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The cost of living crisis is spiralling out of control and showing no sign of slowing, and while it has been exacerbated by Covid-19, rising energy and fuel costs, supply chain issues, and soaring inflation, the crisis has been going on for decades. However, as journalist and film-maker Sunita Ghosh Dastidar outlined in her documentary, ‘Made in Middlesbrough,’ what’s new is the “utter lack of support” available for those in need.
The government has made a number of promises to help those struggling with the crisis and has claimed that the country will get through it and “come through on the other side strongly.” However, the proposed measures are not enough, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has already admitted that so far, the government has failed to help those in crisis. Yet, he also claims that higher wages risk further inflation.
With such widespread suffering across the UK, human rights experts say that the cost of living crisis is a rights issue and the government has a legal obligation to realise this right.
The crisis is inescapable and at the forefront of millions’ minds. According to research by the Office for National Statistics, 77% of people over the age of 16 are feeling “very or somewhat worried about the rising cost of living”. Out of the people surveyed by the ONS, 50% said they worried “nearly every day” about the crisis. Another ONS study that covered the period of 25th May to 5th June found that 88% of people have found their cost of living shoot up, leading to people spending less on food and other essentials. Moreover, the research found that those spending less on food had increased from 36% to 41% in the previous fortnight.
According to Sky News, which compiled a list of some of the shopping basket items that have increased, found that a 500g bag of pasta has increased by 18% – higher than the overall rate of inflation, while vegetables have become nearly 6% more expensive in the last year. It’s not just food that’s getting more expensive, either. The UK’s energy price cap has also increased by 54%, meaning that from April 2022, the cap rose from £1,277 to £1,971 for a household on average usage, equating to a £693 per year increase for the average customer, and a £708 increase for prepayment metre customers. Similarly, fuel prices have skyrocketed, with the RAC outlining that petrol prices are now 186.59p per litre (£103 to fill a family car), with diesel at 192.48p (£106 to fill a family car).
Seeking to cope with the soaring prices, more and more people are taking on second jobs, and moving into the gig economy during their free time, due to their wage packets being stretched so thinly. Total Jobs, for example, found that 17% of workers and 20% of essential workers have taken on a second job. Data from Fiverr, meanwhile, shows that 58% of UK workers have taken on extra work since the pandemic began. Moreover, revealing the stark nature of the crisis, according to NursingNotes, there are now six NHS trusts which have been forced to set up food banks or develop food voucher schemes to help struggling staff cope with the crisis.
It has been identified by human rights experts and equality organisations that the cost of living crisis is, in fact, a rights issue. According to Professor Katie Boyle, Chair of International Human Rights Law at the University of Stirling, the legal framework around social rights such as rights to food, fuel, housing and social security and access to an effective remedy and an accountability mechanism, is “patchy.” She explained: “This can be seen in the current cost of living crisis, where there is no overall strategy or plan to ensure, at the very least, a minimal or adequate standard of living.” She added: “We see this in sub-standard and insufficient supply of adequate housing, people unable to afford fuel for their homes, the proliferation of food poverty and food bank use, and the calls for uplift in universal credit to at least meet inflation.”
The UK government has a legal obligation to protect people from the cost of living crisis through the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and as Human Rights NGO Just Fair outlines, specifically the right to social security (Article 9) and the right to an adequate standard of living (Article 11). However, as research from Professor Boyle found, there are “huge gaps” between “social rights enshrined in international human rights law and the practice, policy and legal frameworks across the UK.” Moreover, it was found that there is insufficient protection and accountability when people encounter breaches of their rights under international human rights law.
The report made a number of recommendations intended to tackle the issue, and protect those suffering from fuel, food or housing inadequacies ability to hold power to account. Some of the recommendations included:
Back in May, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a £15 billion package that he said would help to tackle the crisis. The package included doubling the Energy Bills Support Scheme to a one-off £400 payment, a means-tested £650 one-off Cost of Living Payment, a one-off £300 Pensioner Cost of Living Payment and a £150 Disability Cost of Living Payment. This, however, was met with suspicion considering it was announced shortly after Sue Gray’s report on No.10’s lockdown parties. Likewise, Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey criticised the Chancellor, saying that he is “hammering families with a £800 tax hike this year, more than wiping out” what he announced. He followed it up by calling it “the Sunak scam,” where he is “promising you help” but “picking your pockets while you’re not looking.”
Speaking about the dire nature of the situation, Christine Jardine, Liberal Democrat Treasury spokeswoman, said: “Rishi Sunak and the Conservatives are standing by while millions of people suffer from eye-watering levels of inflation. How do they think ordinary families are going to find this extra money?”
Research shows that the public also feel as though the government is not doing enough to mitigate the crisis. The IPSOS, for example, found that half of Britons want “more support from the government,” and just under half (49%) said that the government is not helping people enough. According to the research, only 25% believe the government is providing the “right amount of help. Since the announcement of the measures, the number of people thinking not enough has been done has dropped from 76% to 49%, but that is still just under half of the population.
The dissatisfaction felt by the public was recently voiced through the gathering of thousands in London protesting against the government’s inaction. Their banners read “cut war, not welfare” and “end fuel poverty, insulate homes now”. Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, attended and said: “Don’t you dare, not after a decade of austerity, privatisation and pay cuts. Don’t you dare tell working families we have to put up with more pain. What about bankers’ bonuses? What about the boardroom raking it in? What about corporate profits? It is time to raise taxes on wealth not workers.”
Former chancellor Gordon Brown under Tony Blair commented that “any sensible government” would get world leaders together to address the impending economic crisis, such as rocketing oil prices, restricted food supplies and soaring inflation, and “create a plan for growth.”
He outlined: “There’s a food crisis, 800 million on the verge of starvation. There’s an energy crisis with oil prices going up, affecting every country, inflation and of course on top of Covid and conflict and climate change, which is affecting every country.” Further to this he made a number of recommendations: “First of all, we need to get inflation on a pathway towards stable prices. Secondly, the government’s got to help ease family poverty, because child poverty is going to go beyond five million if we don’t take further action. And thirdly, I think what people are really looking for is a plan for growth to get over this.”
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