Former Defra and DExEU permanent secretary Dame Clare Moriarty has spoken of her hope prime minister Liz Truss will pay close attention to the data on how lives are being impacted by the cost-of-living crisis before deciding on any changes to the way benefits are increased.
Moriarty has been chief executive of Citizens Advice since April last year, and says the organisation has found itself dealing with problems on a scale normally associated with the winter in recent months, meaning “things will get even worse”.
Despite the £150bn package of support unveiled last month designed to cap energy prices – which will nevertheless see average costs rise by almost one third, Moriary says she has particular concerns in relation to the uncertainty surrounding the Truss government’s plans for benefits.
Earlier this year then-chancellor Rishi Sunak committed to increase benefits in line with inflation from April 2023, with the benchmark uplift based on this month’s Consumer Prices Index figure – actually due to be published next month.
However the government is understood to be considering an uplift based on wage inflation – likely to be only half the amount of CPI, which was 9.9% in the year to August.
“We thought an inflation-level rise was a baked in promise,” she told the Daily Telegraph. “But if they go for wages instead it will be a cut in real terms when we already have so many coming to us in crisis, at a time when benefit levels are already at the lowest they have been as a share of average earnings since the welfare state was set up.”
Moriarty’s time at the helm of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs coincided with Truss’ stint as environment secretary – from 2014-2016. She then went on to lead the Department for Exiting the European Union from April 2019 until it was wound up in early 2020.
Moriarty said Truss had taken a keen interest in data to drive policy when she was environment secretary and urged her to apply the same rigour in relation to next year’s benefits rise.
“What I remember is Truss’s huge focus on data,” Moriarty said. “She isn’t a mathematician, but she is very interested in maths. Truss’s father is a mathematician. So I would very much hope she will listen to the data.”
Moriarty said she was “in regular contact” with government departments and saw her role as making the case for those most at risk to get “further support”, ideally through benefits.
“This summer, we have been seeing problems that we would normally associate with winter,” she said. “Now winter is coming and things will get even worse. The scale is that stark. That’s my biggest concern.”
She added: “The people we are most worried about this winter are those who are already in crisis.”
Citizens Advice has seen a threefold increase in people seeking help because they cannot afford to top up their energy meters – up from 4,500 in August 2021 to 15,000 in August 2022.
Moriarty said people on low incomes who are unable to pay for their gas and electricity and about to run out of food were clearly at the “sharp end”, but those on middle incomes would be rapidly squeezed by rising mortgage interest rates and higher food and energy costs.
She said it was important to make sure departments and ministers had a clear picture of the real impact of the cost-of-living crisis.
“The legacy of working in government for a long time is that I know how easy it is for people to put up barriers to hearing,” she said.
“I see my role at Citizens Advice as translating for government what we are seeing happen on the ground in ways that people hear them. That is what ultimately makes change happen.”