It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, as we debate what is fast becoming a national disgrace—I refer to the widespread growth of poverty in our society, and in Scotland in particular, and the consequent mushrooming of food banks throughout the country, both formally and informally, via charities, churches and voluntary organisations. As constituency MPs, we know what is happening on the ground. It is distressing to find that neither the UK Government nor the Scottish Government have been able to get any reliable statistics on the extent of food poverty in our country. I regard that as a gross dereliction of duty. They are what I call the “don’t know and don’t care” Governments. My plea is for them to establish the facts about food banks and food poverty, and to do so quickly.
This morning I want to focus on four related themes. First, I want to praise the many individuals and organisations stepping up to the mark to address this unprecedented food crisis. Throughout the country, groups are often overwhelmed by the extent of food poverty in their communities. Secondly, I shall highlight real-life constituency cases that hon. Members will find appalling. There are already food banks not on the official list that are operating informally. Thirdly, I shall present a picture of the food crisis in Scotland overall and identify some of the causes. Lastly, I want to emphasise the apparent complacency of two Governments who have abdicated their welfare responsibilities to those in desperate poverty and exhort them to think again about their priorities. In particular, I want to focus on the legitimate needs of the increasing number of constituents who are marginalised in society, many of whom keep a low profile due to the perceived stigma and the shame of seeking handouts. [ Interruption. ] While I locate this mobile phone—it is lovely to see somebody on call—I will give way.
Thank you, Mr Betts. I am sorry. Will my hon. Friend confirm that he is saying that in this age—in 2012—there is a necessity for food banks? Is that not an abrogation of all Governments’ responsibilities?
Absolutely. I could not agree more. The only organisation or government I know of that is beginning to take a significant interest in this is Labour-controlled Fife council, for whose area I am MP.
In particular, I want to focus on the legitimate needs of the increasing number of constituents who are marginalised in society, many of whom keep a low profile due to the perceived stigma and the shame of seeking handouts, when they once had a pride in catering for their own and their family’s needs.
I commend the many charities, trusts, churches and voluntary organisations, such as the Trussell Trust, FareShare and the plethora of local groups, that have set up food banks in our communities—and they are not only for Christmas.
I am going to a Select Committee meeting shortly, so I apologise that I will not be able to stay for the full session. My hon. Friend refers to the many local groups undertaking such work. Does he agree that there are probably dozens of organisations in each constituency? We will not know about some of them, which is why it is important to get some idea of the extent of such activity. In my constituency, besides FareShare, we have Edinburgh City Mission, Bethany Christian Trust, the Missionaries of Charity and the Salvation Army, as well as local community groups and many other organisations. We need Government recognition of the extent of the problem.
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. I will cite examples from my constituency.
I commend highly the initiative, moral purpose, compassion and tenacity of those doing voluntary work in the face of adversity. I warmly welcome, too, the work of Citizens Advice Scotland, supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Tesco and the local authorities who are intervening to help. Collectively, they are trying valiantly to meet the desperate needs of many people who face genuine poverty—working families, those on benefit, pensioners and young people.
Charity and voluntary work is highly demanding, and usually rewarding when needs are met, but sometimes recently it has become a soul-destroying venture, because needs cannot be met even with all the resources in the local community and the good will it provides. Such volunteers are, in every respect, local heroes who contribute above and beyond the call of duty to address hunger and poverty that is sadly increasingly rife in our society. I pay tribute to those outstanding individuals and groups, who put service before self and make real differences to the lives of those in despair through poverty.
What a sad indictment of the Governments at Westminster and Holyrood that so many Scots are dependent on handouts and nobody has bothered even to gather statistics. I shall illustrate that later with a response from the Department for Work and Pensions.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. On Friday, I and the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland visited a food bank in my constituency. We were told sad stories of people, even working people, who have to go to food banks for food parcels. At the weekend, that same organisation—Elim Pentecostal Church, working in partnership with the Trussell Trust—was working with the messy church in Toryglen on Saturday on a toy bank, because many families cannot afford to buy their children toys at Christmas. Local people give toys—another demonstration of how Scotland is coming together to help people in vulnerable communities. We now need our Governments to come together to help such communities too.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention, which stressed the situation I have been highlighting.
The Governments are strong on rhetoric, but short on action in dealing with the human tragedy that is seeping through our communities, where payday loan sharks capitalise on fuel, clothing and food poverty. We are told again and again that we have caring and compassionate Governments and we are all in this together, and yet there is an explosion of food and fuel poverty. It is an outrage. Our good track record in responding to human tragedy and emergencies abroad must be matched here. Welfare begins at home.
The hallmark of a civilised society is how we treat the poor and vulnerable, and we are falling well short for those who are disadvantaged and disabled. The Tory-led and SNP Governments have shown a callous disregard for the increasing number of citizens on the breadline. They should hang their heads in shame.
I want to give hon. Members a flavour of the nature and extent of the food crisis that faces people in my constituency. We affectionately refer to the YMCA and the YWCA as the Y. To their eternal credit they have run food banks and homeless shelters for 20 years. They inaugurated a food bank long before the term was commonly used and recognised. Numbers were small and their success was impressive. Mary Hill and her team do a fantastic job, way beyond realistic expectations. I visited the Y on Monday and, as I was leaving, I met a former pupil, now in his mid 20s. He had been a model student, he had worked hard and got an apprenticeship, but had lost his job. He was unsure how to react when he saw me—Hon. Members might say that too—but seriously, tears welled up in his eyes as he told the staff that he had no food until his next benefit payment on Friday. He had 7p in his pocket. He clearly felt ashamed and uncomfortable, and I reassured him that the Y would do all that they could to help him in his crisis. That visit was his first, and it symbolises the recent upsurge in demand of more than 50%. The Y cannot cope on their own, so they are outsourcing food bank pick-ups from local churches and other voluntary organisations.
Rationing is occurring in the Y. The senior caseworker recently told me that they have been opening bags of rice and rationing the rice, giving people just enough to see them through one day. She says that some have been so undernourished that they can provide them only with soup, because their stomachs are not used to food and cannot handle a full meal; and they are not drug addicts. What a sad indictment. Understandably, victims do not want their names publicised, because of the stigma, low self-esteem and lack of hope associated with their plight. In a very real sense, they are the hidden hungry and, as I will illustrate later, they do not come into the statistics at all.
Two examples of the callous and inhumane treatment by Government agencies, particularly the Department for Work and Pensions, are worthy of note. The first concerns a young man who was badly beaten up; the perpetrator was jailed for two years. The young man’s employment and support allowance was stopped after he failed an Atos assessment. Despite the best efforts of my constituency staff and his doctor, who had sound medical evidence, his appeal was rejected. He now has no income for two months—his appeal will be held at the end of January—and is totally dependent on the good will of his friends in the Y and associated organisations.
The other example concerns a father whose wife was giving birth to their third child. He was instructed to visit a company 9 miles away, but it was snowing and he had two children at home, so he did not attend to pick up a leaflet. As a result, despite the explanation given both by me and other folk in the constituency, his appeal was turned down and he is now on hardship benefits. There was no flexibility, no human understanding. I do not blame the DWP personnel, because that is what they are told to do. It is disgraceful; what an outrageous indictment of life in Fife, Scotland and the UK in the 21st century. The only Government agency that is planning to help is Labour-controlled Fife council, and we will take that forward at a meeting on Monday.
The Y plans to join the Trussell Trust link of officially recognised food banks, but the franchise fee is £1,500, which is an additional sum of money for it to find. The caseworker’s assessment is stark:
“The working poor and benefit recipients are being manoeuvred into a long-term famine”.
She also warns that
“the eye of the storm has yet to hit as April looms, when the bedroom tax for many will further reduce income”.
According to the Trussell Trust, there are 21 official food banks in Scotland and, since April, almost 6,200 people throughout Scotland have received emergency food parcels, including almost 2,000 children. About 6,000 people in Scotland benefit daily from FareShare services, but I submit that that is only the tip of a much larger Scottish poverty iceberg, as local food banks are emerging throughout Scotland. With minimal research, I have discovered that there are 10 in my constituency, which has about 65,000 to 70,000 people. According to Save the Children, one in seven of Scotland’s poorest children do not get enough to eat. I am sure that others speakers will elaborate and give more information from their experience, as hon. Friends have already done.
Scots are trapped between two Governments who have their priorities wrong. The Scottish National party could intervene now, and it has the power to do so. According to my information, the Scottish Government have found thousands of pounds for political saltires, and have spent £500,000 on the First Minister’s visit to the Ryder cup, £400,000 on the rental of Scotland house during the Olympics and £30 million on communications and ministerial support—much of it no doubt fixated on the referendum—at the expense of the real needs of the poor in Scotland. I understand that the last time food banks and food poverty was mentioned in the Holyrood Chamber by the First Minister was in September—so much for the commitment to protect Scots from the worst excesses of the coalition Government. We hear regular promises of a land of milk and honey on separation, but the SNP commitment to the poor hungry seems shallow to say the least. Indeed, it suits the SNP to sit back and blame the coalition Government, rather than, in its quest for separation, take the initiative.
The number in poverty is dramatically increasing, with gas and electricity prices rising between 8% and 14%. In part, the food crisis is exacerbated by the increase in fuel poverty, which the SNP said that it would eliminate by 2016.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is letting his prejudices against the SNP cloud his judgment about the real drivers of the increase in food banks in Scotland, which is to do with income poverty. Does he accept that support aimed at tackling fuel poverty in Scotland is now 15% higher, in cash terms, than it was when Labour left office?
It is certainly higher, but the SNP Government promised to eliminate fuel poverty by 2016, and we are not aware of what they have done.
Most recipients of food from food banks are working strivers, as well as people on benefits. They have had their pay cut or their hours reduced, while others have had their benefits slashed or delayed, which has placed tremendous pressure on families. Others face the same kind of personal challenge that many face when buying a new fridge or something else that compounds the difficulty of managing their expenses. Some have resorted to payday loans and are literally destitute.
Finally, I want to focus on the autumn statement. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had a golden opportunity to address the humanitarian issues that are bringing such hardship and despair to so many citizens throughout the UK. His statement marks a watershed in our welfare system, fracturing the long-standing link between benefits and earnings or prices, which is a hammer blow to the thousands of low-income families struggling to make ends meet.
“This…is a War Budget. It is for raising money to wage implacable warfare against poverty...I cannot help hoping and believing that before this generation has passed away we shall have advanced a great step towards that good time when poverty and wretchedness and human degradation which always follow in its camp will be as remote to the people of this country as the wolves which once infested its forests.”—[Hansard, 29 April 1909; Vol. 4, c. 548.]
Regrettably, the wolves are back, with that characteristic ruthlessness and insensitivity towards the vulnerable in our society. I am not surprised in the slightest that few coalition Members are here. How on earth could they come along to try to defend the indefensible?
Further evidence of a “Don’t know, don’t care” Government is the response to my written question to the DWP about the number of food banks in operation and the extent of food poverty. It stated:
“DWP/Jobcentre Plus do not collate or hold numbers of people signposted to food banks or the reasons why individuals are referred. Jobcentre Plus is not the only route way for individuals to be signposted to a food bank.”—[Hansard, 27 November 2012; Vol. 554, c. 321W.]
What a clinical, insensitive and uncaring response.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has stated:
“There is no official estimate of the level of food poverty in the UK.”—[Hansard, 17 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 298W.]
Surely, with the scale of the crisis and the growth of the hidden hungry, responsible Governments should desperately want to know. Or are they happy to abdicate responsibility to the many voluntary organisations—they do such tremendous work and depend on donations—that act as substitutes for the welfare state? In the light of the evidence, would a responsible and caring Government not want to abandon the tax cut for millionaires, robustly pursue tax avoidance and evasion and consider windfall taxes on the vast profits of energy companies to enhance benefits and tax credits by more than 1%?
“We would be deeply concerned if it was ever seen that charities and food banks would in any way be a kind of replacement for a tax and benefit policy that ensures all our families have adequate income for the task of bringing up their children.”
I urge the Government to assess robustly the nature and scale of the food crisis faced by the poor and vulnerable in our society and, more importantly, to do something about it.
A letter published in The Observernewspaper, signed by 59 leading charities and civic society groups, sums up my position well:
“As we mark the 70th anniversary of the Beveridge Report, which laid the foundations of the welfare state, we risk losing that very safety net he intended, it is a punitive, unfair policy and must not happen.”
The “Don’t know, don’t care” Government will forever be castigated for their inhumane and callous approach to the hidden hungry. They have completely abdicated their responsibility. It is not too late to change tack, Minister. As a decent man, I hope that he will, through his office, pursue this matter and oppose what is happening in Cabinet. I implore him to break ranks with the out-of-touch Cabinet, which is, whether consciously or unwittingly, wrecking the lives of Scots through its complacency and inaction. Scotland’s poor deserve his unequivocal support.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Lindsay Roy on securing this debate.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important topic, as last week’s autumn statement revealed the true scale of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor’s economic failure. While millionaires get a £3 billion tax cut, it is people who are already struggling to make ends meet—lower and middle-income families, and pensioners—who are paying the price for this failure. Every day, people in this country go hungry for reasons ranging from losing their jobs, to receiving an unexpected bill on a low income. Some 13 million people are living in poverty in this country.
I find it abhorrent that in 2012, people have to rely on food banks or go hungry. What kind of society are we living where so many of our citizens cannot afford to eat properly or keep warm, yet the rich get richer under the coalition Government’s tax breaks for the very wealthy, and the banks continue to make astronomical profits and pay out obscene bonuses? Back home, the SNP Scottish Government stand idly by.
Britain’s biggest food bank operator, the Trussell Trust, has more than 250 food banks throughout the United Kingdom, of which some 10% are located in Scotland. This year alone, it launched three food banks per week in response to demand, which has been exacerbated by the current economic climate. Incredibly, up to 1,000 food banks are needed to satisfy demand that has leapt by 30% a year since the recession began.
The Trussell Trust fed 110,000 people in the first half of this year, and 250,000 hungry Britons—a quarter of a million—will have used emergency food banks by the end of the year. What a dramatic change in a relatively short space of time.
The latest figures, which are four times higher than two years ago—that represents a 400% rise in people using food banks—include parents too poor to feed their children and desperate householders forced to choose between eating and heating. Even people in work are on the breadline, and the number of people struggling to feed themselves is rising. Let me say for the benefit of the Minister that the sole purpose of food banks is to provide an emergency supply of up to three days-worth of non-perishable and nutritionally balanced food, such as tinned soups, meats and pasta, to individuals and families in crisis who would be at risk of going hungry.
Is it not absolutely ironic that in two days’ time Halls of Broxburn, in my hon. Friend’s constituency, is closing and as a consequence, the workers are setting up a food bank? Is that not an indictment against the nationalists and the Government in Westminster?
Indeed. It is a sad indictment of both Governments. The example my hon. Friend gave is based in my constituency, and some 1,700 people are in the process of losing their jobs.
The food produce is donated by churches, voluntary groups, individuals and the public via collection days outside supermarkets. To help sustain anonymity, food parcels are handed out from the food bank warehouse distribution centre by volunteers and no deliveries are made. Access to emergency food boxes is secured via the exchange of a voucher, which may be issued by social workers, health visitors, GPs and the police.
Christmas is a particularly difficult time for people with little or no disposable income. I wonder whether Dickens ever imagined such a bleak picture more than a century and a half on from “A Christmas Carol”. Could he have guessed that many of these neglected people would come not from the poorer, deprived sections of society but from middle and lower-income families, and include pensioners? Fewer than 5% of food bank clients are homeless; many are in working families; one third of recipients are children. What a sad indictment of modern society under the Prime Minister and Alex Salmond. The Tories’ instinctive dislike of the poor and the spread of food banks seem to go hand in hand under this Government. How long ago would collecting food parcels for the hungry have been virtually unthinkable in the UK?
I am really disgusted that the Government place so much effort on reforming the benefits system and, in turn, punishing the most vulnerable in our society. Yet if the Government concentrated at least some effort on collecting taxes from the international corporations that operate in this country and on closing some of the loopholes in the tax system, there would be more money to go around. It also makes me sick that the outgoing Governor of the Bank of England is to receive a £7.64 million pension pot, while British kids go hungry.
Increasing costs of food and fuel combined with static income, high unemployment and changes to benefits are causing more and more people to turn to food banks for help. Coalition Government austerity cuts and squeezed incomes are forcing people with jobs, as well as benefit claimants, regularly to queue up for food parcels. Many people everywhere are struggling to make ends meet and household finances are being stretched like never before. A small financial crisis, such as a repair bill for a car or a big bill, can quickly turn into a massive disaster. For many people, buying food slips down their list of priorities simply because other things, such as rent, gas and electricity, have to take precedence. For all those people, turning to a food bank is a last resort.
The effects on poorer people can be devastating. An elderly constituent said in an impassioned plea to me when she visited my surgery that she shivers every time she hears the words “food bank”. It reminds her of the depression and conjures up images of breadlines. Many had hard existences in her day, but looking after people was considered a prime moral virtue, regardless of status.
In my own area, the West Lothian food bank is in the process of being developed in association with the Trussell Trust. I believe that the trust’s experience, coupled with the enthusiasm of those concerned, will ensure that the endeavour will succeed. It serves as a good example of effective community building and is testament to how communities in my constituency and throughout West Lothian—and, indeed, across the country—are harnessing and investing their own resources to assist those in greatest need. I pay tribute to them.
What can be done? The first step is for the Government to stop pretending that poverty is not happening. It would be good to see the Government recognise what is very much evident: that it is the most vulnerable who are in greatest need. We need to break down the barriers and change attitudes between the new “us” and “them”—rich and poor.
We also need to appreciate that if the curtains are closed early in the morning, perhaps there is an elderly pensioner trying to keep the heat in, or an impoverished single mum hiding her shame at her inability to feed her children properly, or an unemployed youngster depressed at being unable to find a job.
Some practical interventions could help: a package of support put in place by the Government for those experiencing an acute crisis in their personal circumstances; and a longer-term Government strategy for dealing with the issues identified in this debate. Ultimately, however, we need a lasting change of direction by this Government or, ideally, a change of Government itself: to one who demonstrate compassion, put ordinary people first and recognise the right priorities.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to offer by way of a solution to this completely avoidable crisis.
I will call the Front-Bench spokesmen from 10.40 am. That gives no more than eight minutes each for all the other Members who want to speak. That is a voluntary arrangement, but I hope we can keep to it.
Thank you, Mr Betts, for calling me to speak and I will endeavour to keep to the time stipulations.
I begin by commending Lindsay Roy on bringing such an important issue to the House today in one of the last debates that we will be having in Westminster Hall before the Christmas recess, when I am sure that many of us will eat and drink a lot more than is necessarily good for us. It is, therefore, timely for us to remember that some people’s festivities will be extremely frugal this year, particularly if they are in food poverty.
I must confess that I do not think food banks are a good means of addressing the low-income inequality that gives rise to the need for them, but they are playing an increasingly important role in emergency provision for people who are in crisis. We can only commend the people in our local churches and communities who are stepping up to fill that gap in what should be an important part of our social protection provision, to ensure that people do not go hungry at what is a very difficult time for many people economically.
The Trussell Trust and Citizens Advice Scotland have both presented a picture—one that is remarkably similar across the islands—of a doubling in demand for food bank provision during the last year alone. This morning, it is particularly important to pay tribute to the work of CAS, which has done so much to highlight the exponential growth in food banks and, critically, has also attempted to understand the reasons for that growth. Its analysis, especially in its “Voices from the Front Line” report, which was published this autumn, identifies the key drivers very well.
Margaret Lynch, chief executive of CAS, has described the historical backdrop of food parcels and the situation that we are in now. She points out that charities such as the Salvation Army and the Society of St Vincent de Paul have always provided practical assistance for families in crisis who temporarily could not feed themselves. In this recession, the number of working families and people on benefits who need help to feed their children and themselves has increased exponentially. Margaret Lynch says:
“The National Minimum Wage has failed to keep pace with the massive increases in food prices over the last 5 years, leaving many low income families facing food insecurity. The fact that 50% of those getting food parcels are working is shocking.”
It is interesting to note that the Scottish National party failed to turn up to vote in favour of the national minimum wage when it was put in front of this Parliament.
Let us not argue about what the cause of this crisis is. What are the Scottish Government specifically doing to help ease the pain of families across Scotland? What are they specifically doing?
I have to disagree with the hon. Gentleman, because if we do not understand the causes of this crisis and articulate them clearly and properly, we cannot take effective action. We have seen his own Government in previous generations throw money at problems but with no, or negligible, impact. Until we understand what is driving this crisis, there is absolutely no point flinging words around Westminster Hall.
The fact that 50% of people claiming food parcels are working is—
I do not doubt that the hon. Gentleman will have a higher quality of intervention, but I will not give way at this point, simply because I am conscious of time. Clearly, I have some things to say in this debate and I want to get through them in the time allotted.
The other 50% of the increase in demand for food parcels is from people whose benefits have been delayed or who are having problems with the administration of the benefit system. There is no doubt that the dramatic increase in the demand for emergency support is a consequence of the recession, and the increased numbers of people who face sudden unemployment, or cuts in their working hours or real-terms cuts in their wages. However, demand has also been increased by the austerity measures—the response to the recession by the Government—and the disproportionate hit that people on low incomes, particularly those who wholly or partially depend on benefits to keep them above the breadline, have had to bear in the raft of financial cuts that we have seen during the last two years.
The changes to the benefit system have placed greater restrictions on people, and the stringent time limits on some benefits—such as employment and support allowance, and housing benefit—will only make that problem worse. Experts are warning that the real bite of these measures is still to come.
Aberdeenshire was part of the pilot scheme for the work capability assessment. I am already seeing people at my surgeries who have been assessed as fit to work who are simply not fit for work, and whose precarious health has been further jeopardised and damaged by very difficult engagement with the benefit system. Those left without entitlement are increasingly falling back on financial support from their unpaid family carers, who themselves are often in very tight financial circumstances. These are families who are finding themselves having to rely on emergency support.
The other emergency support in our social protection system, which I debated with the Minister a week ago, is the social fund. As I am sure Members are aware, the social fund currently provides crisis loans and community care grants; it is very much the last safety net of the social protection system. It will be abolished next year, with responsibility for its functions being devolved to Scotland. However, it is important to acknowledge that the Department for Work and Pensions has been managing back the social fund to its 2005-06 level, despite the increasing demands on it, and the money being devolved next year will represent a cut of about 50% on the 2009-10 level.
I would be delighted to take an intervention from the hon. Gentleman, but I will not take any more interventions after this one.
I will do my best to be brief, Mr Betts.
I say to the hon. Lady that the social fund that is now finding its way into the hands of local authorities has not been ring-fenced. Does she share my view that what we may find is some local authorities to a certain extent misusing that money, rather than targeting it at the areas where it is most needed? She should keep in mind that local government is under pressure under her party’s Government.
I am aware that the social fund has not been ring-fenced across the UK. There is a strong argument for ring-fencing it. I am not aware of the details of the welfare fund that the Scottish Government are putting in place, but I know that it will be a national fund. I expect that that fund probably will be ring-fenced, but that is a question that needs to be addressed to Scottish Ministers.
I am pleased that the Scottish Government have committed extra money to make up the shortfall in the social fund once it is devolved, after the cuts that have been made to it, and that there will be an opportunity for that to happen. That is one concrete way that protection can be put in place.
I will be very quick, as I do not want to test your patience, Mr Betts. One of the assertions that has been made in the debate is that there is a lack of research in this area. When I was doing my research in preparation for the debate, I was very much informed by the low-income diet and nutrition survey, which was commissioned by the Food Standards Agency. It gave a very clear picture, and a wealth of useful information, about diet and nutrition in Scotland, and it makes it very clear that they are associated with income poverty. The most deprived 15% of the population are likely to be eating about half the recommended level of fruit and vegetables, and well above the maximum recommended level of sugar.
Health inequalities and their consequences are not the subject of this debate, but it is important that we look at the issue of food banks holistically and on the basis of the evidence, and that we understand that changes to the benefit system are having an impact across these islands. We need to put in place emergency provision, but at the same time we need to tackle the long-term drivers of income poverty and poor nutrition in our society.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Lindsay Roy on securing this important debate.
Put bluntly, food poverty across the UK is a national disgrace. The statistics are shocking and heart-rending. In Britain today, 13 million people live below the poverty line. In 2011-12, food banks fed more than 128,000 people nationwide—100% more than in the previous year. That has been driven by the rising cost of food and fuel, combined with static income, high unemployment and changes to benefits made by the Tory-led coalition Government. Those things are causing more and more people to go to food banks for help.
In Scotland, the number of families needing food banks has also risen by 100%, with nearly 3,000 people receiving food parcels since April this year. One charity alone has fed 6,000 people across Scotland. We now have a Dickensian situation, with many people in low-paid jobs, and people who rely on benefits, being forced to use food banks to feed their children and themselves regularly. The fact that 50% of those going to food banks are working is quite shocking, and it underlines the employment position across Scotland.
I want to focus on my constituency, where a new food bank opened less than three months ago for families falling below the poverty line. It is coming to the aid of local people who are struggling to find enough money to pay for food. It is working in partnership with the Elim church in the east end of Greenock. Those who know that area will know that it is not one of the most wealthy areas in my constituency, but it is certainly one of the most giving. I commend the church’s caring response to the hardship that is unfolding in and around its congregation.
I was delighted to assist members of the church with their fundraising the other week. I was also delighted to assist them outside supermarkets, asking for donations for those who are finding it difficult to feed themselves and their families. I have visited the church’s i58 food bank in Inverclyde, and for those not familiar with the Book of Isaiah and Isaiah 58, I should add that it deals with fasting and hunger. Staff at the food bank told me that more than 300 families had visited it in its first three months. They were worried because referrals to it had increased day by day, with more than 50 families visiting on just one day last week. Clearly, the situation is getting worse, as evidenced by the fact that demand is increasing so dramatically as we approach Christmas.
We have a Government in London who seemingly just do not care. Unfortunately, we have a Government in Edinburgh who are blind to everything except their obsession with the constitution. The ever-growing demand for food banks is a shocking sight in 21st-century Britain, and it shows what it truly means to live in Cameron’s Britain and Salmond’s Scotland at present. Neither Government has a credible plan to tackle the dreadful poverty that afflicts our nation.
The UK of the 21st century has people choosing between eating and heating, and for some there is no choice at all, because they can afford to do neither. There should be a national outcry, and tackling this issue should be at the heart of any Government’s programme. No child should go hungry in the UK, and no child, adult or pensioner should go hungry on Christmas day or any other day. Our Governments need to do more to eliminate the scandal of food banks.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Lindsay Roy on securing the debate. It is timely, given that we are looking ahead to enjoying ourselves over Christmas and new year. It is important that we spend some time reflecting on the circumstances of those who are perhaps not quite so fortunate. Perhaps more importantly, we also need to look at what we can do to renew our efforts to deal with this issue when we return to Parliament next year.
This morning on the BBC, I heard a report about the number of children—particularly primary-age children—being fed by schoolteachers, and I am sure my hon. Friend will be familiar with that, given his background in education. From my contact with many primary teachers in my local area and further afield in Scotland, I know that that is not uncommon. For many years, teachers simply would not see children going without a packed lunch or a meal, so it was quite shocking to discover the number of parents in my area who are in arrears with their school meals charges; indeed, that caused a particular problem in the primary school in the village I live in. That is a real concern, because people who are not entitled to free meals, but who are none the less on relatively low incomes, are finding they cannot pay for a school meal for their child. That is a big worry.
In some ways, food banks have made the problem much more visible. For many years, families and the wider community helped out where they could, but the problem now is that many people simply do not have those local networks. Similarly, families do not have the resources to help out, and the grannies, the aunties or whoever would traditionally have helped out may now find that the cuts to benefits and pensions, and the other things that are impacting on them, mean they are unable to help out in the same way.
No one would have wanted to see food banks being set up. For many years, I worked in social work, and I had to go to homes to deliver food parcels on many occasions. It was not a part of the job that I enjoyed, because it was sometimes difficult for the people on the receiving end to ask for help and to feel that they were obliged to others for the help they had been given. However, I recognise that those who have set up food banks are those who have decided they will not simply pass by on the other side of the street, let others take on the responsibility or watch as others suffer.
The sixth food bank to open in Scotland under the auspices of the Trussell Trust was set up in my area of East Ayrshire by Cheryl Forbes and her now husband Gordon Cree. They are well known in my community, and Cheryl is a renowned opera singer. Her background was not particularly well off, but she has done extremely well for herself. Like many people from such a background, she was determined to put something back. When she talked about setting up the food bank in an interview in the local
, she said she remembered vividly how her granny went without so that she could have a meal, following a change in the family’s circumstances, and that has stayed with her.
Many of us would recognise that personally or from the experiences of others we know. Indeed, I was recalling with someone just the other day how we as kids did not actually believe that women ate or sat down at family meals. Quite often, the children would be fed, but the mother or the granny would disappear into the kitchen, saying, “I’ll get something later.” It was only years afterwards that we understood that they never really got something later, because the children were fed, but the mother or the granny went without.
Cheryl set up the food bank, and she has recruited a number of volunteers. The organisation is now very successful, although, ironically, that does not give her and the volunteers a great deal of pleasure. It is doing well—it has recruited the volunteers, got the donations and regularly been out collecting—but it is seeing increasing numbers of people coming for help.
From a very small start in the village of Darvel, with support from the local church, the service has expanded to cover the whole of East Ayrshire, which includes rural communities. It now needs a delivery service to take food out to people in emergency situations in some rural areas. As we have heard, many of those people are not necessarily the ones who have been on low incomes or on benefits for years—ironically, some of those people can manage their money, despite their limited income, because they know exactly how much they have coming in. The people who come to the food bank are those on low wages who have experienced some problem—either, as has been suggested, because of delay in the payment of in-work benefits, child maintenance or something of that kind, or because of unexpected outlay from family income. That could be something as simple as a child needing new shoes or a coat for the winter, so that the family budget for that period is suddenly blown. The people who come to the food bank are of course in a crisis, and need help there and then.
I spent some time with local volunteers and particularly wanted to mention the help that we had. Those helping in the past few months have included Sainsbury’s, the Co-op, Asda and Tesco. The volunteers I was out with a couple of weeks ago, making collections at Tesco, were Rob Hamilton, Linda Nagle and Elaine Haining, who is a Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers representative at Tesco—and, indeed, Tesco staff. There were people who came quietly up to me—some of them on very low incomes themselves—to hand over a couple of tins or a couple of packets of pasta, because they know what it is like not to know where the next meal is coming from and whether they can feed their children.
Surely, despite all the effort that has been put into setting up food banks, that is an indictment: in the 21st century we have a situation that I believed—years ago, when I was involved in social work—we could eradicate, by ensuring that there was a safety net. The problem now is that the safety net is being unravelled bit by bit, and the real terms cuts in in-work benefits in the autumn statement mean that more people will have to rely on food banks in future. I praise the volunteers and everyone who does not walk by, so that people are fed, but I cannot see that that is a good thing in 21st century Scotland.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend Lindsay Roy on securing the debate. I have known him for some time, having worked with him for three months in the lead-up to his glorious by-election victory, and no one in this place is more committed to serving the people he represents.
We now have a food bank in East Lothian. Like my hon. Friend Cathy Jamieson and Dr Whiteford, I have mixed feelings about having to come together to fill the gaps the Government should attend to, and propping up their failure. However, I have increasingly encountered food poverty in my surgeries, and heard about it from local churches and community organisations. I felt that the stage had been reached where to do nothing was not acceptable.
As the data collected by the Trussell Trust show, many of the situations affecting people are caused by interruptions or delays in benefits. That is something on which the Government can act. They can do something about it, and I hope the Minister will comment on it. I draw his attention particularly to the issue of tax credits. A family recently got in touch to tell me about a change in circumstances. Their tax credits were stopped by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs while a review took place. The delay seemed unreasonable—I am sure that many hon. Members have experienced similar cases—and in the mean time, after that family of six had paid for child care and rent, they were left with £80 a month to pay all their bills and feed their children. That is unacceptable in a civilised society.
The other major cause of food poverty in my constituency is the imposition of sanctions on people by the Department for Work and Pensions. I understand that there must be consequences and people must comply; but surely there is a duty of care on the DWP and the Government, and people should at least have access to shelter and food, two of the most basic human needs, whatever their situation. A man who turned up at our citizens advice bureau had not eaten for three days. The Government are not going to starve people into work. That approach will simply not deliver.
I want to draw attention to the impact of food poverty on the health and well-being of children particularly. The development of the brain in the early years is very much affected by the emotional environment and by nutrition, so it is a major concern that young children in Scotland do not get the food they need. A witness who gave evidence to the Select Committee on International Development recently said that the litmus test of a Government is how they are affected by poverty and how they affect poverty. The present Government fail that test. They are not engaging with the issue, and not taking action. I recently tabled a question to the Prime Minister and asked
“whether he has visited a food bank in the last six months; and whether he plans to visit a food bank in the next six months”.
His answer was:
“I have meetings and discussions with a wide range of organisations and individuals at a variety of locations around the country. My engagements are announced as and when appropriate.”—[Hansard, 29 November 2012; Vol. 554, c. 455W.]
That is a shocking response to the most desperate situation that families, pensioners and vulnerable people in my constituency face. The Government are out of touch and need to get to grips with the problem.
Two things have surprised me recently as East Lothian food bank begins to offer help and support. The first really should not have surprised me: that was the generosity of the people of East Lothian. At a recent supermarket collection day at Asda, two weekends ago, people with plenty were willing to share and people who had little were determined to do something. It is amazing how similar that experience is to that described by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun. People often said, “I know what it’s like not to be able to put food on the table.” It is an experience I have had as a mother, as well. I am sad to say that that was when Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister. Food poverty is not always where we expect it to be. We had a lovely detached four-bedroom house. Suddenly the mortgage doubled and we were unable to make ends meet. At that time we had a bank that charged us £50 whenever we were overdrawn, and set us even further back into debt; so I absolutely understand the situation that many families face. The other thing that surprised me is the need. We started to offer support last Tuesday. In seven days the number of referrals has been increasing, and yesterday we had 10. The Government must find out the scale of the problem.
The Government also need to stop demonising the poor. The Chancellor spoke about drawn curtains, but he needs to think why someone would have no sense of purpose in life, and no hope of having a reason even to open their curtains, rather than characterising such people as lazy and unwilling to contribute to society. He will no doubt have his annual skiing holiday, perhaps at Klosters. I do not blame him, as, let’s face it, he has not had a good year; but poor people are human too. They have needs, and need an escape and coping strategies. The Government should stop demonising them and do something about the causes of poverty.
I spoke last night to one of the mothers who received a parcel from the food bank. She talked about how her daughter was enjoying a tin of sardines, and she had not known that she liked them. I realised that I had prepared that food parcel, and it was one of the best feelings in the world to put that parcel together and imagine the pleasure it would bring to a family.
I will leave the Minister with some words from my summer holiday reading, “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. If the Minister has not read it, I recommend it, because no one understands poverty quite like John Steinbeck:
“The causes lie deep and simple—the causes are a hunger in a stomach, multiplied a million times; a hunger in a single soul, hunger for joy and some security, multiplied a million times.”
I ask the Minister please to do something.
It is only a week since we last had a debate in Westminster Hall on food poverty. I want quickly to mention one or two things that were raised then, and to discuss a local organisation in my area. We all know of the good work of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and we heard in the debate last week that its latest report shows that 13.2 million people in this country live in poverty. There is also the recent shocking report by Save the Children. There is no doubt that Save the Children, along with the Children’s Society and Barnardo’s, does tremendous work the length and breadth of the country. That Save the Children report, which was released in September, states that well over half of parents in poverty—some 61%—say they have cut back on food, and more than a quarter—26%—say they have skipped meals. That comes back to the point that my hon. Friend Cathy Jamieson made about mothers all too often saying, “I’ll get something later.” Those words resonate with me because I come from a large family, and on numerous occasions my mother said that, without my realising what she was really saying. We would be having a meal as a family of five children, and mother was going to get something later—that probably never happened.
I want to raise again today a point I raised in last week’s debate, because it is important that we understand just how desperate things get for people. In the Save the Children report, a parent is quoted as saying:
“A year or so ago, we literally relied on any money we raised at car boot sales to pay for food for the week. Some weeks weren’t too bad, others were dire. The British weather decided how we lived that week (when it rained, the turnout at car boot sales fell).”
It is terrible to think that people have to go to such lengths to have money for food.
I want quickly to mention the First Base Agency in Dumfriesshire, organised by a guy called Mark Frankland. Mark is real local worthy. He initially set up the agency to help and support individuals with drug and alcohol problems, and from the success of that he went on to work with veterans, providing them with support through a gardening scheme. They managed to produce some fresh vegetables, and I suspect he must have also had some kind of livestock, because he ended up producing eggs as well.
Mark is a well-known guy who does a lot of work, and the scheme for veterans was therapeutic work, to get some guys back on the road. He has developed a local charity into a business, and that business provides a factoring service for a local registered social landlord, thereby creating a number of jobs that are given over to veterans. Mark has also, very much under the radar, provided food parcels. He is not a recognised food bank of the kind that colleagues have described this morning and in other debates, but he has provided food parcels for a number of years to some of the most vulnerable individuals and families in the local area. Support through churches and local charities has enabled it all to happen. I spoke to Mark yesterday, and he told me that between
November last year and November this year the demand for food parcels trebled. One of the parcels that he manages to provide lasts a family for about three days.
From a wider perspective, all too often we hear comparisons in the House between the UK’s deficit and debt and those of Greece and Spain, with people saying that we are in the same ball park. The fact is that about 2.5% of the population in Greece and Spain is supported by voluntary sector handouts, and that equates to 10 times the support we are experiencing in the UK through food banks and other charities. I absolutely balk, therefore, at the idea that we should be compared with those countries, and I am pleased that we are not there along with them because I wonder what some families, households and communities would be experiencing if the situation was as bad as that.
Colleagues have mentioned the Department for Work and Pensions, and I want to give an example similar to the one that my hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes gave. A single father with three children fell foul of the DWP—the Department, not the staff; the staff are only delivering the systems and policies that are dictated to them. The unfortunate gentleman fell foul of the DWP when he missed an appointment, an appointment of which he said he definitely never received notification. Sanctions were imposed, including a two-month suspension. A father and three children had to simply get by—on what? Fresh air? People must have some kind of support. Frustratingly, the guy was unemployed. He had spare time on his hands, so he went along to the First Base Agency and helped Mark Frankland. He saw it as a duty to do a bit of voluntary work for someone who had helped him in the past.
Absolutely. I could not put it better myself.
So with a two-month suspension and no money, how could the family cope? What kind of lesson or way of existing is that? What kind of environment is that in which to bring up children? Let us not forget the point that my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian made about the need for children to be fed properly, to enable them to develop at a young age. It is life experiences in the early years that have the most impact on children.
We have talked about the SNP Government, and I appreciate that that is not an issue for the Minister to respond to, unless he finds that he has the same train of thought as I do on it. Local government is, however, under real pressure, and what Mark Frankland at the First Base Agency has been experiencing for a long time is social services referring families to him for food parcels. I have spoken to Mark in the past 24 hours and he has told me that social workers will arrive at his office today to pick up food parcels to deliver to some of their clients. A little extra money into social services from the Scottish Government would go a long way.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the cuts to local government in Scotland have been at a lower level than in other parts of the UK, and that the Scottish Government have worked closely with Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to mitigate the impact on low-income families, through, for example, work to secure council tax benefit where it has been abolished?
I identify where the hon. Lady’s loyalty lies, but a question that she and her colleagues in the Scottish Government need to answer is: why were we seeing cuts to local government in Scotland three years before the block grant was cut? There was no need for that whatever. I know that the money was not as great as she might have expected, but we saw cuts three years before the block grant was reduced.
In conclusion, the dilemma that families face—some of which I hope we share—will only be compounded as we move through the next 12 months. There will be universal credit for those in receipt of benefits, and it will be delivered directly to them, so housing benefit and council tax credit will be delivered to the person applying, rather than going directly to where it should be going. Families will get the money, and then the dilemma for them will be: will they pay their rent, or their council tax?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We will compound the problem when people have to make choices. Is it a meal on the table, a pair of shoes for the son or daughter, or paying the rent? I, thankfully, do not have to make those choices, but I am there with people who have to make such difficult decisions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Betts.
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend Lindsay Roy on securing this timely debate and on speaking with such eloquence and passion about the real picture affecting his constituents in Fife. I also praise the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Livingston (Graeme Morrice), for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson), for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie), for East Lothian (Fiona O'Donnell) and for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown), and I commend the contribution of Dr Whiteford.
As people across the country prepare to celebrate the festive season, it is right that we all consider the effects of policy on those who are struggling to make ends meet. Sadly, this year the number of people struggling in food poverty has risen dramatically. I hope the Minister, unlike the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Mr Heath in a debate in this Chamber last week, will acknowledge that food poverty is a growing and distinct social problem and will work to produce a strategy across Government to overcome it.
We should also remember the work of the Trussell Trust and other organisations that are filling the gap in society that this Government are so shamefully leaving behind. The Library of the House informed me on Monday that 6,196 people, including nearly 2,000 children, have been fed by Trussell Trust food banks in Scotland since April 2012. The difficulty in putting together the whole picture is caused by the Government failing to keep proper data on the prevalence of food banks, and I hope the Minister will at least remedy that following this debate.
The Scottish Government are not helping with the cuts they are making to the fuel poverty budgets, which threaten to abandon 800,000 people in Scotland to the scourge of fuel poverty. In addition, progress on child and family poverty has stalled under the present Scottish Government. I do not regard the investment made by the previous Labour Government in the tax credit system, which the Resolution Foundation has established was the principal driver of living standards being sustained to any extent beyond 2003, as throwing money at a problem; it was important as a means of keeping families in good living standards through a difficult period. However, I will focus my remarks on the current Government’s policies, which are causing the surge in the use of food banks.
Yesterday’s inflation figures were striking in pointing to the 3.9% rise in the cost of food compared with a year ago, whereas the consumer prices index measure of inflation is 2.7%.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that important point. Does he agree that it is significant that, within food pricing, bread and vegetables are the items that are most affected?
My hon. Friend is entirely right. The price of fruit and vegetables is rising particularly strongly. Fruit is up 3.9% in the past year, and vegetables are up 8.1%, all of which is contributing to what has been described as a nutritional recession, with people cutting back on the purchase of fresh food and relying more on cheaper processed food instead.
Last week the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published a study, which included evidence from Scottish households, showing that households in the lowest two income deciles are spending more of their income on food than they were five years ago—such spending is now 16.6% of their income—but their purchases of fresh fruit and vegetables have slumped because of soaring prices and the squeeze on household finances.
There is no doubt that some of the principal underlying causes are the squeeze on real wages in Scotland—down 7.4% in the first two years of this Government—the excessive pace of fiscal tightening, annual energy bills rising by an average of £300 since 2010 and the tax rises being imposed on ordinary people by this Government, not least the hike in VAT, which on average is costing ordinary families £480 a year in extra tax. As we predicted, the effect of those policies has been to strip demand from the economy, particularly from the poorest communities.
Three themes have emerged from this debate. First, the Government have no policy to counter the downward spiral of real wages. Under this Government, people are worse off than they were a decade ago. The effects of continuing with their policies were put starkly by the Resolution Foundation in its recent report, “Gaining from Growth”. Under this Government’s policies, real wages are likely to be no higher in 2017 than in 1999. People will be on average £1,700 a year worse off at the end of that period. With living standards in the UK declining at a faster rate than for some of our major European partners, perhaps seeing us drop to sixth in the European living standards league will focus minds in the Treasury a little more than has so far been the case.
Secondly, underemployment is affecting the disposable income that people in Scotland are taking home and are able to spend on food and other social necessities. More than 270,000 people in Scotland are trapped in involuntary part-time work or self-employment. There is a huge amount of evidence demonstrating the link between underemployment and low pay.
Thirdly, the Government’s policies on tax and benefits will increase reliance on food banks still further. We know that one major driver of the use of food banks among the jobless and those on low incomes is short-term cash-flow difficulties and problems accessing the social fund. Should this Government persist in introducing a real-terms benefit and tax credit cut over the next three years, they will accelerate the process by which people fall into debt problems and extreme poverty.
We need only consider the warning from history about where such policies take society. The cuts in the 1930s contributed to a situation described by Beveridge as one in which social evils such as want were on the rise. Surely we have moved beyond a situation where Conservative and Liberal Democrat Ministers—sadly, no Liberal or Conservative Back Benchers were willing to come to this debate to support their Minister or to defend these outrageous policies—would inflict that on the country once again, in the face of all the evidence on how destructive it would be to fragile economic demand and how it would endanger our social fabric.
The Chancellor said in relation to his emergency Budget of June 2010 that he would not seek to balance the books on the “backs of the poor.” He has at least kept part of that pledge, because with borrowing £212 billion higher at the end of this Parliament, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility, and debt higher, not lower, as a share of GDP, the Chancellor is not balancing the books; but he is making the poorest hurt the most through that policy. The Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that the policies announced in the autumn statement will hit the bottom 40% of the income scale harder as a share of income than the top 10% next April while removing work incentives for millions of people. Sixty per cent. of the Chancellor’s welfare cuts will affect people in work, and 76% of the cuts in tax credits in Scotland will hammer families in which someone works.
In the Minister’s constituency, which I have researched, 83% of the tax credit cuts will affect people in work. In the constituency of the Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Moore, 82% of the tax credit cuts will hammer people in work. How on earth is that defensible?
The politics behind what the Government are doing are equally contemptible. The Scottish National party Government are attempting to divide us geographically from the rest of the UK, but this Government are attempting to divide people socially and economically form their neighbours.
This has been a good debate, but now it requires a proper response from the Government, who must answer why, in a rich country, they are prepared to tolerate the return of involuntary reliance on charity rather than adopt a proper policy to tackle food poverty and boost wages and living standards. They must answer why they are prepared to demonise the poor rather than join the rest of Scottish society in ending poverty. They must answer why, in losing their battle to recapture lost economic growth, they risk losing something even bigger: their sense of morality and what makes Scotland a good society.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Betts. I congratulate Lindsay Roy on securing this debate, and I thank all Members who have taken part. I have listened to some positive things being said not just about food banks but about other voluntary and community organisations operating across Scotland and in individual constituencies.
I put on record my thanks to the many organisations that provide food banks and other services, and especially to their volunteers. Many such organisations, if not most, are set up by charities and churches, which have a valuable role to play in supporting the most vulnerable in their local communities. We should feel thankful for the work that they do to provide support in sometimes desperate situations. As some Members have acknowledged—including Cathy Jamieson, who gave a thoughtful speech, as ever—such organisations have been doing that work for a considerable time.
Although I will address the issue of the increase in the use of food banks, we should not suggest that the work of such organisations, or the need to help and support the most vulnerable in our society, began recently. The issue is ongoing and serious, and it must be constantly challenged and worked on. Many Members gave many indications of that in their contributions, including examples such as unexpected bills, whatever their source, for those on low incomes.
Much of what we have heard recently about food banks has been through the findings of the Trussell Trust, a network of food banks providing services throughout Scotland and the UK. The Department for Work and Pensions, through Jobcentre Plus, has worked with the Trussell Trust to establish a food bank referral service, a simple signposting process to help claimants who say that they are in financial difficulty find alternative sources of assistance. People will not be referred where assistance and support is available directly from Jobcentre Plus.
What Opposition Members did not tell us is that when they were in Government, Labour refused to allow food banks to advertise by putting leaflets in jobcentres. This Government have allowed them to, and jobcentre advisers now also tell people about food banks. Some of the expansion, although not all, is due to the fact that people now know about the existence of food banks who did not know before we told them. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions told Parliament in September:
“When we came to office, I was told by the Department that despite the constant requests from a variety of people who provide food banks, in particular the Trussell Trust, to put their leaflets in jobcentres to advertise what they were doing, the last Government said no, because they did not want the embarrassment of their involvement. We immediately allowed them to do so, which is one reason for the increase in the number of people seeking food banks.”—[Hansard, 10 September 2012; Vol. 550, c. 13.]
I am afraid that I am not going to take any lessons from the hon. Lady, who had the temerity to quote “The Grapes of Wrath” in this Chamber but takes absolutely no responsibility for bringing this country to the brink of bankruptcy and creating the backdrop for the situation in which people now find themselves in so much difficulty. The Labour spokesman for Scotland, Mr Bain, was as lucid as the shadow Chancellor in setting out exactly how Labour would deal with the issues. It comes back to the same things: more borrowing, more spending and more debt. That is exactly what got us into this difficulty and why we are in such difficult times.
The principal lesson that I have learned is that Labour has learned nothing from its time in office and has nothing to suggest other than soundbites. Of course it is a serious problem that people in Scotland have insufficient income for food. I take it as a very serious problem, but I do not believe that there is some miracle solution. Opposition Members suggest the return of a Labour Government, but they would simply pursue the same policies that brought us to the situation that we are in.
In the limited time available, I will deal with one or two of the specific points raised. All Members with individual constituents facing difficulties with the DWP or other parts of Government, such as the constituent mentioned by Mr Brown, should refer them to Ministers in this Government, or to me and the Secretary of State. We are happy to take forward those proposals. I am sure that the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway and others were not suggesting that there should be no system of sanctions for those who do not operate within DWP rules and guidelines.
Fiona O’Donnell mentioned benefit delays. That is an issue of concern, but from April 2013, DWP will replace the current interim payments—crisis loan alignment payments, for those who cannot wait until their benefit is due—with an improved system of short-term benefit and universal credit advances. Those advances of benefit, unlike the current social fund, will not be budget-capped. We heard, as we did in last week’s debate, about the transfer of the social fund to the Scottish Government. We highlighted in that debate that the funds being transferred to the Scottish Government are not ring-fenced. I take it from what Dr Whiteford said about the Scottish Government’s approach that those funds might be ring-fenced when the Scottish Government receive them, and I certainly hope that they will work with local authorities to bring decision making on the social fund closer to the people who need it most.
Contrary to what we sometimes hear in debates like this, there is good news. Some 300,000 people in Scotland will be better off under the transfer to universal credit, and 3,100 fewer people are claiming jobseeker’s allowance than a year ago. That does not hide the fact that there are serious difficulties and that these are hard times. Particularly at this time of year, all our thoughts should be with the people who are suffering in these hard times. As I did at the outset of my remarks, I commend all the charitable and voluntary organisations that work closely with people in the most vulnerable situations to support them not just at this time of year but throughout the year. This is an important debate, and I again congratulate the hon. Member for Glenrothes on securing it. On that basis, I conclude my remarks.