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Gillian Guy: The cost of living is the nation's most pressing issue – neglect it at your peril

Guy GillianGillian Guy is Chief Executive of Citizens Advice.

Living costs is not a Party Political issue, and if David Cameron  truly wants to deliver his vision for the UK then this is the crisis he must tackle urgently.

Meeting living costs has long dominated people’s lives and is the dominant political and public policy issue in the UK.

At Citizens Advice, it is our job to support people struggling to pay their bills. We’re in no doubt that the parties are right to try to address this crisis.

The Coalition parties make repeated reference either to being on the side of ‘hard working families’ or their desire to ‘help people get on in life’, whilst Ed Miliband focuses his attention on ‘the squeezed middle’.

Ministers often talk about families ‘doing the right thing’ by working hard, looking for work, paying their bills and trying to avoid state support.  But the reality is that ’doing the right thing’ is often not enough, and those in work  are increasingly in need of support.  

We recently revealed that in the past six months there has been a 78 per cent rise in the number of foodbanks enquiries at our bureaux, many of them from people in stable employment.  A survey of parents showed that 1 in 4 is forced to borrow money to pay for their children’s school uniforms. And just last week, we showed that  1 in 5 people who has a problem with bailiffs is in work.  

Positive economic news is welcome, as are cautious but ever-increasing predictions that the economy is leaving one of its darkest periods.  But that should not mask a fundamental malaise which our bureaux help people to cope with on a daily basis.

An economy within which foodbank enquiries are rising fast and in which parents go in to debt to send their children to school correctly attired cannot be said to be fixed.

The arguments are familiar: high prices, low wages and a benefits system in urgent need of repair.

The danger of familiarity is that it breeds complacency.  The squeeze on living standards becomes more, not less, urgent in the face of strong jobs figures and raised growth predictions.  Good macro-economic news must not be permitted to mask problems in the 'real economy'.

Despite economic optimism, we are seeing increasing numbers of people stepping through our doors for advice who previously may only have imagined they would do so as a volunteer to help others.  This poses a huge challenge to David Cameron's 'Big Society' vision of what UK society should look like.

Although apparently now of lesser prominence, the fundamental ingredients of this vision are solid enough, and as Lord Glasman highlighted recently, community and charity co-operation aligned with localised support are by no means uniquely Conservative principles. In fact in early 2010, as David Cameron first ‘launched’ the Big Society , it already was up and running, as evidenced by the 22,000 people who volunteer for  their communities in Citizens Advice Bureaux across the country.

Our volunteers and staff have been helping  people to deal with a huge variety of problems for nearly 75 years, but helping  our clients meet their living costs is one of our biggest tasks, and therein lies the problem. The Prime Minister clearly believes in his Big Society vision but he is trying to introduce it at the very time that people will find it hardest to help deliver it.  

Our clients are often in work and may have steady incomes but are still unable to make ends meet.  The result is that although charities continue to deliver vital support, we are increasingly helping the very people who, if the economy were in better shape, would be coming to us to help others rather than seek help themselves.  

People's spirit and desire to volunteer and 'give something back' has not been diminished by recession.   Last year more people wanted to volunteer for us than ever before. But if the squeeze on living standards goes unresolved, then people's capacity to volunteer or contribute to the community may be reduced, regardless of their desire to do so.        

In short, the resources available to deliver the Prime Minister’s vision of society are shrinking whilst the number of people who need it to work is rising.  Whilst the potential builders of the vision remain forced by tough living costs to turn to charities for help, it cannot be realised.

The lasting human impact of the downturn  has not been undone by a technical and statistical resolution to the recession. Without true economic recovery which helps turn down the pressure cooker of high living costs, charities will face increasing demand as more and more people seek help from organisations like ours to help them pay bills.  

National politicians across all parties must continue to obsess over how to help individual households meet living costs.

No single party ‘owns’ this issue: it is not confined to a single region or family type but is a legacy of years of decline exacerbated by recession.

The economy is growing and I hope  predictions of a continued upward trend prove accurate .  On paper the picture is starting to look rosier; but in reality, millions are struggling.  The rising tide will not lift all families and those that are sinking despite ‘doing the right thing’ are in urgent need of support. 

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