The queue forms early outside Norwich’s Citizens Advice. Right next door another other long line waits for the library to open. Queueing for books? Maybe, but mainly for a warm place to spend the day, a member of Citizens Advice staff tells me. They aren’t street homeless but neatly dressed people from cold homes.
This branch of Citizens Advice is only open for two hours on weekday mornings, as it can’t cope with any more clients for its volunteers to triage. Appointments are fully booked for the next two weeks and sometimes desperation explodes. On this day, the advice coordinator, Trudie Gibbons, has to ask a man to leave. He had been yelling, “You’re not giving me any advice!” but she talks him down with what she calls “zero tolerance but great understanding” from her 20 years’ experience. One man arrived with a sharpened stake the other day.
“We are just about the only face-to-face service left,” she says. “Everything else is online, or a phone line that never answers, no humans to talk to.” And so some vent their frustration here. Most people arriving are awkward, never having needed help before; they never expected this devastation of unpayable bills, soaring debt, bare cupboards. Gibbons gives out six food bank vouchers in the first hour to deeply embarrassed clients. “They don’t quite know how to phrase asking for food,” she says.
Staff who have worked here for years, alongside admirable volunteers, say that they have never seen anything like this. They are well accustomed to advising people in trouble, but it’s hard to capture their sense of shock at what’s happening now. People I meet on the frontline in all kinds of services are lost for new ways to describe the scale of this tsunami crashing in not just on the already poor, but on middling households impoverished overnight. “Cost of living crisis” sounds too tame, too polite to capture the brutal fear of losing homes and everything. Martin Lewis, the wise money-saving expert, saw this arriving early on, admitting earlier this year that he was “virtually out of tools” to help people now. Are Tory MPs hearing all this in their surgeries? Perhaps few still expect any help from them.
It’s no wonder that specialist debt adviser Marcel Cheek echoes Lewis’s words to me. After 22 years, he is used to getting people’s debts delayed or cancelled, maybe with a debt relief order. He makes personal “better off” calculations that tot up outgoings and incomings to get people back on their feet. Cancel that Sky subscription, but not the pet food or wifi. Apply for that benefit they never knew was there. “But this is quite different,” he says, this sudden rise in energy bills, food costs and rent or mortgage payments. “When I’ve done all that,” he says, “people in ordinary jobs find they have a deficit budget I can’t fix. I’ve never seen that before.”
How many people is he talking about? He keeps figures carefully: he finds 48% of those they see here now have less coming in than they can live on – so debts will start mounting again as soon as they’re cleared. What will happen, I ask. “I don’t know,” he says. “I really don’t know.” His father was a debt adviser for 30 years before him; there has never been a surge like this. At Citizens Advice’s head office, Morgan Wild, the head of policy, confirms the unprecedented nature of the problem: “Debts I’ve never seen before. We’re helping two people every minute with crisis support – and that includes food bank vouchers and other charitable support.” The Trussell Trust, the food bank charity, warns of emptying crates and low supplies. This emergency is what the rising groundswell of strikes is about.
As they help to navigate the nightmare maze of benefits, advisers tell working clients to claim even if they’re only entitled to £5 in universal credit, as at least that then qualifies them for other benefits: a cost of living bonus, housing benefit, council tax reduction and others. Absurdly, it can be worth earning £5 less to qualify, which is why, I’m told, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) work coaches are increasingly told to pressure claimants to earn more – although they will then lose 55p in universal credit for every extra pound they earn. It’s effectively a 55% tax rate on extra earnings: if that’s OK for them, why not for the richest in society?
As for personal independence payments for disability, almost half are refused at first; yet the benefit is so badly administered that 70% of those who appeal to a tribunal are successful. But the backlog of claims means waiting, in dire hardship, for six months for your appeal to go through. I speak to a woman whose payments had been cut when she went into hospital for a cancer operation, but she couldn’t get them restored when she came out. “They were so rude on the phone. I’m treated like crap!” she explodes.
A man comes in to Citizens Advice whose payments were stopped when he was “sanctioned” by the DWP. He says he has no food, no phone and no electricity from his prepay meter, and is left in the cold and dark. All benefits were stopped when his online claim asked him to “verify his identity”, but he couldn’t as his phone had run out of credit. All claims are made online, and many claimants have no means of getting online besides their phone. He’d waited days, cold and hungry and in the dark, before summoning the courage to come here.
Every week, another avalanche of reports tells this story: the Office for National Statistics last week showed that 58% of people in England’s most deprived districts were spending less on food and essentials (in the least deprived areas, it’s a third). With the worst wage growth in 200 years, one in five children in key worker households are brought up below the poverty line. In a country growing rapidly poorer, its services logjammed by austerity and staff pay cuts, child poverty gallops ahead, with reports of low-paid school support staff paying from their own pockets for hungry children’s food and uniforms. The Financial Times calls this “the steepest fall in living standards on record”, with the UK the worst performer in the G20 (bar Russia). The former prime minister Gordon Brown, who did much in power to ease poverty, produces new figures showing millions are spending a third of their income on energy bills. That’s unaffordable. Lewis confirms what Citizens Advice sees: “You could put me into one of those households and do every trick in the book and I wouldn’t even get close to scratching the sides of what is needed.”
Ministers tour TV studios to say that raising strikers’ pay is “unaffordable”. But a country affords what it prioritises. George Osborne deceitfully spoke of us all being “all in it together”, but it’s a civic sentiment still to be called on in a national emergency. After remarkable passivity over years of falling wages, strikes are inevitable to reverse decades of money draining from pay packets up into grossly accumulating capital wealth. The Citizens Advice Bureau in Norwich, and branches everywhere else, can do little to resolve a nationwide crisis of working people earning less than they can survive on.
• This article was amended on 29 and 30 November 2022. Morgan Wild is head of policy, not director of policy, at Citizens Advice. A previous version misquoted Wild as saying that Citizens Advice was “handing out more food vouchers in a couple of months than in the last five years combined”. This quote has been corrected.
Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist