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18 February 2014

Foodbanks

If ever there was a sign that Scotland is in need of a change, it is the ever-growing reliance on foodbanks across the country.

The most recent figures for Scotland estimate that more than 55,000 people are relying on emergency food aid – a shocking statistic for the 21st century.

Significantly, it is not only the unemployed that are relying on these handouts. A growing number of people who use foodbanks are in work, which only goes to demonstrate the problems caused by underemployment and low pay.

This ever increasing need has created inspiring efforts across Banffshire and the Buchan Coast, where groups of volunteers ensure foodbanks have been set up for those most in need.

The Harvest Centre in Banff, organised by the Riverside Christian Church has been bundling up food parcels for locals since 2004, and over the last few months have been appealing for more volunteers to keep up with demand.

The Joseph Store in Peterhead, run by the Apex Church, provide an invaluable service from their café on Broad Street, and the Shield Project also in Peterhead, led by the Salvation Army, offers support to those who are homeless or at risk of losing their homes.

The national Christian charity, The Trussell Trust, one of the biggest providers of foodbanks nationwide, with 43 in Scotland, have seen the biggest rise in numbers of people given emergency food since it began in 2000. It has provided food to almost 50,000 people in Scotland since April 2013, almost four times the number in the entire previous financial year.

And after a foodbank is set up, community commitment doesn’t stop there. Schools, churches, businesses and individuals donate non-perishable food items. In some areas, there are supermarket collections where shoppers are given a ‘foodbank shopping list’, asking them to buy extra items for local people in crisis. Volunteers then sort out the contributions, packing them into boxes, ready for those who need it.

Care professionals such as doctors, health visitors and social workers identify those in crisis, and issue them with a foodbank voucher that they can redeem for three days of emergency food. Volunteers meet those who come in, suggesting solutions to help solve the longer-term problem.

The other main organisation providing food locally is FareShare. Community Food Initiatives North East, under the umbrella of FareShare was set up in 1997, and has helped thousands of individuals in Aberdeenshire, with food not only going to foodbanks, but to a range of organisations working with disadvantaged people.

The rising cost of living, energy costs, static incomes and welfare system changes have all contributed to the very real problem of food poverty in modern day Scotland. Although the work of these local organisations is to be commended and supported, the ever growing reliance on foodbanks is not indicative of a healthy, thriving Scotland.
We cannot ignore the hunger on our doorstep and pretend that it will sort itself out – we need to meet it head on.

The Trussell Trust has found that only four per cent of people go to foodbanks due to homelessness. 30 per cent were referred due to benefit delay, for 18 per cent it was low income, and 15 per cent cited benefit changes. The majority of people using foodbanks are working age families.

There is an alternative solution. If Scotland becomes independent, a Fair Work Commission would be set up by the government to ensure that the minimum wage rises at least in line with inflation every year. The people of Scotland would then have the powers to create a welfare system to ensure that the most vulnerable in society are not penalised.

The government would abolish the bedroom tax within the first year of an independent Scottish Parliament, stop further roll out of Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payments in Scotland, and ensure that benefits and tax credits increase at least in line with inflation to avoid further poverty.

4 February 2014

Bedroom Tax

There was further evidence of the devastating effect of the Bedroom Tax in Scotland this month with the announcement that emergency housing payments claimed by people in Scotland have ballooned four times over the past few years.

These alarming figures show that Scotland is far removed from the decisions made in Westminster, which have little bearing on the needs of those living north of the border. It is clear that many on the lowest wages are having an increasingly hard time.

Almost £15.4m in emergency help payments was claimed by 45,722 households between April and November last year. This is a huge increase from the £4m that was claimed in 2012/13, with the finger firmly pointed at Westminster benefit cuts and the now infamous Bedroom Tax for why this is the case.

Food banks are becoming more of a common sight in towns and are increasingly in demand, as families find their money does not stretch to cover all of their bills, and they find themselves unable to afford the daily essentials.

The breakdown of figures for Aberdeenshire Council shows that between April and November 2013, £613,157 was claimed in Discretionary Housing Payments, compared to the substantially lower sum of £45,276 for 2012/13.

Again in the Moray Council area, the trend continues to be reflected with £260,277 paid out in emergency housing payments from April to November last year, compared to £18,543 in 2012/13, and £9042 in 2011/12.

The figures show that many people in Scotland need genuine help. The Scottish Government is doing what it can by funding an additional £20m over the next two years for those hit hardest by the Bedroom Tax. Overall, £35m has been provided for this year, which is the maximum amount of funding that the Scottish Government is allowed to give under UK legislation.

But it’s not enough. Despite over 90 per cent of Scottish MPs voting against it, the Bedroom Tax has contributed to poverty in Scotland. Only last month, the latest estimate from COSLA found that the annual costs of implementing the penalty exceeded any savings by £10 million. So it does not even make social sense, or economic sense, for the people of Scotland. Local authorities, Citizens Advice Bureaus and Housing Associations have all reported an increase in calls from those who have had benefits reduced or withdrawn. The most vulnerable in Scottish society have not been fully considered when these measures have been implemented.

Last November, at a House of Commons vote that could have banished the tax into the long grass, 10 of Labour’s Scottish MPs failed to turn up to vote against it. As an alternative, the Scottish Government has the vision of a different life for local people.

In Scotland’s Future – the blueprint for what independence would look like north of the border – the message is clear. Following a Yes vote on 18 September, reversing the most damaging of the UK welfare changes is a top priority. This would include abolishing the bedroom tax within the first year of the independent Scottish Parliament.

In addition to this, the Scottish Government would ask Westminster to stop the roll-out in Scotland of Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payments immediately. This will mean that the Scottish Government elected in 2016 will have the flexibility it needs to reform the welfare system in line with what is best for the people of Scotland.

What has been shown by this tax is that it is only an independent Scotland, with full powers over welfare, that will allow the creation of a system that will meet Scotland’s needs – one that supports the least well off, rather than kicking them when they’re down.

Stewart Stevenson
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