• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Food banks are a scandal: we must act without delay

There is one man in Scotland whose ambition is to be unemployed.

His name is Ewan Gurr and he is the development officer of the Trussell Trust.

At the moment he stands astride an ever-growing empire. It has escalated from one food bank in Dundee seven years ago to 43 across Scotland. Since last April they have given food parcels to 56,052 people - one hundredth of the population of Scotland. Of those people, 17,348 are children.

Isn't it scandalous such hardship exists in this rich country? Mr Gurr thinks so.

Imagine the shame and the sense of degradation those seeking food experience, their disbelief that it has come to this. Be in no doubt every one of them feels diminished by the plight in which they find themselves.

But the shame isn't theirs - though they feel it most acutely. It is ours. Why aren't we angrier so many people are so desperate? The hunger map is more widespread than the recent flooding map - yet who would have guessed it? It attracts so little attention.

Glasgow City Mission also runs a food bank. And such was the demand it faced last week, it ran out of food. So who are the people experiencing such need?

Fiona (not her real name) is a mother of four facing eviction. Her landlord is selling her flat because his other tenants could no longer pay their rents. Their benefits had been cut because of the bedroom tax.

David, who also asked not to be fully identified, has been on benefits for two years. He was required to complete an online form. He made an error and the system declared his application void. He was automatically disbarred from benefits for four weeks.

I don't know when you last booked tickets online and managed to answer everything correctly at the first go. It's a long time since I managed it but I can always double-back or start again. David was given no second chance, even though he is dyslexic.

His situation, like so many, makes me want to cry out for some commonsense - never mind compassion. Both seem to be in short supply.

Alex Salmond takes a similar view. In December he visited a food bank in Gilmerton in south-east Edinburgh where he helped to pack food parcels. Against that background he talked about the iniquity of Westminster's welfare cuts.

Last week, at the annual conference of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, the First Minister said: "Any thinking person who visits a food bank finds themselves in two minds - on the one hand, admiration for the volunteers who commit their time to express solidarity with those in need, and on the other hand, concern and anger that in 21st century Scotland we need the growth in food banks at all."

He expresses empathy with the people who require the food - and a righteous indignation. But I read his words with mixed feelings. I agreed with him but something also rankled.

I understand the political capital Mr Salmond hopes to make to make when he contrasts Westminster's welfare cuts with the "progressive approach to promote social justice" should we vote for an independent Scotland. His implied promise is food poverty will become a memory if and when his writ runs.

But given the glaring injustice of food poverty, why can't he do more before the referendum? Isn't the moral imperative more powerful than the political one?

I'm left wondering what it would take to grant Ewan Gurr's wish; to put him out of a job right now.

He tells me it costs £20.18p to give a single person a food parcel. He also says most people who access the food banks do so between one and three times. Food parcels tide them over the end of a month when money (including low wages) won't stretch. They might be caught out by a coincidence of rising bills or - in 40% of cases be waiting hungrily because of a delay in benefits.

So in the crudest of calculations, I multiplied 56,000 people X £20 X 3 food parcels each. I came up with £3,360,000. Let's call it £4million. It's an eye-watering sum, but for the Scottish Government it is loose change.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not blaming Mr Salmond and his ministers for this crisis. Far from it. Westminster and its welfare reforms and cuts have produced an army of the hungry across the UK. David Cameron's government bears the blame. But the responsibility of everyone else is to do whatever can be done to alleviate the suffering as soon as possible - as we so often do when presented with suffering in other countries.

The general public is answering the call. People are donating food and volunteering. Church congregations are active and some supermarkets have cooperated with collections.

But to my mind food should be a right in our rich society, never a matter of charity. That belongs back in the days of Angela's Ashes or the Poor House. Why not eliminate food poverty right now, instead of letting this unjust situation - and the people suffering within it - continue, to win a political point?

The Scottish Government will reply it has set aside £35m to mitigate the bedroom tax. It has already put £9.2m into a special welfare fund which allows councils to provide extra support grants.

To the dismay of the Trussell Trust, 1000 of those who applied to the fund in Dundee were referred to them in search of food. The trust is a charity, reliant on the goodwill and generosity of the public. It is not an arm of the state. And while the welfare fund is welcome, it's doesn't seem to be directed well enough to stop the queues at food banks.

I am not suggesting the Scottish Government can, single-handedly, reverse all of the welfare cuts imposed by Westminster - nor even that it should do. But when it comes to food, when it comes to putting a square meal in front of children, I find it hard to respect delay and point-scoring politics when immediate measures could achieve so much for so relatively little.

My back of the matchbox calculation came up with a cost of £4m to stem a need that is increasing. Even if we double it, the sum is affordable to government. Nor would any self-respecting voter object to this spend.

To rid one in a 100 of the population from what most find to be a humiliating situation would be popular. To see something so important dealt with because it is morally wrong - not just because it brings political capital - would engender respect.

It would be a win-win. Good for those people who need the help and good for Mr Salmond's ratings. He could have the satisfaction of demonstrating to Westminster he knows better than them what "is the right thing to do".

Contextual targeting label: 
Food and drink

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

215164