accessing it for help reported stress, anxiety or mental health concerns among the adults or children. One in five applications highlighted the £20 cut in universal credit last October as a trigger for the families’ difficulties.

Iceland Foods Charitable Foundation, which has donated £300,000 to the fund since November, said that while it was “thrilled” to help there were limits to its philanthropic work. It said government “especially” had a key role to play in offering a lifeline to families in crisis.

Paul Dhaliwal, the trading director of Iceland Foods and a trustee of the foundation, said: “We know that lots of our customers are facing real hardship. Many were badly impacted by the pandemic, and the soaring cost of living has only added to their difficulties.”

A government spokesperson said: “We recognise the pressures on the cost of living and we are doing what we can to help, including spending £22bn across the next financial year to support people with energy bills and cut fuel duty.

“For the hardest hit, we’re putting an average of £1,000 more per year into the pockets of working families on universal credit, have also boosted the minimum wage by more than £1,000 a year for full-time workers and our household support fund is there to help with the cost of everyday essentials.”

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