The Conservatives have been called “out of touch” after a Cabinet minister suggested consumers should swap to value brands as the crisis in the cost of living continues to bite.
Environment Secretary George Eustice has been criticised by political rivals and social commentators after saying that shoppers could “contain and manage their household budget” by changing the brands they buy.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said it showed how “out of touch and out of ideas” the government was when it came 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 told the LBC that Mr Eustice’s comment left her “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 ($248,000) 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 to progressively cheaper branded products, own brand and value lines.
MoneySavingExpert says dropping down a price level on brands at the supermarket typically cuts grocery bills by 30 per cent.
Martin Lewis, founder of the website, labelled Mr Eustice’s advice “patronising” and said it was nonsense to suggest people on low incomes did not already buy value brands.
“The advice is perfectly reasonable,” Mr Lewis 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 latest figures show shop prices are up 2.7 per cent on last year, marking their highest rate of inflation for 11 years.
Food inflation accelerated to 3.5 per cent in April, up from 3.3 per cent in March, according to the BRC-NielsenIQ Shop Price Index.
But fresh food inflation slowed slightly from 3.5 per cent to 3.4 per cent amid fierce competition between supermarkets that resisted price rises on everyday essentials.
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 per cent in the final three months of the year, the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts.
Mr Eustice told Sky News that supermarkets were “competing very aggressively” on everyday items, which was helping to keep prices down.
He said 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 Mr Eustice 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”.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was challenged about the comments while out campaigning before Thursday’s local elections.
“What we want to do is help people in any way that we can through the aftershocks of Covid," Mr Johnson said.
“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 ($28bn) package of support, including £9bn 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 more support for struggling households before the autumn Budget.
Mr Lewis told ITV that the government would do “everything we can” to help people through the inflation crisis , which he called a “very difficult reality”.
But he said there was “only so far we can go”.
During his own campaigning in Wakefield, Mr Starmer said Mr Johnson and his minister had shown a lack of awareness when it came to the pressure household budgets were coming under.
“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," he said.
“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.”
Ms Sturgeon 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 called for the government to “get money into the pockets” of people who were struggling.