A minister’s advice that families struggling with the worst cost of living crisis in a generation should buy “value brands” to save money has been labeled “ridiculous” by those on the front line of the squeeze in his county.
Environment minister George Eustice said that shoppers could “contain and manage their household budget” by purchasing “value brands, rather than own-branded products”.
And he even suggested that British families actually had it pretty good. “If you look at household spending on food in the UK, it’s actually the lowest in Europe,” he said. “Partly because we’ve got that very competitive market.”
But in his Cornwall constituency of Camborne and Redruth, those on the front line suggested the advice showed Mr Eustice was out of touch with the reality of people’s growing desperation.
“This isn’t about tightening belts,” said Tarn Lamb, chief executive of the Cornwall Neighborhoods For Change charity based in Redruth. “People’s belts are already as tight as they can be. They’ve been buying home-brand products for years. What they’re doing now is going hungry or not heating their homes.”
Ms Lamb’s organization offers a range of services – including employment support, parenting programs and debt support – which brings her into contact with some of Cornwall’s poorest residents.
A weekly food larder – which gives away free fruit and veg, tins and dried goods to those especially in need – is seeing record numbers turn up. A clothing bank in St Austell has also experienced a huge surge in demand.
Tarn said: “It’s a crisis that is getting deeper, and suggesting buying value brands is the solution suggests he doesn’t have any understanding of the extreme hardship people are experiencing because of this crisis.
“We’re seeing a lot of pensioners now. They are saying they cannot afford to buy a full week’s worth of groceries, and they find it deeply painful to come to us but they have no other choice.
“But there are also children going to school hungry because they have not had enough to eat, and people on benefits, who have been scraping by for years, who now don’t know where to turn.”
Asked for a better solution than society’s poorest saving a few pence on, for instance, a brand of bread, she suggested a windfall tax on energy companies making billions of pounds might be more effective.
“We need structural change,” she said.
The suggestion was echoed by Chris Wallace, who runs the St Ives food bank, based on Chy an Gweal in Carbis Bay.
“The idea that someone already eating only one meal a day can save money this way is ridiculous,” he said. “Foodbanks in Cornwall are under severe pressure because people cannot afford food full stop.”
He suggested the crisis had added to a homelessness surge in Cornwall, which has seen the number of people in temporary accommodation rise from around 270 last winter to 660 this year.
But Tory councilors in Mr Eustice’s constitution appeared to think his idea had merit.
“When prices go up, you have to look around and see how you can use your money in as economical a way as possible,” said Barbara Ellenbroek, Tory councilor for Redruth South and a member of Cornwall Council’s cabinet. “As far as I’m concerned, we all have to look carefully at how we spend our money. My preference is to shop locally because then it’s not as expensive and better for the environment.”