Food insecurity is primarily a consequence of inadequate household income and the clear evidence is that acute income crisis (that is being left with little or no money) is underpinning a dramatic rise in the levels of food insecurity and hunger. We must respond, therefore, in a way which increases and maximises incomes, as well as prevents acute income crises wherever possible. By promoting the Right to Food, we must ensure a dignified approach underpins the actions of all of us, across the board, from the provision of food to the design and delivery of the new Social Security agency.
3.1 Ensuring Work is a Reliable Route Out of Poverty
After housing costs are accounted for, 50% of working age adults and 56% of children in poverty in Scotland now live in households with at least one adult in employment. Figures from the Trussell Trust estimate that the proportion of foodbank users referred due to low incomes increased from 18% to 22% between April and September 2015. A significant number of individuals in this group are likely to be in low-paid and insecure work. Given that many who are food insecure do not access Trussell Trust foodbanks, it seems the number of employed people going hungry is likely to be significant. The old adage of work being a guaranteed route out of poverty, therefore, no longer holds for many people.
This trend is driven in part by low pay. An estimated 445,000 workers in Scotland are paid less than the Living Wage, as defined by the Living Wage Foundation. While promotion and support of the Living Wage accreditation initiative is welcome, the Scottish Government and local authorities should also use all their powers (including through procurement, planning and licensing, and business support such as Regional Selective Assistance) to proactively promote uptake of the Living Wage.
Food insecurity and poverty are also being generated by increased job insecurity, including the rising prevalence of zero-hour contracts, underemployment, and low-paid self-employment. It is clear that a wider understanding of what people need from work in order for it to be decent and allow them to live a life free from poverty, is required. This should then inform how we measure the success of the labour market in Scotland. We therefore welcome the contribution made by the Fair Work Convention to date, though clearly an ongoing focus in this area is required.
3.2 Social Security and Food Insecurity
Current benefit levels leave many households with incomes below that which is needed to maintain a minimum socially acceptable standard of living, with clear evidence that households, particularly parents, cut back on food in order to make ends meet. Acute and immediate income crises caused by problems with the benefit system (benefit and tax credit payment delays, sanctions and reduction in disability benefits) as well as problems navigating the benefits system have been identified as a primary reason for increased foodbank use in recent years.
These inadequacies can be divided into two groups: longstanding, but increasing, inadequacy in the value of social security benefits; and, problems with the operation of the social security system. In addition, social security claimants too often report feeling stigmatised and a sense of being treated without respect or dignity within current systems for accessing benefits.
3.3 Existing Powers
The Scottish Government and local authorities should prioritise investment in benefits advice and information services in order to maximise people's incomes and should carry out a review to enhance the quality of the service provided. Examples of this include building on and sustaining the Making Advice Work funding stream, and supporting roll out of models, such as the Greater Glasgow and Clyde NHS Healthier Wealthier Children, that build income maximisation support into mainstream services at key points of financial pressure on households. Local authorities also have a key role in continuing to protect and prioritise investment in advice and information services, particularly during the current period of challenging budget decision-making.
Despite existing investment in advice and information services, too many households are not aware of or are not receiving the financial supports they are entitled to. In some cases they rely on foodbanks when they should be in receipt of statutory benefits. Local planning partners should consider how co-location, routine enquiries and active referral pathways can integrate benefits advice within universal public services such as health centres, schools and nurseries and help ensure advice can be accessed more easily. Current approaches to linking households at risk of food insecurity with advice and information and support to access benefits should be safeguarded and developed further, including support for existing 'community navigators,' providing community-based support.
3.4 New Powers
The Scotland Act 2016 sets out areas of social security to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Eighty five per cent of social security responsibility will remain reserved. Nevertheless, around £2.6 billion of social security spending is to be devolved, as well as powers to top up existing benefits and create new ones. The transfer of these powers creates a real opportunity to tackle some of the inadequacies in the existing social security system which contribute to food insecurity and drive rising foodbank use.
3.5 Improving the Value of Social Security
Given the gap between current benefit levels and minimum income standards for many households, Scottish Ministers should commit to using new powers to improve the value of current social security payments. This could be done by both improving the value of those benefits that are to be devolved, including Disability Living Allowance/Personal Independence Payment, Carers Allowance, Sure-Start grants and Healthy Start ('welfare foods') and by using new 'top up' powers to increase the value of reserved benefits.
We welcome the commitments already made by the Scottish Government to abolish the spare room subsidy ('bedroom tax'), increase the value of carers allowance and invest in maternity and early years grants. However, we believe Ministers must be more ambitious and use new powers to boost household incomes more generally. To prioritise those whose incomes are being squeezed most by recent cuts, the Group recommends Ministers use new 'top up' powers to protect and improve the value of benefits for households with children. Initially this could be done by topping up Child Benefit. If the Scottish Government were to increase Child Benefit by £5 per child per week, 30,000 children would be lifted out of poverty after housing costs. The cost of this increase would be £256 million per year.
It is for the Scottish Government to decide how to finance this through the reallocation of existing spending or the use of new tax powers to ensure a progressive means of raising additional money. Child Benefit has near universal take up and provides financial support even when families facing food crisis are not receiving the means tested benefits and tax credits they are entitled to. We recognise that this measure will not impact on everyone who currently experiences food insecurity but we believe that it will have a significant impact for many and will help lead to a generational change. If children do not grow up in poverty, they are less likely to fall into poverty as adults.
3.6 Creating a Delivery Culture Based on Dignity
We welcome the Scottish Government's commitment to making 'respect for the dignity of individuals' a 'key principle' underpinning the devolved social security system. The challenge now is to ensure that commitment translates into the development of a system that ensures groups at risk of food insecurity are able to access the financial support that they are entitled to in a manner that protects their dignity and human rights. The Scottish Government should ensure key stakeholders, especially those with direct experience of the social security system, are fully involved in consultation on the forthcoming Scottish Social Security Bill and development of the new Social Security Agency.
3.7 Reducing the Risk of Sanctions
Sanctions have been highlighted as a key driver of foodbank use. Whilst benefit conditionality and sanctions policy remain reserved, there are actions which the Scottish Government can take to reduce the risk of claimants being sanctioned, and consequently finding themselves in acute income crisis and without the ability to buy food.
New powers over employment programmes should be used to minimise the imposition of the arbitrary and inappropriate job seeking tasks that increase risk of sanction and to reduce the instance of 'mandated' tasks i.e., those that could result in a sanction. We await the result of the current trial of a "yellow card" system for people at risk of being sanctioned.
3.8 Reducing Wider Costs to Ease Chronic Income Shortages
A human rights based approach to tackling food insecurity would reduce the wider costs that households face which diminish their ability to buy nutritious food. These extra costs often include heating, housing, school education and transport, and are frequently aggravated by the 'Poverty Premium', where individuals on low incomes have to pay more than those better off for the same good or service. Testimony from foodbank users highlights the pressures other costs put on household finances, including for example charges for nursery snacks, school dress-down days, transport to work and even transport to access Crisis Grants. We welcome the emphasis on reducing costs within wider Scottish Government strategies to tackle child poverty, fuel poverty, and affordable housing supply and believe the impact of such costs on food poverty reinforces the case for prioritising action and resources to deliver on these strategies. Recent work with young people, teachers and parents has also highlighted the potential for costs within the school education system to be reduced or removed.
More specifically free school meals entitlement, breakfast clubs and food provided as part of school holiday activities and programmes not only relieve pressure on family budgets but ensure access to healthy food for children and young people. We urge the Scottish Government and local authorities to prioritise investment in healthy meals at school, and to further explore the potential for providing healthy meals as part of school holiday programmes.
7. The Scottish Government should use all available devolved powers, including procurement rules, to ensure work is a reliable route out of poverty, including payment of the Living Wage as defined by the Living Wage Foundation, and the promotion of decent work more widely.
8. The Scottish Government should use new social security powers to improve the value of social security support, initially prioritising households with children through a top up to Child Benefit.
9. The Scottish Government and local authorities should prioritise investment in benefits advice and information services in order to maximise people's incomes and should carry out a review to enhance the quality of the service provided.
10. The Scottish Government should ensure key stakeholders, especially those with direct experience of the social security system, are fully involved in consultation on the forthcoming Scottish Social Security Bill, the development of the new Social Security Agency, and the creation of its new employment programmes.
11. The Scottish Government should continue to make strong representation to the UK Government with a view to reducing the risk of sanctions, maladministration, error and delay in the UK benefits system.
12. The Scottish Government and local authorities should use all available devolved powers to reduce the costs for energy, rent, transport and the school day for low income households.
13. The Scottish Government and local authorities should prioritise investment in healthy meals at school, and further explore the potential for providing healthy meals as part of school holiday programmes.
iii. We commit to gathering, collating, analysing and sharing evidence of problems within social security delivery that are creating or exacerbating food insecurity and to constructively engage with social security delivery agencies to address those problems.