Last Wednesday, Rishi Sunak addressed the rising cost of living in his Spring Statement. Fuel duty will be cut by 5p a litre and the threshold for paying National Insurance will increase by £3,000 from July.
But with food and energy costs continuing to soar, many believe this is simply not enough to help the poorest in the UK.The number of people claiming Universal Credit across Greater Manchester has almost doubled in two years. There are families teetering on the brink, sacrificing basic necessities just to stay afloat.
As the cost of living sees its fastest increase in 30 years, the M.E.N’s Paige Oldfield spoke to residents in Oldham about their concerns for the future.
Clutching a polystyrene box, Julie Nuttall sits down to eat in Oldham town centre. “This is our daily food,” she says, pointing down at her jacket potato. “We might have a sandwich later, but this is our main meal.”
It’s a hot March morning and the smell of baked potatoes fills the air. For Julie and her nephew Shaun, this food truck is a lifeline. It means they can afford to eat a proper meal today.
“We’ve been walking around Oldham trying to get the cheapest food we can,” the 59-year-old says. “We’re having child portions.”
Like thousands of other families across Greater Manchester, Julie is facing the greatest uphill battle as the cost of living crisis cripples the country. A full-time carer for her disabled nephew, it’s a worry that keeps her up at night.
“We do a lot of camping, we use an outside BBQ,” Julie, who lives in Hollins, told the Manchester Evening News. “We’re going to have to make food on the BBQ just to cut back.
“We’ve been given our bill for the next 12 months which has trebled in size. We’ve switched the heating off now so if we get cold, we layer up.
“I know we have to pay and move on. But we have to cut back on usage and cut showers down. We have a disabled shower room which is going to make it difficult.
“We’ve had to cut back and prices are going back so we have to compensate somehow. Do you eat or heat? That’s the scenario.
“This time last year we were free. We could go into the community and come round here and not have to worry about what we had to eat. You go to bed and worry about what it will be like tomorrow.
Barbara Szwandt stands outside a cafe with her daughter Janet. When asked about the cost of living crisis, a concerned look falls across her face.
The 70-year-old receives a pension but the money goes on rent and bills. Her financial situation once became so bleak, she was forced to beg people for warm clothes.
“I’ve been struggling to get a coat and clothes,” she says. “I’ve been going round asking if people have clothes to spare. I don’t like begging and sometimes it’s hard to do that.
“I had to get a coat instead of shopping. I have to ask my daughter if she has any shoes to spare.”
Barbara, who lives in Oldham, says she can only afford basic food including bread, milk and potatoes. Her total food shop used to come to around £8. Now, she claims it costs around £20.
“It’s hard when you get £335 a fortnight on pension, then you have to pay rent,” she continues. “It doesn’t go nowhere. There’s nowhere for anyone to speak to anyone and see what help is available.
“I’ve lost contact with younger age groups; I have to rely on my daughter to do things for me. I can’t do a proper shop.
“What I used to get cost me about £8, now it’s costing £20. It’s basically just bread, milk and potatoes.”
Mum-of-four Janet Szwandt gently rocks her three-year-old in his pram. The 37-year-old cares for four children, including her autistic son TG.
Money is so tight at the moment she can’t afford to pay for school trips – something that makes her feel like a “bad mum”.
“It’s horrible; you feel like an emotional train wreck,” she says. “You get up and you don’t know if you’re going to have enough to survive the next week.
“We’ve had to cut back on every day stuff like going to play centres. You can’t do anything because everything has gone up.
“We’ve had to cut back on the monthly shop because we can’t afford to do it and it costs us a fortune. You have to budget what you need to spend to survive. It’s gone from £108 a month to £250. My daughter wants to go on school trips and I can’t afford to pay it.
“We can’t get the bus, we have to walk. It’s so silly we have to live like this. It’s even affecting the kids because they can’t understand why they’ve can’t have essential things. They can’t have them because it’s so dear. They can’t have pocket money.
“It just makes you feel bad as a mum because you can’t afford to give them what they want. You can’t make them happy.”
Janet has also been forced to rely on food banks recently. “I used food banks now and again and came off it because I was able to survive on monthly shops,” she added.
“But I’ve noticed the money I had left over, we don’t have anymore. We have nothing to fall back on anymore. Having a child with disability needs is so hard. Sometimes we put the heating on in one room and all sit in there.
“Even pensioners are struggling because I see how much my mum struggles as much as me. My son never been out to a play centre and he’s autistic- I just can’t afford to do it.”
Terrance Ball, from Chadderton, claims Universal Credit due to being disabled. After paying his bills, he says he’s “lucky” if he has £10 leftover.
“It’s hard, it’s very hard,” the 57-year-old says. “I’m having to rob Peter to pay Paul. I’m having to borrow money off friends.
“I’m struggling; I’m in financial difficulty I cannot afford and I’m a vulnerable adult. I’m having to cut back like on the essentials.
“I’m diabetic and insulin dependent. I can’t afford the food I need. I have to borrow off my friend. It’s really hard. Sometimes me and my wife sit on the settee and we both cry.”
Oldham currently has the highest proportion of the 16-plus population on Universal Credit in Greater Manchester, according to new figures. There are currently 2,101 people claiming the benefit in Oldham Town North, or 37 per cent.
Across Greater Manchester, 308,570 people were on Universal Credit in February – 13.6 per cent of people aged 16 and over across the area. The number has increased from 169,063 in February 2020.
“The government don’t give a damn about us. It’s not fair. “I’m not happy; I’m content. But I would rather be happy,” Terrance continued.
“We feel like we’re just existing. We can’t go on a night out; we can’t afford a holiday – not even for a few days.
“We’re having to look after ourselves and we have a little girl we need to look after. It feels like we’re living in the 1800s. I have PTSD and a lot of underlying illnesses; I have to eat and I have to get my medication and it’s hard to get them. After I’ve paid my bills, I’m lucky if I’ve got £10 left over.”
Michael Brown, also from Oldham, says he is “just about” coping with the dramatic price increases – although it is something that causes him stress.
He told the M.E.N he’s noticed a rise in his fortnightly shop. “My electric has gone up £15 a month and my central heating works out at £25,” he says. “I’m just about coping with it.
“I call myself a stress head anyway, so I do worry about it. It’s going to get worse and worse. I used to spend £36 on a fortnight worth of shopping in Iceland.
“The last few times it’s been £48 for the exact same stuff. It’s 40p here and 50p there but it all adds up.”
Mark Webster takes a break on a bench while the sun beats down on Oldham town centre. While he says his family is stable financially, he has found himself having to work overtime to keep it that way.
“It’s a worry for me. A couple of weeks ago I got an email from my energy supplier. My bills are increasing by £1,400 altogether, additional to what I’m paying. It’s incredulous,” the 51-year-old says.
“I knew it was coming, but I didn’t think it would be that large. I don’t think I can challenge it. “I’m working overtime to pay for things. Luckily my wife works as well, we’re not as bad off as other people are.
“The only think I can hope is that Labour get in next time. We’re frugal anyway, but I think what I am doing is working more to pay for things and having to work extra days to afford it.
“I’ve got three children and one is going to university this year so we have that extra cost coming up. I worry about the cost of things over the next couple of years. I worry about how difficult it’s going to be for them buying houses and I don’t know how they’re going to save up for a deposit. That’s why I encourage them to go to university and get a decent job.”
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