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.