DWP director suggests food bank users do it through choice
The rise of food banks is the result of “poor people maximising their economic opportunities” 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.
Claims that these new sanctions and other changes to welfare are fuelling demand for food banks was 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.
The committee’s deputy convenor Jamie Hepburn said: “We have had a variety of people working with folk on the ground stating that when they (food bank users) come in, they are citing sanctions and other welfare reform matters.”
Mr Couling continued: “People will tell you things in order to maximise their economic choices, in the same way people will tell you that ‘I am looking for work’, because they know the consequences, if they say ‘I am not looking for work’, then they get sanctioned.
“Similarly people will present to food banks – this may not be wilful deceit going on, this may be their belief about the situation. The food banks will then record that and that will be reported back as fact.
“That doesn’t establish a causal link and the supply argument is much stronger.”
Mr Hepburn told Mr Couling he found this argument “unconvincing” while SNP committee member Kevin Stewart said it 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: “You are seeing employment rising in Scotland, you are seeing unemployment falling, you are seeing the number of people on workless benefits falling as well.
“We think that it is the policy mix, the operational delivery on the ground, our people in jobcentres who are doing a fantastic job day in day out who are achieving these positive outcomes for Scotland.
“My experience is that many benefit recipients welcome the jolt that the sanctions can give to them.
“Some people will no doubt react very badly to being sanctioned, and we see some very strong reactions to that, but others recognise that it is the wake-up call they needed, and it helps them get back into work.”
Asked by Mr Hepburn if jobcentres were being inundated with thank you cards, Mr Couling said: “Yes, that is not unremarkable.”
MSPs also questioned Mr Couling on whether sanctioning was being applied correctly, citing cases from their own constituencies.
“Clearly, I personally regret any case where we get it wrong, but you can’t, I don’t think, infer a general view of the system and the efficacy of a sanctions regime on the cases where we get it wrong,” he said.
Mr Couling’s appearance at the committee comes after Esther McVey, the Minister of State for Employment, declined an invitation to give evidence.
The committee heard earlier from charities and councils who said there is a clear link between benefit changes and increased use of food banks.
Dr Ip said: “As we all know, food banks are increasing their services and we feel that it’s demand-led rather than supply-led.”
Patients often come for NHS support because of the stress of welfare sanctions and reliance on food banks, he said.
“That’s having a significant impact on GP workload at a time when workload pressures are quite extreme anyway,” he added.
“My experience – and certainly the experience of my colleagues – is that welfare reform, and the way it’s being carried out, is having a significant impact on GP services.”
Jamie Livingstone, head of Oxfam Scotland, said: “In Scotland, what I was struck with was the broad agreement to the causes of surges in food bank use.
“I don’t think it’s credible to say there’s not a link between welfare changes and food bank use.”
He raised concerns about any moves to cement the place of food banks in society.
“I’m a little uncomfortable about discussion about almost institutionalising food banks and food support,” he said.
“We need to be seeing food banks as a temporary solution and dealing with the root causes rather than embedding it within our response to tackling poverty.”
Keith Dryburgh, policy manager of Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS), said about 90% of CAS advisers believe benefit sanctions are linked to the increased demand.
He wants to see changes to the system to give people on benefits a better chance of avoiding penalties.
“There’s a huge lack of information to claimants, so that they do not know why they’ve been sanctioned, they do not know that they have,” he said.
“We think people should get at least one written warning so they can learn from their mistakes.”
Meanwhile, a report from CAS suggests one in 50 clients said they do not have enough money to buy food.
The organisation said that between January and March this year 1,311 new food parcel issues were recorded.
The committee heard suggestions that the gulf between rich and poor makes the problem worse in places like Aberdeen.
Dave Kilgour, a “city strategist” at the local authority, said: “Aberdeen is a city with a huge gap between wealth and poor and really the whole minimum wage, living wage, is an issue for the city.
“In fact there is some discussion about whether Aberdeen should have an Aberdeen ‘weighting allowance’ or an Aberdeen living wage that actually reflects the local economy itself.”