Polly Jones: Banking on crisis grants when your benefits don't cover cost of essentials

Last year a food bank parcel was given out in Scotland for every copy of The Scotsman bought between 2012 and 2016. Hundreds of thousands of Scots are now turning to emergency food aid to feed themselves and their families.

Half those who are using food banks are families with children – and most of these have a family member who is working. If you, or a family member, have a disability, you are three times more likely to use a food bank. Far too many people at food banks are also missing out on financial support they are entitled to; money which the system has failed to get into their pockets.

The most common reason people give for seeking emergency food aid is that the benefits they receive do not cover the cost of essentials. But if you go back a little earlier, the problems began with life events which can happen to us all: a relationship breakdown, a prolonged illness or unexpected loss of employment. Over time, personal savings are whittled away and people fall through gaps in the safety net which was designed to protect us all. It is sobering to realise how a sequence of unfortunate events could lead almost all of us to the doors of a food bank.

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Fixing the problem may seem too complex and too expensive. Yet the A Menu for Change project, run by a coalition of anti-poverty organisations, is helping to show how we can fix this. Solutions do exist.

Our experience in Scotland demonstrates that simple steps to better co-ordinate the services which make up our safety net can make a huge difference. North Lanarkshire Council has led the way with its Food Poverty Referral Gateway. By working together and directing people in crisis to the Scottish Welfare Fund as a first port of call, local services have reduced referrals to food banks by 22 per cent. Instead of a food parcel, people receive crisis grants along with support to prevent crises in the future. This is a model all Scottish councils should replicate.

A crisis grant has many advantages over an emergency food parcel. You can buy the exact food you need. You can pay your energy bill. You can buy toiletries, nappies and sanitary products. Most importantly, it gives you some power to make your own decisions in order to meet your own needs – just like everyone else in society.

Of course, even the Scottish Welfare Fund is a sticking-plaster over gaps in the safety net.

The fundamental problem is one of low income. Wages have been squeezed, benefits are frozen and the cost of living has risen. Added to which, the TUC finds almost 40 per cent of the growth in employment between 2011 and 2016 came from workers in insecure jobs – zero-hours contracts or insecure temporary work.

It is not enough for companies to collect for food banks in their supermarkets and workplaces, they can make a significant difference to those with the lowest income by paying the real living wage and offering secure employment. At present, we are all picking up the cost of insecure work with a £4 billion bill at the Treasury in lost income tax and national insurance contributions, along with extra benefits and tax credits.

The UK government must act urgently to end the benefit freeze and rethink welfare reforms that are leaving so many reliant on charity handouts. Universal Credit may be right in principle, but where it has been rolled out, new data this week shows 52 per cent more people are seeking emergency food aid.

The Scottish Government must commit enough resources for councils to administer the Scottish Welfare Fund, and to deliver the flexibilities being applied to UK-wide benefits, such as Universal Credit, in Scotland. By topping up child benefit with just £5 a week, analysis shows the Scottish Government could immediately lift 30,000 children out of poverty.

Scotland is also on the cusp of establishing its own social security system, to be fully operational by 2021. Holyrood has a crucial opportunity to design and invest in a safety net that catches everyone, and does so with care and respect.

No-one wants food banks to become a permanent feature of our society. Politicians at every level must implement the solutions we know exist, to prevent that from happening.

Polly Jones, project manager, A Menu for Change