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Food banks should not need to exist .... we can do better than this

IT’S that time of year again. The year 2016 has fled past us (and who can blame it?) and some good souls are already putting together their parcels for the food banks.

The National

First published in The National, 6 December 2016.

This isn’t to salve their consciences during a typically commercialised time. It’s not because we need a Little Match Girl for the modern age. It’s because many decent folk cannot ignore the fact that families are going hungry in Scotland in 2016.

I think I’m a fairly easy-going chap, but there’s a kind of cold fury that comes with seeing nappies, sanitary products and baby food on a food bank’s "desperately needed" list.

I’m worried at the state we’re in. I’ve nothing but admiration for the folk working hard in food banks, but I don’t want to see food banks exist at all. They’re a symptom of failure and should not be normalised.

I’m deeply concerned by the UK Government’s policy that foodbanks "should" take up the slack when our welfare safety net – the safety net we all contribute to because we could all need it – fails.

It’s no great leap to say that, as the economic costs of Brexit add to the financial hardship of our most vulnerable, food bank use will rise.

There are multiple reasons why people have to use them, but the Trussell Trust lists the top three as benefit delays, low income, and benefit changes.

How many mothers do you think today will pretend they have already eaten, so their children can have a bigger meal? How many people lay awake last night, wondering how they’re going to make it to the end of this week? How many more court cases are we going to see where desperate people are fined £330 for shoplifting a 75p packet of chocolate bars because it was the cheapest thing they could find?

In the case of Louise Sewell, who hadn’t eaten for several days before slipping that multi-pack of Mars bars in her bodywarmer, people were horrified enough to raise money to pay her fine, but how many other incidents like this have we missed?

Let me reiterate: Louise stole the chocolate because it was the lowest-value item she could find.

This wasn’t a teenager shoplifting for kicks, or an unfortunate addict trying to feed an addiction. It was a desperate woman who was let down by the state – by all of us – when she needed help most.

It doesn’t have to be like this. There were eight food banks in Edinburgh when I last checked. I called Oslo and Copenhagen to compare numbers, and instead had to explain what a food bank is. The closest they have is food waste recycling. They, quite properly, have a welfare system that actually serves its purpose – looking after people.

Instead, as a deliberate tool of government policy, food bank use mushroomed under the Tory/LibDem coalition government – a 170 per cent rise in their use across Scotland between 2012 and 2013, and a damning indictment of the UK Government’s draconian welfare reforms.

Furthermore, their EU-phobia made sure they refused to support EU funding aimed at helping those decent folk forced to use food banks.

Funding through the Food Distribution Programme provides vital help to people in poverty across Europe. But Westminster opposed the support. The UK still got €3.5 million – but France left with €443m, Spain €500m.

That’s not on. We can’t rely on the UK Government to protect our people, and so it’s up to us. My colleague Mhairi Black MP fought the good fight with her Private Member’s Bill in Westminster last week, trying to ensure jobcentres would have to take a claimant’s personal circumstances into account before issuing a sanction.

Sadly, as readers of Mhairi’s column in Saturday’s The National will know, the Tories appeared to orchestrate a bid to talk out the Bill, ensuring it could go no further.

However, the Scottish Government managed to win its battle to make sure that folk wouldn’t be sanctioned through voluntary work programmes, so there’s hope yet.

Unless we see a major change in UK Government policy, or full powers to kick on our economy in Scotland, not just ameliorate the consequences of failure, food banks are part of our landscape.

But be in no doubt, food banks are a symptom of a broken welfare system, a broken food chain, and indeed a broken society.

We must not let them become the new normal or another way for the UK state, which we pay for, to shirk its responsibilities. I don’t judge the success of my country by flags flying over nuclear submarines. I judge it by how we look after folk. We can do better.