Gillian Guy is Chief
Executive of Citizens Advice.
costs is not a Party Political issue, and if David
Cameron truly wants to deliver his vision for the UK then this is the crisis he must tackle
Meeting living costs has long dominated people’s lives and is the dominant
political and public policy issue in the UK.
At Citizens Advice, it is our job to support people struggling
to pay their bills. We’re in no doubt that the parties are right to try to
address this crisis.
The Coalition parties make repeated reference either to being on the side of
‘hard working families’ or their desire to ‘help people get on in life’,
whilst Ed Miliband focuses his attention on ‘the squeezed middle’.
Ministers often talk about families ‘doing the right thing’ by working hard,
looking for work, paying their bills and trying to avoid state support.
But the reality is that ’doing the right thing’ is often not enough,
and those in work are increasingly in need of
We recently revealed that in the past six months there has been a 78 per cent rise in the
number of foodbanks enquiries at our bureaux, many of them from people in
stable employment. A survey of parents showed that 1 in 4 is
forced to borrow money to pay for their children’s school uniforms. And just
last week, we showed that 1 in 5 people who has a problem with bailiffs
is in work.
Positive economic news is welcome, as are cautious but ever-increasing
predictions that the economy is leaving one of its darkest periods. But
that should not mask a fundamental malaise which our bureaux help people to
cope with on a daily basis.
An economy within which foodbank enquiries are rising fast and in which parents
go in to debt to send their children to school correctly attired cannot be said
to be fixed.
The arguments are familiar: high prices, low wages and a benefits
system in urgent need of repair.
The danger of familiarity is that it breeds
complacency. The squeeze on living standards becomes more, not less,
urgent in the face of strong jobs figures and raised growth predictions.
Good macro-economic news must not be permitted to mask problems in the 'real
Despite economic optimism, we are seeing increasing numbers of people stepping
through our doors for advice who previously may only have imagined they would
do so as a volunteer to help others. This poses a huge challenge to
David Cameron's 'Big Society' vision of what UK society should look like.
Although apparently now of lesser prominence, the fundamental ingredients of
this vision are solid enough, and as Lord Glasman highlighted recently,
community and charity co-operation aligned with localised support are by no
means uniquely Conservative principles. In fact in early 2010, as David
Cameron first ‘launched’ the Big Society , it already was
up and running, as evidenced by the 22,000 people who volunteer
for their communities in Citizens Advice Bureaux across the country.
Our volunteers and staff have been helping people to deal
with a huge variety of problems for nearly 75 years,
but helping our clients meet their living costs is
one of our biggest tasks, and therein lies the problem. The Prime Minister
clearly believes in his Big Society vision but he is trying to introduce
it at the very time that people will find it hardest to help deliver it.
Our clients are often in work and may have steady incomes but
are still unable to make ends meet. The result is that although
charities continue to deliver vital support, we are increasingly helping
the very people who, if the economy were in better shape, would be coming to us
to help others rather than seek help themselves.
People's spirit and desire to volunteer and 'give something back' has
not been diminished by recession. Last year
more people wanted to volunteer for us than ever before. But if the
squeeze on living standards goes unresolved, then people's capacity
to volunteer or contribute to the community may be reduced,
regardless of their desire to do
In short, the resources available to deliver the Prime Minister’s vision of
society are shrinking whilst the number of people who need it to
work is rising. Whilst the potential builders of the
vision remain forced by tough living costs to turn to
charities for help, it cannot be realised.
The lasting human impact of the downturn has not been undone
by a technical and statistical resolution to the recession. Without true
economic recovery which helps turn down the pressure cooker of
high living costs, charities will face increasing demand as more and
more people seek help from organisations like ours to help them pay
National politicians across all parties must continue to obsess over how to
help individual households meet living costs.
No single party ‘owns’ this issue: it is not confined to a single region or
family type but is a legacy of years of decline exacerbated by recession.
The economy is growing and I hope predictions of a continued
upward trend prove accurate . On paper the picture is starting
to look rosier; but in reality, millions are struggling. The rising tide
will not lift all families and those that are sinking despite ‘doing the right
thing’ are in urgent need of support.