The environment secretary has said the energy price hike crisis is at the top of both Tory leadership candidates’ in-trays after Britain’s energy regulator, Ofgem, announced that average annual household bills will increase by 80% this winter.
George Eustice told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have said they will do more to tackle the crisis if they become prime minister, but both have faced criticism for not laying out specific plans for the help they will offer.
Eustice said: “We announced a package of measures in June, which was a £400 rebate for everyone and then additional support for the most vulnerable.
“Both candidates have said they will do more. You don’t have long to wait, there will be a new prime minister in place in 10 days or so.”
On Friday, Ofgem confirmed a steep rise in the consumer price cap from October that will take a typical household’s gas and electricity bill from £1,971 to £3,549 a year. Bills are also expected to rise further in January and could top £6,600 in April.
While both Tory leadership candidates have pledged support if they become prime minister, neither has given details of the policies they plan to offer.
So far, Truss, the frontrunner to be next prime minister, has said she will reverse national insurance rises and scrap green levies on energy bills.
Responding to the price cap rise, she said she would “ensure people get the support needed to get through these tough times” but had no new suggestions about how much or who would get assistance.
Sunak has confirmed he will reduce or remove VAT on energy bills, but has offered no further policies.
Writing in the Times on Saturday, Sunak said: “I have chosen to make bearing down on inflation my No 1 focus. It’s why I have been crystal clear that we must provide some direct support to everyone with the cost of living, while particularly focusing our efforts on low-income households and pensioners. I’ve also unambiguously set out how they will receive that support: through the welfare system, winter fuel and cold weather payments. And I will outline that support as soon as I can if I become prime minister.”
Experts have questioned whether these measures go far enough to help and have put pressure on the government to do more, as millions of households face being plunged into poverty this winter.
By contrast, Labour has announced a plan to freeze energy prices at the current level, at a cost of £29bn – partly funded by a beefed-up windfall tax on energy companies’ profits.
Eustice defended the two candidates, saying: “They’ve both said they will do more targeted interventions as well, but I think it’s right that when they become prime minister, whoever it is, they will want to look at all of the options properly costed and to understand the impact of each of those options,” he said.
“This will absolutely be at the top of their in-tray. Both have said they are going to have an early budget in order to address this particular challenge.”
The SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, urged the government to “step in” to protect people from the cost of living “catastrophe”.
Speaking to BBC Breakfast, Blackford said: “There are forecasts that the energy price cap could increase even more than £6,000 by next spring. This is a catastrophe.
“These are costs that people simply can’t afford, and as a consequence of that, government has a responsibility to step in.”
He also warned there is a “real threat” that many businesses will “go to the wall” during the winter period.
“This is an emergency as big as the Covid crisis, and in such a scenario the government has a responsibility to act,” he said.