The Welfare Reform Committee in Holyrood has accused the UK Government of being “in denial” over the link between welfare reforms and increasing demand on food banks.
Committee members visited a number of food banks across Scotland and took written evidence from providers including Trussell Trust, Oxfam Scotland and the British Red Cross, as part of an inquiry into the supposed link between benefit changes and food bank usage.
The committee also commissioned research from the Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh.
According to the Trussell Trust, the demand for food banks has increased by 400% since the UK Government began their relentless attack on social security benefits.
The committee raised concerned that the increased use of benefit sanctions against some of the poorest sections of society is behind the startling rise in food bank usage.
In the year leading up to September 2013, official Government figures show that nearly 900,000 Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) claimants had their benefit payments cut or stopped completely – the highest figure since JSA was introduced.
22,840 sick and disabled people in receipt of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) were also sanctioned during this period.
This, in part, has led to MSPs arguing that it is “insulting to suggest” that there is “no robust evidence linking food bank usage to welfare reform”, as suggested by Tory employment minister Esther McVey in a letter to the Scottish Government.
McVey recently postponed a meeting with the committee to discuss the impact of welfare reform in Scotland. This resulted in Labour MSP Ken Macintosh accusing the UK Government of deliberately trying to “avoid answering questions” about the “significant and negative impact the welfare changes have had on some of our most vulnerable”.
Scottish Labour MSP and convener of the committee, Michael McMahon said:
“The UK Government can no longer ignore the evidence that their welfare reforms are having a real impact on people’s ability to feed themselves.
“There can be no place for this in a modern, prosperous nation, just as there should be no need for food banks.
“Our evidence showed some low paid workers need to access food banks.
“This makes it even more insulting for them to insist that people using food banks are anything other than in desperate need of help. Help the welfare system should be providing, not charities.
“Allowing this Dickensian model of welfare to take root is simply unacceptable. Ignoring the problem cannot be part of the solution.”
The committee’s Deputy convener and SNP MSP Jamie Hepburn, said:
“All our committee members visited food banks across Scotland.
“We were impressed by the professional and respectful way that the volunteers dealt with people who came to them, often in their hour of greatest need.”
Hepburn said that the UK Government needed to “own up to the role it is playing in causing the increase in demand and stop pretending this is simply all about people looking for something for nothing”, and that any such suggestion “insults the vulnerable members of our society using food banks and the volunteers that run them”.
Hepburn slammed the government’s welfare changes for “pushing people to the brink – and often beyond”.
A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) dismissed the report as not being “based on solid evidence, but on the opinions of those interviewed”, adding:
“The truth is that employment is going up, benefits are being paid to claimants more quickly and independent experts tell us that there are fewer people struggling with their food bills compared with a few years ago.
“The Trussell Trust and other foodbanks agree that increased awareness has helped to explain their recent growth.
“We spend £94bn a year on working age benefits and the welfare system provides a safety net that supports millions of people who are on low incomes or unemployed.
“Our reforms will improve the lives of some of the poorest families in our communities by promoting work and helping people to lift themselves out of poverty.”