Boris Johnson has said people should not worry about putting food on the table this winter, amid surging energy prices and a cut to universal credit.
The prime minister told BBC News: “I don’t believe people will be short of food – and wages are actually rising.”
It comes after Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng warned some households face a “very difficult winter”.
Energy and food bills are rising due to a spike in global gas prices – and many families face a £20-a-week benefit cut.
Speaking to the BBC in New York, where he has been meeting world leaders at the United Nations, Mr Johnson said the surge in energy prices was a “short-term” problem caused by “the global economy coming back to life” after the coronavirus pandemic.
Government strikes deal to restart CO2 production
Is the UK headed for a gas shortage this winter?
Gas price crisis: Government poised to step in
Universal credit: When will the £20 increase stop?
“We are talking to the energy companies – doing what we can to keep prices low, to make sure that the supermarket shelves aren’t empty,” he said.
Carbon dioxide deal
As one of Europe’s biggest users of natural gas, the UK has been hit particularly hard by a squeeze in supplies and a surge in wholesale prices.
The UK is facing a shortage of carbon dioxide, which is widely used in the food industry, including in brewing and the packaging process for meat and salads, to prolong shelf life.
The government has struck a deal to restart carbon dioxide production by the biggest UK producer, CF Industries.
It is not clear yet what incentives the government have offered the firm.
It could take as long as three days to start producing CO2 again at its plants in Cheshire and Stockton-on-Tees.
The move comes after one food industry group warned that consumers could start noticing gaps on supermarket shelves within days if no action was taken.
Households across England, Scotland and Wales are, meanwhile, set to see their energy bills rise by an average of £139 a year in October.
Any further increases will be restricted by a price cap, which the government says will remain in place.
Ministers say they could also help bigger energy firms take on customers whose energy providers have gone bust.
In his BBC interview, Mr Johnson insisted the gas price increase was an “interim” issue and the global energy markets would “rectify themselves”.
It showed that the UK was right to be moving to renewable energy, he added.
He also rejected calls from Labour and many Tory MPs to scrap the cut to the £20 a week top-up to universal credit, which some MPs have warned will push many working families into poverty.
Instead of keeping the top-up, which was brought in to help people through the pandemic, Mr Johnson said: “We think the best thing we can do is help people into high-skilled, high wage jobs, that is what is happening,
“Unemployment is falling very rapidly, jobs are being created, wages are rising.
“And rather than raising people’s taxes to put more money into benefits, we want to see companies paying their workers more.”
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, an anti-poverty organisation, has warned of a “perfect storm” for consumers this autumn, as problems with global supply chains also increase food prices.
Workers also face a rise in National Insurance payments from next April, to help fund higher costs for the NHS and social care.
‘Cost of living crisis’
Labour is holding a debate in the Commons, calling on the government to halt the proposed cut to the universal credit top-up.
The party’s shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Bridget Phillipson, said the combination of price rises and falling incomes wasn’t “a freak event”.
“Instead of changing direction and taking action, [the government] have created an avoidable and unacceptable burden on working people, making the squeeze on household finances worse by putting up taxes for working people and cutting universal credit,” she said.
Speaking on BBC Two’s Newsnight programme on Monday, the Conservative former Brexit Secretary, David Davis, warned there was a risk of a “cost of living crisis” for new Tory voters such as “the plumber, the bricklayer, the lorry driver”.
He said his advice to Chancellor Rishi Sunak would be: “You think hard about the ordinary family’s take-home pay and what they have to buy with it, because that will be a dictator of how people feel going in to the new year