CONSERVATIVE Jennifer Fairbairn was the only of the six candidates fighting the local seat in the general election who did not respond to Shetland News’ request for comment after the Lerwick based foodbank revealed a further dramatic increase in the use of its service.
Candidates generally agreed that the mere existence of foodbanks was a poor reflection on a wealthy country such as the UK but they – unsurprisingly – disagreed on the causes and ways to remedy the situation.
Figures released by Shetland Foodbank on Wednesday show that the charity had given out 481 food parcels to 727 people (553 adults and 174 children) between April and October, an increase of 58 per cent in the number of parcels and 143 per cent in the number of children supported compared to the same period last year.
Liberal Democrat candidate Alistair Carmichael put the blame for the increase in the use of the foodbank on the ongoing changes to the benefit system which leaves people out of pocket for weeks on end.
“This report is concerning. In particular it shows the need to reform Universal Credit in light of the lessons learned from its roll out,” he said.
“The first payment for people on Universal Credit should be made in five days and not in five weeks. That, I think, would make significant difference to these figures.
“This is also why the Liberal Democrat manifesto includes the establishment of a ‘Right to Food’, requiring the government to audit the effects of policy on food security.
“It is through necessary changes like this that we can ensure that no one in our community has to rely on foodbanks in the future.”
Representing the Brexit Party in the Orkney and Shetland contest, South Ronaldsay fisherman Robert Smith said he took no pleasure in correctly predicting the drastic increase in foodbank use when standing as a Ukip candidate in 2010.
“The fact that foodbanks are required is a disgrace. The UK is the world’s fifth largest economy and if we cannot even feed ourselves then something has gone drastically wrong,” he said.
“And that ‘something’ is the Climate Change Act – the most expensive piece of legislation in history. It has inflated the price of everything by massively increasing the price of energy and driven down wages through over-regulation. It is the root of the cost of living crisis.
“I said – during the 2010 election campaign – that the climate change driven energy policy would result in people having to choose between heating and eating.
“I am the only candidate prepared to do something about this and promote policies that see the end of the need for foodbanks.
SNP candidate Robert Leslie meanwhile said he was “shocked but not surprised by the figures and blamed the austerity regime introduced by the coalition government back in 2010.
He said the Shetland figures were similar to those recorded by the Orkney foodbank and highlighted the growing of food insecurity in the Northern Isles.
“The austerity regime kicked off under the coalition ConDem government of which Alistair Carmichael was part is hitting the Northern Isles hard, with low income, benefit delays and benefit changes the predominant reasons for folk to be referred to the foodbank,” he said.
“The SNP is spending £100 million annually mitigating the worst impacts of Tory welfare cuts. Scotland invested £1.4 billion last year in support targeted at low-income families.
“On top of these foodbank figures, I know that in Orkney the vast majority of clients of local fuel poverty charity THAW Orkney who require electricity vouchers to keep their power on are referrals from the foodbank so that they can cook the food they receive.”
Labour candidate Coilla Drake said the figures were further evidence that Universal Credit was insufficient to live on and would propel people in to a “vicious cycle of debt”.
“Labour have pledged to scrap Universal Credit, initially introducing emergency measures to end the five week wait, lifting the benefit cap, scrapping the two child limit, removing the work capability test and ending the punitive sanctions regime,” she said.
“This will go a long way to reducing the financial pressures on people that force them to rely on foodbanks for help.
“In the longer term we will replace the DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] with a new system that treats people with dignity and respect, and is a true safety net for people when they need help.”
Independent candidate David Barnard responded in a single sentence, saying: “The amount of time it takes to process a benefit systems claim must be shortened.”
More information to all six local candidates standing in the 12 December general election can be found on our Meet the Candidates page.