Pressure builds on Rishi Sunak to act now on living costs

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UK inflation is at a 40-year high as energy, food and fuel prices soar

The chancellor must act now and not wait for the Autumn Budget to help people with the soaring cost of living, say business groups and unions.

The Confederation of British Industry said: "There are some choices about what you do now and what you do later. You have to help the hardest hit now."

Rishi Sunak has said the government will act where it can but said it will not be easy to cut costs for families.

UK inflation is at a 40-year high of 9% as energy, food and fuel prices soar.

Mr Sunak told the annual CBI dinner on Wednesday evening that the government was "ready to do more" to aid households.

"The next few months will be tough," he said. "But where we can act, we will."

The plans will involve "cutting costs for families" but also cutting how much government spending outpaces the income from taxes, Mr Sunak said.

It is understood that he is considering ways to help people with their energy bills in July or August as well as announcing tax cuts in the Autumn Budget to support businesses.

But Tony Danker, director-general of the CBI, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme it was important to act now.

"Helping people with heating bills and eating bills will not fuel inflation and you need to stimulate business investment now. That's not going to overheat the economy, it is going to make sure that any downturns in our fortunes will be short and shallow because growth is coming soon."

The inflation rate in April reached its highest level since 1982, while recent data showed the UK economy shrank in March, raising concerns the country is heading for a recession.

The TUC's Kate Bell urged the government to increase state benefits now as opposed to next April and dismissed claims that IT issues prevented it from bringing forward the uplift.

"What I think we saw during the coronavirus crisis was when the economy is in trouble or when we're facing an emergency we do need to protect people and that is the best way to protect the economy.

"I think that is what we need to see now and when people hear the government saying 'the computer says no', I think they are pretty clear that is an excuse, we can act if we want to," said Ms Bell.

The Resolution Foundation think tank said that although everyone is affected by rapidly rising food and energy prices, the poorest households are hit hardest, because they have to spend a bigger share of their budgets on essentials than people with more money.

"The scale of the cost-of-living crisis requires urgent action," said Jack Leslie, senior economist at the Resolution Foundation. "Our benefits system is designed to get support out quickly to the low-and-middle income families at the heart of this crisis, and is the obvious way to deliver further support."

Meanwhile, the British Independent Retailers Association (Bira) said that small businesses are facing a "tsunami" of cost increases, with energy bills more than doubling, wages going up, "double digit supply chain inflation", and "business rates increased in real terms by 100%".

Andrew Goodacre, the chief executive of Bira, called for the government to look to reduce business rates "as a matter of urgency".

"Reducing business rates down to 2021 levels would give £6,000 on average to small businesses, and help retailers survive in the autumn, when energy prices are set to rise again," Mr Goodacre said.

Energy soars

The prices of fuel, energy and food have surged in recent months, driven in part by the Ukraine war.

In April, gas and electricity prices had the biggest impact on inflation after a higher energy price cap - which limits what suppliers can charge per unit - kicked in. Homes using a typical amount of gas and electricity are now paying £1,971 per year on average, up £700 from the previous cap.

On Wednesday, Citizens Advice said "the warning lights could not be flashing brighter" and the government needed to offer households more support with their energy bills.

Boss Dame Clare Moriarty said some people faced "desperate" situations, with "parents skipping meals to feed their kids" and others "washing in their kitchen sinks because they can't afford a hot shower".

Meanwhile, petrol and diesel prices hit new records of £1.68 and £1.81 per litre this week. The RAC said a family car that used diesel now cost nearly £100 to fill up.

"While wholesale prices dropped on Wednesday, indicating we may have passed the peak, drivers should brace themselves for further pump price rises as retailers who have had to buy new stock this week pass on their increased costs in the coming days," said RAC fuel spokesman Simon Williams.

"Drivers badly need further help from the government, particularly as the Treasury is benefitting considerably from the windfall that 20% VAT brings them on these record high prices," he added.

Opposition parties have been calling for a windfall tax on the profits of big oil and gas firms and for the money to be used to offset energy bills.

But on Tuesday Conservative MPs voted down the idea, having argued it could discourage investment.