Ministers have been accused of trying to spin the cost-of-living crisis, after The Independent learnt they have ordered a £20m campaign to boast of existing cost-of-living help while refusing to set out a fresh package of assistance with spiralling bills.
The campaign of radio, social media, print and billboard ads was green-lighted despite concern from officials that it will be seen as “highly political”, at a time when outgoing prime minister Boris Johnson’s administration is in caretaker mode.
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said the government was trying to use “gloss” to cover up its failure to respond to the massive increase in the expected level of the energy price cap since the package of help was first launched in the spring.
The £37bn in assistance announced by then chancellor Rishi Sunak in the spring was drawn up at a time when the cap was forecast to hit £2,800 in October.
Experts now expect that figure to be around £3,500, rising to more than £4,200 in January, sparking calls from anti-poverty campaigners for planned direct payments to the most vulnerable to be doubled.
But Mr Johnson has said that any additional help is a matter for his successor as prime minister, while leadership candidates Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak have resisted calls to get round the table to draw up an emergency budget.
One concerned civil servant, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Independent that a campaign to draw attention to existing support should not be the priority at the current time.
The official said the spending on publicity was particularly questionable as both candidates for the Conservative leadership, as well as serving ministers, have said they would save money by cutting Whitehall budgets.
“It is highly political,” said the official. “It smacks of impropriety.
“It is not what the government should be doing at this time. It also contradicts the noises from some ministers about efficiency savings.”
The content of the publicity campaign is not yet known, as the Cabinet Office is currently going out to agencies to seek ideas.
But it will cover £22bn worth of tax changes announced by Mr Sunak in his spring statement in March, as well as a further £15bn of cost-of-living help unveiled in May as anxieties swelled about soaring bills.
However, the tax package – featuring an increase in National Insurance thresholds and a previously-announced £150 council tax rebate – has already been implemented, with the vast majority of recipients already benefiting.
And the cost-of-living measures are designed to take effect automatically without most people having to take any action, raising questions over whether a public awareness campaign is needed for them to be effective.
A £400 universal payment to all households will be deducted from energy bills in six monthly instalments from October. Assistance worth £650 for families on means-tested benefits is being paid to 8m households in two tranches in July and the autumn.
All elderly people above the state pension age will receive a £300 payment to help with bills in November or December. And 6m disability benefit claimants will get a £150 one-off payment next month.
Ms Rayner said: “At a time when bills are through the roof and wages are through the floor, taxpayers’ money is being splashed on political spin instead of substance.
“People are worried sick about how they’ll pay their bills and do their weekly food shop, and the prime minister shrugs his shoulders. It’s a dereliction of duty.
“This crisis requires strong leadership and urgent action to provide real help – but the Tories are masking their failure of leadership and lack of solutions with more gloss. The two continuity candidates have no answers to the problems facing our country.
“Labour would start by scrapping tax breaks on oil and gas producers and providing more help to people who are struggling to pay their energy bills. We will put an end to the Tories’ ever-growing catalogue of waste and treat taxpayer’s cash with the respect it deserves.”
A government spokesperson said:“We recognise that people are understandably worried about rising living costs, which is why we have put in place a £37bn support package to help people over the coming months.
“It is crucial that this money reaches those who need it, which is why we have invested in an important public awareness campaign to help ensure people are aware of the support available.”
It is understood that the maximum budget for the campaign is £20m, with each step evaluated for effectiveness before committing to further spending.