Food Banks

– in the Scottish Parliament on 3rd September 2013.

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Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

2. To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support food banks.

Photo of Margaret Burgess Margaret Burgess Scottish National Party

I congratulate Jackie Baillie on her new role shadowing the welfare portfolio. Like my health colleagues in the past, I look forward to some lively spats.

The Scottish Government supports access to affordable, healthy and sustainable food for all and acknowledges that, with the current economic climate, welfare reform and increasing food prices, that access is becoming a greater concern for many people.

The Scottish Government has provided an additional £9.2 million to the Scottish welfare fund, which means that we are providing the capacity to award an additional 5,600 community care grants and more than 100,000 crisis grants in this financial year. That fund will provide people with emergency support, so the necessity for food banks should be reduced. However, my concern is that the United Kingdom Government benefits reform programme unfairly impacts on some of the most vulnerable members of our society. In particular, I am concerned that the cuts and changes to the welfare system will undermine the long-term approach that we are taking to tackle the causes of poverty.

The solution is for the Scottish Parliament to have control over welfare matters so that we can devise policies for the benefit of the Scottish people.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

I thank the minister for welcoming me to my new portfolio. I hope that, in a few weeks’ time, she does not regret doing so.

I am most interested in the powers that the Scottish Government already has—powers that it should be exercising to protect the most vulnerable. Frankly, I am appalled that, in 21st century Scotland, we have food banks in our communities.

According to the Trussell Trust, the number of Scots accessing emergency food banks over the past year has increased by 150 per cent, to more than 14,000 people. Almost one third of those people were children, which should concern us all.

What more can the Scottish Government do specifically to help children who are experiencing such extremes of poverty that they have to depend on food banks?

Photo of Margaret Burgess Margaret Burgess Scottish National Party

The Scottish Government has taken forward a number of actions to reduce child poverty in Scotland—an issue that is of great concern for me and for the Scottish Government. As I said, we have put in place a number of activities to provide support, including the Scottish welfare fund, our social wage—the social wage helps families that are struggling—and free prescriptions. We are against the UK Government’s welfare cuts, as Jackie Baillie well knows.

As I laid out, if we had our own welfare system and were in charge of our own economy, we could ensure that our policies in health, housing and welfare were integrated to ensure that we could deliver the best possible opportunity for all the people of Scotland, and particularly our children.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

There is no disagreement on this side of the chamber about the impact of the UK Government’s welfare cuts, but despite the actions that she has outlined we still see children queuing for assistance at food banks.

The minister will be aware that, since the Scottish welfare fund was introduced to provide crisis grants, there has been a significant underspend in that budget. That goes against everything that we know about the level of need that exists in our communities—there is even anecdotal evidence that, having been refused crisis loans, people are being referred to food banks. What action will the Scottish Government take to ensure that, instead of there being an underspend in that budget, the people who need them most can access crisis grants?

Photo of Margaret Burgess Margaret Burgess Scottish National Party

Rather than criticise the Scottish Government on the Scottish welfare fund, Jackie Baillie should congratulate us on establishing that fund and topping it up by £9.2 million. The Scottish welfare fund, which came in in April this year, is a new fund that has not bedded in yet, but we are doing everything that we can to encourage people to use it. I spent the summer recess travelling up and down Scotland speaking to local authorities, third sector organisations and community groups to promote the fund and to encourage take-up. An officer within the Scottish Government is monitoring the fund for consistency and to look at how we can do things better. Jackie Baillie should join us in promoting the fund and, rather than criticise us, congratulate us on introducing a fund that protects our poorest people.

Photo of Stuart McMillan Stuart McMillan Scottish National Party

Yesterday, I had a meeting with the food bank in Inverclyde, where I was informed that, since opening up last September, it has fed 2,500 people, including 750 children. Those figures are worsening, despite the fact that we have not yet felt the full effects of welfare reform. Can the minister inform me what discussions are taking place with the UK Government to inform it that its wider economic agenda is not working and that there are many people and families whose lives are being devastated as a consequence?

Photo of Margaret Burgess Margaret Burgess Scottish National Party

There is regular correspondence with the UK Government on those issues. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in March, ahead of the UK Government’s budget statement, to set out the Scottish Government’s concerns about the failure of the UK Government to grow the economy. I share the finance secretary’s concern about the cuts to benefit incomes for families across the country at a time when many are having to deal with sharp rises in the cost of living. I will continue to raise those issues with UK Government ministers at every opportunity, both in person and in writing.

As I said, the solution is for Scotland to have control of its own economy and welfare system. We might then see a reduction in food banks in this country.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

Does the minister agree that it is unacceptable that unaffordable water charges are acting as a barrier to the setting up of a food bank in Coatbridge? Is charitable exemption under the Government’s scheme an option to allow that desperately needed facility to open?

Photo of Margaret Burgess Margaret Burgess Scottish National Party

As set out in the current statement on charging for water for 2010 to 2015, the exemption is available only to those organisations that received an exemption in 1999, so it is not currently available to new organisations. However, Scottish Water recognises the issues that that creates and is working with the Scottish Government to look at introducing a revised scheme from 2015 that would be open to all small charities. Therefore, I accept the point that Elaine Smith has made.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick None

I apologise to Margo MacDonald, who wanted to ask a supplementary question, but we need to move on to the next item of business.