Food banks used by thousands of jobless, figures show

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Media captionMany also need IT help to apply for benefits as the system moves online

Thousands of welfare claimants are being referred to food banks by Job Centre staff over concerns they have not got enough money to eat, the BBC has learned.

Figures obtained by the BBC suggest about 6,000 people have been given vouchers for emergency food parcels by benefits officials in the last year.

The government says Job Centre staff are responding to people's needs.

But Labour says the figures show more people are suffering hardship.

The food banks are operated by the Trussell Trust, which has more than 325 of them in the UK. They provide at least three days' worth of nutritionally-balanced food for local people in crisis.

In all but exceptional cases, Trussell Trust food banks will only issue a food parcel to someone with a voucher from an accredited agency. Claimants are limited to emergency aid on three occasions.

Since October 2011 Job Centres have been able to issue vouchers for clients to access help at registered food charities.

The trust says the number of people being sent to them from unemployment officers has doubled in the last few months.

"We have had a lot through from Job Centres where very heavy sanctions have been imposed upon them and they have not been able to feed themselves," says Roslyn McVeigh, who manages two food banks near Glasgow.

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Image caption Foodbanks are staffed by volunteers who provide emergency food for people experiencing hardship

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said directing people to food banks was a short-term method of alleviating their financial problems.

"I've said to Job Centres, sort their problem out. If it is a case of food banks, Job Centres are meant to help passport people through to that so they can get them stable, so they can deal with their problems."

Mr Duncan Smith says he is proud of the fact that his government agreed that Job Centre staff could refer people to food banks.

"What would you prefer? Under the last government, Job Centre staff were not allowed to talk about it. My concern is that the individual who is in front of Job Centre staff can get access to everything they need to."

Values criticised

However, the figures are likely to be embarrassing for the government, which is introducing major reforms to the benefits system.

Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Liam Byrne says the revelation demonstrates that even welfare officials recognise the hardship being caused.

"Instead of sending people to jobs, our job centres are sending people to food banks.

"Yet instead of offering extra help, this Tory-led government is cutting taxes for millionaires. That tells you everything you need to know about this government's values."

In the last 12 months, the number of food parcels issued by Trussell Trust centres overall has reached almost 300,000 - more than double the year before.

Almost half of those being referred to the Trust by various agencies say a problem with benefits is the cause of the emergency.

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