Britain’s vulnerable people anxiously await Prime Minister’s spending plans

By DANICA KIRKA, Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — Thirugnanam Sureshan maneuvers his wheelchair around the tiny kitchen of his one-bedroom apartment, flicks the switch on an electric kettle and brews a cup of instant coffee. It’s his second hot drink of the day, and it will be his last.

The humble countertop kettle – ubiquitous in homes across Britain where a cup of tea is a symbol of welcome, comfort and a break from the demands of a busy day – has become a luxury for Sureshan and his wife, Sridevi, after their monthly electricity bill. nearly doubled in the past year.

Sureshan, a former airport security guard who is disabled by health issues including a rare foot disease, struggles to stay warm. He’s cutting as much as possible to make sure he can keep the heat in this winter amid soaring prices for electricity, food and gasoline.

“If I don’t keep warm I could lose my life,” said Sureshan, 50, from his home in the southern English town of Bexhill-on-Sea. “That’s the situation.”

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Sureshan is among millions hoping Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will find money to help them survive Britain’s cost of living crisis when the government releases its spending plans on Thursday.

Demands are plentiful – ranging from pay rises for nurses and police officers to increased social benefits, higher pensions and more funding for free school meals – as 40-year-old high inflation erodes purchasing power families. And resources are tight, with Sunak facing a budget shortfall of up to 60 billion pounds ($71 billion) which he says will require both tax increases and spending cuts.

It comes amid a grim backdrop of slowing economic growth, rising borrowing costs and the lingering effects of a former Prime Minister Liz Truss’ tax-cutting plan that torpedoed a reputation for financial discipline. of the government. When Sunak took office three weeks ago, he promised to restore that credibility, promising that the government would pay its bills and start reducing the debts accumulated over the past 15 years.

But some economists are warning against moving too fast as rising food, energy and housing prices are set to wipe out the savings of a fifth of UK households.

Consumer price inflation accelerated to 10.1% in September, driven by a 96% rise in natural gas costs, a 54% increase in electricity and a 14.6% rise in food prices, a trend seen as inflation rose worldwide.

“The UK government should increase borrowing to support the hardest hit households, explain what it is doing and put in place a public sector debt reduction plan at some point once the shock subsides,” said the independent national research institute. says Economic and Social Research.

The financial challenges were amplified by Truss, who announced £105billion in tax cuts and spending increases without saying how she would pay for them. It raised fears of runaway public debt, causing turmoil in financial markets, sending the pound to a record low against the US dollar and forcing Truss to step down after just six weeks in office.

But Britain’s woes date back to the global financial crisis, a catastrophe from which it was only just beginning to recover when COVID-19 and then Russia’s war in Ukraine hit.

Britain’s public debt soared to nearly 83% of economic output in 2017 from less than 36% in 2007 as the government bailed out banks and struggled to prop up the economy. A decade of fiscal tightening had begun to lessen the burden when the pandemic and war in Ukraine pushed debt to 98% of gross domestic product. It is the highest since 1963, when Britain was still recovering from the Second World War.

At the same time, austerity has placed increasing demands on a threadbare social safety net.

After a decade of wage increases that have not kept pace with inflation, the cost of living crisis has forced some government workers to turn to food banks. Doctors, nurses, teachers, postal workers and railway workers have authorized or are considering strikes this winter.

And long waits for ambulances, cancer treatment and elective surgery are pressuring Sunak to prioritize the National Health Service over other programs.

Treasury chief Jeremy Hunt declined to release details of the government’s plans ahead of his speech to parliament on Thursday. But he promised to help those who need it most.

“We will present a plan that will get us through the very choppy waters that we find ourselves in economically,” Hunt told the BBC. “But we will ensure we protect the most vulnerable, and in particular address the biggest concern of low-income people, which is the rising cost of their weekly shop and rising energy prices.”

But people want certainty, and among those who struggle is Sureshan. His family moved to Bexhill on Sea from London in 2006 to open a convenience store. But the business closed when Sureshan’s health deteriorated and his wife stopped working to become his main carer.

Disability benefits provide the bulk of their income, but this is eaten up by the rising cost of living.

The cost of electricity alone – which Sureshan needs to charge his wheelchair, power the electric hoist that gets him in and out of bed and run the machine that helps him breathe at night – has soared to 189 pounds per months from 99 lbs.

The situation has become desperate for many, said Louise Rubin, policy director of Scope UK, which provides support and advice for people with disabilities. The charity offered advice on energy efficiency. Now he is inundated with calls from those who live on one meal a day in cold, dark houses. There is nothing more to reduce.

“Life costs more if you are disabled,” she said. “It costs up to £600 more a month because of the extra equipment people have to buy and power. And the government must provide targeted support to those who need that extra support through no fault of their own. »

The Sureshans say they are doing everything they can to cut costs.

They spend most of their time in the living room, where weather strips seal in warm air. They limit themselves to two, sometimes three, cups of tea a day and use the oven sparingly, preparing large dishes that can be frozen for later use.

When shopping, Sridevi goes from store to store, comparing prices in the hope of saving a few pennies.

Working outside the home is inconceivable, she says, because she would be too worried about her husband. Plus, they can’t afford to pay someone to take their place.

“I don’t want to lose him,” she said desperately, clasping her hands together.

Their apartment contains clues to happier times: their wedding photo from 2000 – Sridevi in ​​a bright purple sari, the 6ft 2 Thirugnanam towering behind her – a school drawing made by their son, photos of him in each room.

But they have little luxury.

Christmas, a holiday the Hindu couple adopted from Britain, is the latest casualty. They can’t afford to turn on the oven for hours to roast a turkey this year.

The Sureshans are convinced that Sunak will help the most vulnerable. They are proud that a Hindu, whose family worked hard to find their way to the UK, is Prime Minister.

Despite their situation, Sridevi says she and her husband are lucky: they have each other and a son with a bright future who is studying biomedicine. He was offered to come home and help, but they say they declined because he is the future.

“At least he has a wife and a child,” Sridevi said of her husband. “I am sad for those who have no one to take care of them.”

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