THE public health directors of Scotland's two largest health boards have issued a stark warning that children from the country's most deprived communities will die younger than their parents unless urgent action is taken to tackle austerity and food poverty.


Dr Linda de Caestecker, director of public health at NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, and Professor Alison McCallum, director of public health at NHS Lothian, blamed the UK government's "punitive welfare system" for the rise in the need for food banks.

In a statement given to the Sunday Herald they warned food banks - while undertaking great work - should not become an "accepted part of life in Scotland".

"Health inequalities persist and in the current economic situation they are increasing," the statement said. "We have seen a rise in the need for food banks due to the most punitive welfare system that Scotland has experienced with the likelihood of more and longer benefit sanctions in the future."

It added: "If we do not act today's children will live shorter and more impoverished lives than their parents."

De Caestecker said the impact of food poverty could be seen in an increase in "diseases of poverty" - such as heart disease, diabetes, addictions and suicide.

"It is the effect it has on people's mental health, as well as on their physical health - what does it mean for you as a person if you have got to go along and ask for an emergency food package?" she said. "It is dispiriting, it makes you lack hope and wonder if things will ever change."

She added: "We have seen reductions in child poverty in this country, but some of that is being reversed - and some of that is because of welfare reform.

"It is the damage that [benefit] sanctions are doing to people in terms of more people being sanctioned, some people being sanctioned more than once and sanctions could now be for longer. That is often why people have to go to food banks. We need to provide for the crisis, but that can't be the long-term solution."

She added: "Our huge concern is that, if things continue the way we are, for those living in the most disadvantaged circumstances, their children will grow up in poorer health than their parents."

The statement by de Caestecker and McCallum, which expresses their personal views, called for various actions including introducing the living wage for everyone, developing a national healthy food policy which includes an emphasis on affordability and new solutions such as community supermarkets.

It added: "We ask that we all fight harder for equity, that more of us have a fair share. This means a smaller income gap and some of us paying more taxes."

John Dickie, director of Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, said the comments were welcome recognition of the impact of the poverty and pressures that many families are facing.

"We are certainly seeing lots of evidence of families being pushed into acute income financial crisis and literally being left without enough money to pay for food and needing to use food banks," he said.

"The short-term savings that government might be making in cutting support for families are building up long-term costs - which impact the worst on children who are affected - but we will all end up picking up the cost in years to come."

Last week figures from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) showed more than 80,000 jobless Scots have had their benefits stopped for at least four weeks in the past two years due to sanctions.

Last night, a spokesman for the DWP claimed: "There is no solid evidence of a link between welfare reforms and the use of food banks.

"The truth is we continue to spend £50 more per head on benefits in Scotland than the UK average, and provide a £7.9 billion safety net to millions of people who are on low incomes or unemployed.

"We have a record number of people in work meaning more people in Scotland are benefitting from the financial security of a pay packet."

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "We recognise that welfare cuts, benefits sanctions and low incomes are contributing to people experiencing food poverty. That's why we have focussed our policies on fair work, including promotion of the Living Wage across the country.

"We will continue to argue for a welfare system that properly supports people's needs and avoids the need for food banks in the first place."