'We can't afford to live'

Unite Community members urge chancellor to take action on catastrophic cost of living crisis at North Yorkshire demo

Reading time: 9 min

Unite Community members descended outside chancellor Rishi Sunak’s constituency office in North Yorkshire on Friday (March 18) to send a clear message – that for a huge and growing number of families in the UK, they simply cannot afford to live.

The members who attended Friday’s cost of living demo knocked on the chancellor’s office door to speak to the man himself. Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t in, but that didn’t stop the demonstrators from demanding that he take urgent action to support millions of households who are suffering as inflation soars.

Unite Community member Kerry Wilks told UniteLive that the situation has become so bad that ‘Money Saving Expert’ Martin Lewis, who advises people on a popular blog how to cut corners on household expenses, recently admitted that he has run ‘out of tools’ to help people facing an unprecedented cost of living crisis.

Kerry (pictured below) knows more than anyone just how tough times have become. As a widower and full-time unpaid carer of her three children, she has no option but to rely on Universal Credit, and it’s simply not enough to make ends meet.

“I was only just barely keeping my head above water before the cut to Universal Credit last year. I’ve written up my household budget and now I’m actually nearly £15 in the red every single month,” she explained.

“I’ve noticed already with my food shopping that prices have gone up massively in the last few weeks and months. I’ve got to depend on my mum – I call her my fairy godmother — to buy my kids clothes, shoes and other items. You can only spread money out so much and there just isn’t any left to spread out.”

“People say it’s extreme when you’ve got to put a coat and jumper on indoors to keep warm – they think it’s made-up – but it’s not,” Kerry added. “This is what we’re dealing with now. My biggest fear is that in a few months’ time, I won’t be able to feed my children.”

This fear is no exaggeration for millions of households across the UK who, on top of facing a massive £1000 annual cut to Universal Credit last October, are now being hit by soaring living costs, explained Unite Community campaigns co-ordinator for Leeds and Wakefield Gerry Lavery (pictured below).

Speaking to UniteLive at Friday’s protest, Gerry noted, “Cutting the £20 a week to Universal Credit was a massive blow, and now people are having to deal with spiraling inflation. Benefits will only be uprated in April by just over three percent, at a time when inflation is expected to go well above seven percent.

“This isn’t a realistic amount of money to live on. People are taking out loans to get by which gets them further into debt, and then they’re playing catch up – but the reality now is that they’ll never catch up.”

For Unite Community member and retired schoolteacher John Harrison, the cost of living crisis will translate into more pain – literally.

“I have a disability that involves chronic pain all over my body,” he explained.  “The pain is there permanently but it’s aggravated by any contact, even clothing. When I’m at home, it’s absolutely vital to keep warm – otherwise the pain receptors kick in and I’m in constant pain.

“At the moment I’ve got everything down to a fine art – I’ve got a strict bedtime and timers on to make sure that I maximise the benefit from the energy that I can afford to use,” he added. “When the pain kicks in I’ve essentially got to cocoon myself in bed and if it’s cold, it gets worse. Sleep doesn’t come easy.”

John (pictured below) fears that spiralling energy costs will force him to have to choose between a life of excruciating pain or making ends meet.   

“I use a lot more energy than most people because of my condition and I’ve cut back on literally everything else,” he said. “My biggest worry is that if the cost of living continues to increase, I’m really going to struggle finding anything else to cut back on.”

Unite Community member Merle, who travelled to Friday’s demo from Bradford, suffers from long-term mental health struggles that means she is unable to work.

“The only way I can get by is living with family,” she told UniteLive. “I realise this is a real privilege but I’ve got no other option. For one, I wouldn’t be able to afford it and secondly because of the precarious nature of being on benefits, I would feel very nervous living in accommodation that isn’t as secure.”

Merle (pictured below) said where she lives in Bradford, she knows many people who are struggling.

“I volunteer with a food bank so I’ve seen with my own eyes how many more people are needing help with food in the last few months,” she noted. “They’re often families in work who haven’t needed it in the past. When I first started volunteering before the pandemic they gave out maybe 600 bags of food in a year and now they’re giving out more than 10,000.

“I’m really worried the impact that long-term insecurity and poverty will have on our communities. I worry about people’s health and how that will impact people’s ability to support each other and create strong communities. This crisis will have huge knock-on effects.”

The dozens of Unite Community members who converged outside Sunak’s constituency office held up signs shaped liked the chancellor’s ‘budget box’ briefcase which simply and powerfully spelled out ‘We can’t afford to live’. Standing by a cardboard cut-out of Sunak, they called on the chancellor to take immediate action ahead of his Spring Statement on Wednesday (March 23).

“People need to be given a realistic amount to live on,” Jerry told UniteLive. “At the very least that would mean restoring the £20 a week, extending it to all benefit claimants, and uprating benefits in line with inflation.”

Unite Community branches up and down the country have in recent months campaigned heavily against cuts to Universal Credit and the cost of living crisis – and there’s no stopping them now, John told UniteLive.

“I’ve come here today because I’ve got a strong feeling that you’ve got to go out there and do something,” he said. “I joined Unite Community specifically because Unite is a ‘doing’ union – they actually get things done. I’ve been involved in a number of campaigns with Unite Community and I’m amazed at the support you get. My activism has grown and grown being part of Unite Community; you realise you aren’t the only one struggling.”

Merle agreed.

“Unite Community is fantastic – they’ve got very clear campaigns, and it’s great that there’s a space for those of us who are not in employment. It’s so important to be visible and I think it’s vital for those of us who can to speak out on behalf of others who are in the same position.”

Unite head of Community Liane Groves, who also attended Friday’s demo, hailed the protest, which drew widespread local and national media coverage.

“We’re getting the message out there to a wider public – that the system we have now, especially now during an unprecedented cost of living crisis – is simply not sustainable,” she said. “The government needs to act now by reinstating the £20 a week to Universal Credit and extending it to all benefits claimants. We cannot continue to tinker around the edges at time when millions of households are failing to meet even a basic standard of living.”

“These families are facing impossible choices – between feeding their children or paying the rent, or having their heating on for an hour a day. In the fifth richest country in the world, there is absolutely no need for anyone to be facing choices like this. Poverty is a political decision and the government has so far decided to keep people in poverty. They can just as easily decide to create a system that truly supports everyone who needs it. It’s in everyone’s interests that the government makes that decision now.”

By Hajera Blagg

Pics by Mark Harvey

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