There’s a strange dynamic around foodbanks in Scotland. Nobody seems to think we should have them, but all the while the number of Scots who use them grows and grows.
Figures published by foodbank charity the Trussell Trust today show a 13 per cent rise in the number of emergency food parcels delivered to people in crisis across the UK. But that average masks an even higher rise in Scotland, where food bank use is up by 17 per cent.
The UK Government likes to to argue the reasons for foodbank use are complex and no single issue explains it. But the facts seem pretty simple. The reason 28 per cent of people forced to use a foodbank give for doing so is low income – “not earning and on benefits”. Another 22 per cent said benefit delays had driven them to seek emergency food aid, and 18 per cent blamed benefit changes.
The changes, the refusal to uprate benefits, and the deliberate, built-in delays are all government policy. Benefit rates are frozen and will remain so until 2020 (at least). The Government has “listened” and cut the waiting period for Universal Credit, during which people are likely to have no income, from six weeks to five.
Benefit changes are designed to cut billions from welfare spending. Sanctions are still a significant reason why some people can’t afford food.
The Trussell Trust says there is an urgent need to look at the adequacy of current benefit levels. Noone should be left hungry or destitute, Scottish director Tony Graham says.
The charity is calling for benefit levels to be uprated in line with inflation. They suggest this is particularly important for disabled people and families with dependent children though I’m not sure it ever helps to discriminate between the worthiness of those in need.
The concern about a study which I reported a month ago, also hints at the troubling dynamics around foodbanks. That research, by GoWell Glasgow, said many provide more than just groceries – such as company, advice and community – and suggested their role could not be simply done away with.To some that sounds worrying like an acceptance of foodbanks as part of a permanent safety net, an unofficial social security system.
Scotland – and the Scottish Government has resisted that approach, looking for ways to create more lasting community food projects to tackle problems caused by low incomes.
Members of the Menu for Change initiative (Oxfam, the Child Poverty Action Group, the Poverty Alliance and Nourish Scotland) point out that the GoWell research found foodbanks only reach one in two families who need them.
“Many people don’t go, and therefore foodbanks don’t meet their needs,” says Polly Jones of Menu for Change.
Strengthening foodbanks isn’t the answer. Fixing the unfair benefits system and tackling low pay are part of the solution. Even the Trussell Trust thinks so. “It’s completely unacceptable that anyone is forced to turn to a foodbank in Scotland”, says Tony Graham, the man who runs them.