'Fear and anxiety' as constituents tell MPs their winter concerns ahead of Parliament return

The pressure on the next prime minister won't just be from the public and hard-pressed businesses - but from many MPs too, as Anushka Asthana reports

If there is one thing that has become clear after travelling around the country - with producer Iona Napier - listening to people's struggles as a result of the energy crisis, it is that people are crying out for help.

To many, this Conservative leadership contest has come at the worst possible time and stretched on for too long.

Even the party's own MPs, like Rob Halfon, would admit that.

"Thank God it is coming to an end soon, it is a national emergency. I don't mind how it is done, but there has got to be a substantial package of support," he said, calling on the new prime minister to make new tariffs for the poorest families, those "just about managing", small businesses and public services.

He doesn't mince his words. For him, people in his constituency of Harlow are living in "fear, fear, fear, anxiety, people lying in bed at night wondering how they are going to pay their bills".

And that is what MPs are hearing all over the country as they finish the summer recess in their constituencies before heading back to parliament next week to welcome a new prime minister who must immediately turn to the impact of soaring energy prices.

Robert Halfon did not hold back.

This week, we travelled with three MPs to hear first-hand what their constituents are telling them to try to understand the scale of the crisis.

What we found was shocking. In previous crises I've seen terrible suffering, but usually at the extremes. Here the struggles were everywhere we turned.

Take Leicester, where we began, with Labour MP Jonathan Ashworth at the Shama women's centre.

The chief executive, Khudeja Amer-Sharid, described the stories she was hearing like a "tsunami"- saying it was the worst she had ever seen.

But we didn't need to focus on those women that the centre supports to find hardship - it was there among the student volunteers, and the staff.

The nursery manager, Sultana Miah, who is a single mother with two boys, is having to cut back on her weekly food shop - including Bangladeshi fish - and is scared about heating in the winter. She now parks her car halfway to work and walks 25 minutes to cut down on fuel.

'I don't know what's coming next'

"It is scary because I don't know what is coming next," she said. "I am already in crisis."

Ashworth talked about pensioners telling him they feared this would be their last winter. It seemed extreme, and yet within minutes we met someone with exactly that fear. Mother and grandmother, Meryl Skerritt, who described things as "rough and tough", said she was scared about surviving the winter.

Jennifer Hillhouse suggested that MPs need to pay more attention, arguing "they are alright because they are getting their big, fat payslips, and what are we getting? Pennies".

We met them at St Peter's church - in the poorest part of the city - where rector Jonathan Surridge is getting a hall partitioned to create a heated room, where residents will be able to come if they can't afford to heat their homes. This is effectively a "warm-bank" like ones being set up around the country.

Perhaps the most heart-breaking stories came at the Eyres Monsell community centre, 15 minutes drive away, where a food pantry offers cut price goods.

There, Nadia Nyszczota, who suffers with lung cancer, said she wouldn't put the heating on at all this winter, and was scared of turning on the cooker after reading that it will cost £5 in energy to cook a roast dinner. She said it was worse now than in the 1970s when there were power cuts.

Lilian Bevins and Tracie Sheffield had similarly upsetting stories - and they had all come to rely on this community centre for friendship - suffering terrible loneliness at home.

But it wasn't just individuals, it was businesses too. In Batley and Spen, we met local MP Kim Leadbeater, whose caseworker Sheikh Ullah was clearly angry and upset to hear so many difficult stories from constituents.

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Kim spoke of gyms, butchers and swimming pools struggling, and pubs, taking us to the Wickham Arms in Cleckheaton - where Stephen and Kay Hey face losing the business they built from scratch 32 years ago.

But with the electricity rising from £12,000 to £56,000 including VAT, they can't carry on, with Stephen in tears as he described his desperation, and how he felt nervous and anxious.

"I don't know what I'm going to do - I'm 74 and I'll probably have to find a job. Simple as that." Asked what the pub meant to him, he said "everything".

And its not just them. Staff there have worked with the couple for years and they are at the centre of the community, taking part in a local folk festival and providing a space for a bridge club that has met there for 10 years.

One lady attending it said she lived on her own and this was her only social contact - a "lifeline". She was "devastated" that the pub might have to close, unless there is major government help.

Stephen and Kay Hey are facing a huge rise in bills.

Stephen said that Covid was easier because there was so much support, praising the then chancellor, Rishi Sunak, for his furlough scheme.

In Harlow, Carly Bird said she couldn't switch the heating on last year or this year, and felt people were crying out for help. "We've been abandoned," she said about the government being unable to act because of the Conservative leadership race.

Despite her own struggles, Carly has turned her garden into an allotment to try to help feed others.

But Halfon pointed out that while community acts like that are amazing, they simply aren't enough to provide what is needed right now.

Everyone we met concluded on the same point - that ultimately it is down to the government to act, which is why we will need to see immediate action next week, whoever wins.