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Promoting 'cash first' responses at local level – IFAN’s work in Scotland

By Dr Chelsea Marshall

Food aid providers across the UK have been working tirelessly to respond to the incredible demands on their services since lockdown measures were implemented in March. But as the Government continues to encourage people back to the office, to the shops and out to eat, food bank managers and volunteers see no reprieve for the people who are struggling to afford enough to eat each week.

The UK Government has been ‘dismantling the social safety net’ for the past ten years, ‘systematically and starkly’ eroding the structures that enable people to access food with choice and dignity. Following his visit to the UK last year, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights warned that the Government’s policies had ‘created a highly combustible situation that will have dire consequences, especially if and when there is prolonged economic contraction’. We are seeing those consequences now.

With the end of the furlough scheme and a continuing wave of redundancies around the corner, food aid providers in the Independent Food Aid Network have recently called for urgent action from the UK Government to ensure that meaningful protections to secure incomes and support people are put in place. In Scotland, a group of food workers have called on the Scottish Government to ensure their stated commitment to a ‘cash first’ approach is working for people in every community.

Food banks simply cannot be left responsible for filling the gaps left by insufficient wages and in the social safety net people need to manage through times of crisis.

IFAN continues to campaign for the structural and systemic changes needed to bring an end to food insecurity in every part of the UK. Alongside this, we’ve begun work with food aid providers in Scotland to support improved access to financial advice and support as an alternative to emergency food aid. Until everyone is in a position to afford good food, reducing the barriers to existing financial support is a critical step towards our vision of a Scotland, and a UK, where emergency food aid is no longer necessary.

IFAN’s work in Scotland

When announcing its emergency support package for communities in response to the pandemic, the Scottish Government made a commitment to a ‘cash first’ approach to food insecurity whenever possible.

This included significant investment in the Scottish Welfare Fund (cash-based crisis grants available to people on a low income facing a disaster or emergency); funding to meet anticipated increased demand on Council Tax Reduction Scheme and Scottish social security benefits; and flexibility for local authorities to use their Food Fund allocation as direct payments or cash vouchers rather than direct it to food aid provision (e.g. Free School Meal replacement schemes or through community led initiatives).

Scottish Government guidance and subsequent announcements about this funding made it clear that they hoped people facing food insecurity would be able to access the cash they needed without needing to rely on emergency food provision.

In June, IFAN launched a project to work with our members and other food aid providers in Scotland to understand how these ‘cash first’ options, particularly the Scottish Welfare Fund, have been accessed from the perspectives of our members and other food aid providers on the ground. Along the way, we are working with frontline staff and volunteers in a range of local authority areas to co-produce practical tools and strategies for supporting people to access cash-based options when facing a financial crisis.

Why we’re focusing on ‘cash first’ approaches

Though the scale of food insecurity feels overwhelming, the reasons people require emergency food aid are simple.

Years of research and experience has demonstrated that emergency food aid is a temporary response to low and insecure incomes from poorly paid work and insufficient benefits, often combined with sudden income shocks.

The reasons people find themselves needing food aid fall into four categories:

  • suddenly losing income / having an additional expense
  • waiting for a payment or benefit decision
  • living on a low income (from poorly paid work or benefit levels that don’t cover the costs of living)
  • struggling with debts (often related to experiencing at least one of the above) 

Emergency food aid provision has been increasingly relied on by central and local government to fill the gaps for people who are unable to access financial support in these situations. IFAN’s latest UK-wide data showed a 177% increase in the number of 3-day food parcels distributed by independent food banks comparing May 2020 with May 2019. In Scotland, there was a 246% increase in the number of 3-day food parcels distributed by independent food banks comparing April 2020 with April 2019.

We know that the levers to address financial vulnerability are clear: remove the benefit cap and two-child limit, which place additional burdens on families with children; end the sanctions system and 5-week wait for Universal Credit, which expose people to punitive income shocks that can take months and years to overcome; end zero-hours contracts and implement a Real Living Wage, which would strengthen the protections for workers who are too often struggling to make ends meet.

But while the UK Government remains unwilling to make these policy changes, essential work is needed at a local level to reduce the barriers people face in accessing all their existing financial entitlements and emergency cash payments that will support them to buy food with dignity and choice.

Scottish Welfare Fund delivery

As part of the Scottish Government’s announcement of £350m support to local authorities and communities in March, £45m was allocated to nearly double the Scottish Welfare Fund budget. With economic uncertainty on the horizon for thousands across the country, this was a welcome investment in Scotland’s main cash-based emergency support scheme.

Scottish Welfare Fund crisis grants are one-off payments designed to support people on a low income in the event of an emergency, disaster or unexpected expense. Since the grants are administered by each local authority, delivery varies across the country. In a review of best practice, the A Menu for Change* identified trends in the delivery models from different local authorities and made a series of recommendations based on best practice.

Local delivery of Scottish Welfare Fund crisis grants affects how easy – or difficult – it is for people who are struggling to afford food to access money that would enable them to buy the food of their choice. Though not everyone who receives a food parcel would be eligible for a crisis grant, evidence from the Trussell Trust and IFAN shows that a cash-based response is the most effective and dignified way to support anyone in financial crisis.

IFAN and the Trussell Trust have written a letter to local authorities about some suggested steps that could be taken to make crisis grants more accessible to people currently being supported through food aid. These suggestions draw on the A Menu for Change recommendations as well feedback we've had from food banks in our networks.

By ensuring income is maximised first, the number of people seeking assistance from food banks can and could be significantly reduced.

Referral pathway leaflets

We know from years of frontline experience and working closely with people in communities across the UK that a key barrier for people accessing financial advice and support in a crisis is the challenge of knowing what options are available in their situation and which agency is best placed to provide appropriate support.

A starting point for our work with networks of food aid providers has been to develop a referral pathway leaflet for frontline workers and volunteers to use in conversation with or distribute to anyone who is facing financial difficulties. The aim of these leaflets is to help those who are struggling with money worries to more quickly and easily access financial advice and cash-based support that might help in their situation.

‘Worrying about money?’ leaflets provide a step by step guide for people who are facing financial difficulties to see what possible support that is available in their situation and area. They are designed to help those who have found themselves struggling to make ends meet and may be missing out on vital financial entitlements and temporary lifelines, such as Scottish Welfare Fund crisis grants.

The leaflets are based on resources developed by the A Menu for Change project in partnership with Faith in Community Dundee and a wide range of frontline volunteers and staff, specialist benefit and money advisers and people experiencing poverty.

IFAN and the Trussell Trust are now working through our networks to develop locally adapted leaflets in the wake of the pandemic because we know that there are thousands more people in Scotland who are struggling with job losses, low income, benefit delays and other financial pressures - all the things that can lead to running out of money for food. We want to make sure it is as easy as possible for people to access the financial advice and support that is available in their situation.

Ending the need for food banks

Temporary cash-based responses are not a replacement for genuine investment in the social safety net that has been systematically dismantled under the weight of austerity measures and cutbacks. We know what is needed to address low income and promote greater financial security, and we’ll continue to call for the structural policy changes to achieve this.

But in the meantime, many food banks are looking for practical steps they can take in their local areas to support people with alternatives to food aid. Following months of intense pressure to source, sort, parcel and distribute food to people who have been left without financial means to purchase the food they want and need for their families – and with no end in sight – it is even clearer now that food aid provision simply isn’t the answer to food insecurity.

These examples – referral pathway leaflets and recommendations for reducing barriers to emergency crisis grants – provide a platform for local action. Though this is only a piece of what it will take to end the need for food banks, we’re encouraged by the interest and enthusiasm from frontline food aid providers to put these steps in place.

For more information about IFAN’s Cash First Project in Scotland, please contact Chelsea Marshall at ifan.chelseamarshall@ gmail.com

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