THE growth in food banks – to the point where they are now a seemingly indispensable part of the welfare system – has been one of the most troubling signs of austerity. There has always been a tradition in this country of soup kitchens to help people in desperate need, but the ubiquity of food banks is different – they are needed because thousands of people, some of whom have a job, cannot afford to eat. Every day. In one of the richest countries in the world.

The fact that we have reached this point should probably come as no surprise – charities have been warning of the dangers for years. In 2015 the Poverty Alliance said there was a risk that food banks would become a permanent feature of welfare in Scotland and now a new report for the Scottish Government has described just how much we rely on them. Food banks are now taken for granted by councils, doctors, benefits staff and charities as part of the system for helping people in need.

However, the report has something else interesting to say about food banks, which is that people rely on them not just for food but much more besides. People feel the stigma of asking for free food very deeply – a stigma so deep that many in desperate need are not making the choice to use food banks – but the report also found that people who come forward find help in other areas of their lives too: relief from loneliness for instance or advice on cookery and finances. According to the report, they also find a sense of compassion lacking in government agencies.

It is important to acknowledge this aspect of what food banks do. That does not mean accepting the argument of the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg who tried to suggest that food banks are somehow uplifting and a sign of our collective compassion. But it does mean that we cannot simply abhor the existence of food banks without also learning the lessons of their existence and ensuring that there is something to take their place. As the report says, we should not rush to remove food banks without being sure the other things they do for people in need can be provided in another way.

What this means is government agencies learning from food banks and seeking to do more to help people in need with compassion rather than censure. The imposition of benefit sanctions and sudden changes to payments are among the main reasons people have to turn to food banks, and, while a welfare system has to have sanctions built into it, a compassionate system should give people fair warning and should never leave people without money for food.

The fact that food banks are now taken for granted as part of the welfare system is also another sign that we have failed to tackle some of the underlying reasons for poverty in Scotland. The Chancellor Philip Hammond may have suggested that he might soon be able to ease off on austerity, but just look at the damage that has been done: cuts to benefits, shockingly low levels of pay for people in work, and a widening poverty gap. One in five Scots live in poverty; some will use a food bank; some will go days without any proper food at all.

Tackling this problem – and thereby hastening the day when food banks are no longer needed – will take much more than the Scottish Government putting more money into its Fair Food Transformation scheme, welcome though that is. Schools are the first real opportunity to tackle inequality and yet still the attainment gap is huge. Government has also failed to do enough on low pay – sometimes so low people cannot afford food – and has done virtually nothing on fair taxation.

There will hopefully come a day when food banks are not needed. But it will only happen when the fight against poverty is, truly and for the first time, put at the heart of what governments do.