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Two Cheers, Chancellor. Now our clients need long-term solutions

Autumn 1 Copy
The leaves were brown but the Statement had green shoots.

Two Cheers Chancellor. That was our immediate response to the government’s Autumn Statement on 22 November. For most of 2023, at national and local level, Citizens Advice has been asking ministers to increase support for those most affected by the cost-of-living crisis:

  • More help with energy costs targeted to the most vulnerable.
  • More understanding of the plight of low-income families in private rental homes.
  • More recognition that working-age benefits need to keep up with inflation.

Also at national and local level and month by month we have pointed to evidence of client issues getting worse. Worrying statistics and miserable individual experiences show debt, food bank use and homelessness all rising.

Last week in his Autumn Statement Chancellor Hunt announced welcome changes. Two of our three asks received positive answers. So, two cheers, Chancellor, but still more to do.

Indexing benefits

Ahead of the Statement there was speculation that Mr Hunt would link benefit levels not as normal to the September price index (6.7%) but October (4.6%). In the event he stayed with September to everyone’s relief. As the Institute of Fiscal Studies pointed out

Using the October rather than September inflation rate would cut working-age benefits spending by about £3 billion in 2024–25, largely by reducing entitlements for the 8 million working-age households receiving means-tested or disability benefits. 

The institute is on record drawing attention to the low level of working-age benefits in the UK relative to equivalent countries. Our ‘more to do’ includes at least maintaining the level of support and also recognising that cuts to key public services impact most on low- and middle-income households.

Housing benefit

In recent months we have highlighted the worsening position of private renters, particularly in high rent areas such as Surrey. Last month Epsom & Ewell Borough Council alerted residents to budgets stretched by the growing number of households needing temporary accommodation. Research by Local Citizens Advice Surrey showed no homes affordable within local housing benefit levels.

The Chancellor responded to the increasing risk of homelessness by raising housing benefit to cover the lowest 30% of available local properties; he had listened to Citizens Advice on the issue. Good, but the cause of present difficulties was the freeze on Local Housing Allowance since 2021 despite the sot of living crisis and sky-rocketing rents.

More to do? Moving the rate above 30% may be necessary to avoid an unacceptable level of homelessness. And medium-term the government must plan for and deliver a rapid increase in the number of genuinely affordable homes.

Energy support

Our third ask of the AS was for new targeted support with energy bills for people struggling the most. No cheers on this one as the chancellor had nothing to say. All Citizens Advice data shows this winter will be as bad or worse than the last for clients many of whose bills are likely to rise.

So definitely ‘more to do’. We will continue to push the government to provide more energy support for the most vulnerable.

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