The Conservatives have been branded “out of touch” after a Cabinet minister suggested consumers should swap to value brands as the cost-of-living crisis continues to bite.
Environment Secretary George Eustice has been rounded on by political rivals and social commentators after saying that shoppers could “contain and manage their household budget” by changing the brands they buy in supermarkets and elsewhere.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said it showed how “out of touch and out of ideas” the Government is when it comes to understanding the issues facing those on the lowest incomes.
The Liberal Democrats said Mr Eustice was living in a “parallel universe”, while Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that, for many people, there was “nothing” else they could cut to help make ends meet.
Food campaigner Jack Monroe said ministers were in “no position” to hand out monetary advice.
Ms Monroe, asked on LBC’s Tonight With Andrew Marr programme about what she thought when she first heard Mr Eustice’s remarks, said: “Exasperated to be honest, because on the one hand I charitably want to think it’s well meant.
“And on the other hand, I think somebody who claims £196,000 in expenses in a single year is in no position to tell other people to get cheaper biscuits.”
Supermarkets separate their products into different categories, from the most expensive premium level through to progressively cheaper branded products, own brand and value lines.
MoneySavingExpert says downshifting – dropping down a price level on brands at the supermarket – typically cuts grocery bills by 30%.
Martin Lewis, founder of the website, labelled Mr Eustice’s advice “patronising” and said it was “bullshit” to suggest people on low incomes did not already utilise value brands.
“The advice is perfectly reasonable,” he told LBC.
“If you’re going supermarket shopping and you’re buying the most expensive brands and you need to cut back then drop down a brand level or two.
“But the idea that that is some panacea for the working poor and the non-working poor in this country who don’t have enough income, and that they don’t know that, well that’s why it comes across as patronising and difficult.”
The row comes as the latest figures show shop prices are up 2.7% on last year, marking their highest rate of inflation for more than a decade.
Food inflation accelerated to 3.5% in April, up from 3.3% in March, although fresh food inflation slowed slightly from 3.5% to 3.4% amid fierce competition between supermarkets which resisted price hikes on everyday essentials, according to the BRC-NielsenIQ Shop Price Index.
The squeeze on household finances is expected to get worse, with the CPI measure of inflation expected to hit a 40-year high of 8.7% in the final three months of the year, according to Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts.
Speaking to Sky News, Mr Eustice said supermarkets were “competing very aggressively” on everyday items, which was helping to keep prices down.
He added that “generally speaking, what people find is by going for some of the value brands” or supermarket own-brand products “they can actually contain and manage their household budget”.
But he acknowledged increasing costs “will undoubtedly put a pressure on household budgets and, of course, it comes on top of those high gas prices as well”.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson was challenged about the comments while out campaigning before Thursday’s local elections, telling reporters: “What we want to do is help people in any way that we can through the aftershocks of Covid.
“What you have got is inflationary spikes, mainly in energy, but that’s knocking on into all sorts of other costs for people, for families.”
He highlighted the Government’s £22 billion package of support, including £9 billion to help with energy bills, but said a shift to a “high-wage, high-skill” economy would be the best protection.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said there were “no plans” for any additional support for struggling households before the autumn Budget.
He told ITV’s Peston that the Government would do “everything we can” to help people through the cost-of-living crisis , which he called a “very difficult reality”, but said there was “only so far we can go”.
During his own spot of campaigning in Wakefield, Sir Keir said Mr Johnson as well as his minister had shown a lack of awareness when it came to the pressure household budgets were coming under.
He said: “The Prime Minister is suggesting that pensioners should ride the buses to keep warm and ministers are suggesting that families should stop buying branded food.
“I mean, talk about out of touch and out of ideas and out of excuses.”
Liberal Democrat work and pensions spokeswoman Wendy Chamberlain said: “These comments show George Eustice and the Conservatives are living in a parallel universe.
“Families and pensioners who can’t afford their weekly shop need more help, not patronising advice from a clueless minister.”
SNP leader Ms Sturgeon, speaking at an event on the eve of polls opening, said: “Every time a Tory minister opens their mouth just now, they just seem to show how deeply out of touch they are…
“Then you’ve got George Eustice talking about buying cheaper brand food.
“People are already at the edge here and there’s nothing, for many people, left to cut.”
Ms Sturgeon went on to call for the UK Government to “get money into the pockets” of people who are struggling.