A MAN who survived on water alone for four days. A family foraging for food in rubbish bins in the dead of night. Ravenous children tearing into loaves of bread on the spot, grateful for their first “meal” in days. They’re not tableaus that come from the developing world, Victorian history books or the aftermath of some horrific disaster. They are the stories of real people living in Scotland in 2018.

This week, Holyrood’s social security committee heard from experts across the country about the state of food banks and the people who rely on them. What they had to say was damning. Laura Ferguson of the Trussell Trust, which runs more than 50 food banks across Scotland, spoke of an 80% rise in demand at some centres. Last year they handed out more than 170,000 food parcels, a rise of 17% on 2016 and a figure which, as reported by The Herald, represents a faster increase in demand than in England.

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Clearly this exponential rise in people finding themselves in the most abject destitution should represent a national emergency – and yet we’re in danger of taking it all lying down. How often have you skimmed over an article about the poverty happening on our doorsteps right now, as you read, and then forgotten about it two minutes later? When did you last walk past a person sleeping on a cold street corner without a second glance? Why are statistics, stories and testimonies – which should stop us in our tracks and instil burning rage and desperate sadness – just mundane parts of our everyday news landscape?

With the dawn of a 24-hour news cycle coinciding with years of austerity and turbo-charged inequality, it’s easy to see why many of us have developed a numbness against the onslaught of endlessly depressing updates – if nothing else, we all need some self-protection. But it’s imperative that we don’t find ourselves here, in 2018, in one of the world’s biggest developed economies, taking for granted that this is just the way things are.

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This is a point which Laura Ferguson made at the committee session when she emphasised the need for food banks not to become institutionalised, stating: “We can not forever rely on food banks to pick up the pieces of a failed welfare state …They do do amazing work but they just cannot be here forever.” And this is the trap into which many modern discussions of food banks fall: the idea that their existence and the generosity of those who donate to them is a marker of a kind, civilised and connected society rather than one which has completely failed its most vulnerable. The kindness of strangers endures, but it cannot keep pace with a reality in which thousands more hurtle towards desperation every day, and nor should it have to.

The idea of a welfare state which protected people from the cradle to the grave and which provided a safety net for those who found themselves on the margins was, after all, meant to prevent stories such as that of a teenager who survived on tomato ketchup from the school canteen, or children who tear open their food bank parcels there and then in the centre because they can’t wait until getting home. But that welfare state has been chipped away at, hollowed out and privatised beyond recognition, leaving behind it vast swathes of the population who work hard, underpin communities and take care of their families, but who are abandoned by the state, unable to afford day-to-day life.

Amongst the evidence presented to the social security committee was an assertion that the introduction of the disastrous Universal Credit benefit – which continues to be rolled out across Scotland – has played a role in increasing demand for food parcels. In one particular case, providers referenced a man who lost a new job because he couldn’t afford to clean his uniform in a washing machine on Universal Credit. And Mark Frankland, manager of First Base Agency in Dumfries, spoke of the fact that many of those who make use of food banks are not unemployed, but earn so little in insecure work that they survive on credit and debt. By the time they arrive at a food bank, many delayed by stigma, their finances have often spiralled out of control.

Food banks, therefore, do a fantastic job that goes far beyond just routinely administering food parcels. They are places of community, support and signposting, and genuine compassion and care towards people who experience very little of it in other parts of our society. They save lives and those who staff and donate to them represent the very best of us. But that they exist at all is an indictment of a broken society. The distribution of wealth from those who can afford a food bank donation towards those who rely on them to survive should happen at a state level, not be left to the pressurised third sector and volunteers to plug gaps.

As newly devolved social security powers continue to come into force in Scotland, it’s essential that the Government seizes the chance to make the changes needed to address what is, to all intents and purposes, a humanitarian crisis. But with components such as Universal Credit remaining reserved, it may prove difficult to do more than tinker around the edges of a toxic system. Radical change is needed at both Holyrood and Westminster to ensure that nobody on either side of the Border is left destitute in a country with more than enough resources to feed everyone.

When Philip Hammond delivers his Autumn Budget next week, many eyes will be on what he has to say about Universal Credit. At a minimum, it should be paused and urgently reconsidered following numerous reports across the UK of its disastrous impacts. But in many ways, Universal Credit is only the tip of an iceberg created and sustained by the ruthless ideology of an unfeeling Conservative Government.

A basic standard of living is a human right, and guaranteeing it for all citizens is infinitely achievable, if only determined by political will. Abject poverty, destitution and desperation are not normal features of a functioning society. It’s vital that we never forget it.