The rise of food banks is the result of "poor people maximising their economic choices" and has not been caused by tougher rules over benefit payments, a senior UK Government civil servant has told MSPs.

Neil Couling, work services director at the Department for Work and Pensions, also told Holyrood's Welfare Reform Committee that many people who face benefit sanctions "welcome the jolt" it can give them.

Claimants can have their jobseeker's allowance suspended if they have failed to do enough to find work, turn down jobs offered to them or fail to turn up to appointments after a tougher sanctions regime was introduced in October 2012.

Loading article content

Claims that these new sanctions and other changes to welfare are fuelling demand for food banks were rejected by Mr Couling.

"My view, very clearly, is that this is a supply-led growth going on, and it will continue to grow over the years ahead, whatever the path of welfare policies are, because we live in a society where there are poor people and rich people, and people will maximise their economic choices. That's just how economies work," he said.

Earlier, Dr John Ip, a GP and member of the British Medical Association, told the committee that food banks are increasing their services due to rising demand while at a previous meeting MSPs heard the same views from charities operating the services.

SNP committee member Kevin Stewart said Mr Couling's claim was "complete and utter nonsense".

During heated exchanges, Mr Stewart said: "I would suggest that you go and speak to folk at food banks like I have done — the workers, the volunteers and those folks who are presenting themselves — who without doubt are facing major difficulties in their lives, often due to sanctioning."

Commenting on the use of sanctions, Mr Couling said: "My experience is that many benefit recipients welcome the jolt that the sanctions can give to them."