7th June 2022

Feeling the squeeze

Soaring energy bills and grocery costs… plummeting funding for services that keep consumers safe… surely something has to give, says Matt Allwright.

By Matt Allwright
Matt is a journalist and presenter of the BBC’s Watchdog and Rogue Traders
I think many of us have been watching the dashboard for years under a variety of governments and hoping that none of these things spike at the same time

One of the more satisfying YouTube rabbit holes you can enter is the world of stress-testing. There you’ll find clip after clip of machinery and materials being pushed to breaking point, then suddenly snapping, exploding, tearing and shattering. What makes it compulsive viewing are the moments spent in anticipation of the big finish. It’s like turning the handle of a deadly jack-in-the-box as you sit, wide-eyed, asking just how much pressure the subject can withstand before it finally gives in.

In a much less thrilling way, it feels like we are sweating it out in the middle of an extreme testing clip for UK consumers. The difference? Well, among our parameters now are the cost of living, public spending cuts and a housing crisis – and few will have the luxury of sitting back and spectating. I think many of us have been watching the dashboard for years under a variety of governments and hoping that none of these things spike at the same time. We’ve watched personal debt reach a new peak, rents spiral, the average house price/annual income ratio nudge double figures, and prayed that interest rates stay low.

We’ve seen historically low food prices help families feed themselves while on capped benefits and thanked goodness that supermarkets could at least give us that. In reality, there have been large numbers of people who have struggled throughout, but perhaps not in those demographics whose voices are regularly heard. There has been pain, but at the extremities, and so easier to ignore.

The test we’re about to go through may be less choosy. Energy bills are a good example. Taking your annual bill and nearly doubling it, as we may see by the end of the year for most households, isn’t going to leave many unaffected, and a huge number will be faced with fairly desperate choices.

The problem for us as a community tasked with protecting people is that the resources available have also been diminished. When a text scam designed to exploit confusion over the council tax rebate hits millions of consumers’ phones, how are one- and two-person teams supposed to tell them the danger they’re in, let alone investigate and prosecute the perpetrators? As food prices soar and people start sourcing cheaper, perhaps riskier alternatives, where are the public health labs which will analyse what we eat, identify and communicate the danger? When a figure as influential as Martin Lewis admits that he’s out of tools to help, what hope is there for those who don’t have the Chancellor’s ear, or the power to communicate with millions?

Unless the forecasts are way off, our tensile strength to help is going to be tested to breaking point over the next couple of years. If we can’t help everyone, we must at least make sure that the message gets through to the highest levels: our capacity to protect consumers shouldn’t be based on what’s needed in the good times. It’s got to be measured by what happens when things get tough, because that’s when we can make the biggest difference to people’s lives.


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