Reality check call as MSPs grill DWP man

Neil Couling, work services director at the Department of Work and Pensions.
Neil Couling, work services director at the Department of Work and Pensions.

A Whitehall civil service chief told a committee chaired by Cumbernauld’s MSP that there’s no evidence to show use of food banks is linked to benefit cuts.

Department of Work and Pensions civil servant Neil Couling was sent north to face a grilling by the Scottish Parliament’s welfare committee.

He amazed MSP’s by appearing to answer “yes” when Cumbernauld MSP Jamie Hepburn asked if the DWP received thank you letters for cutting people’s benefits.

His bizarre remarks were taken as an attempt at a joke, but he also effectively argued that food banks are part of market forces – and that people choose to use them because they can get something for nothing.

Mr Hepburn, the committee’s deputy convener, was chairman for the session.

He later said he found it impossible to reconcile Couling’s perspective with the reality of life in his own constituency – where a growing number of people rely on food banks in both Cumbernauld and Kilsyth.

“The UK government is detached from reality,” he said. “It is not the civil servants we should blame but the politicians in a government we didn’t vote for.”

The MSP said overwhelming evidence (for example from Citizens Advice) pointed to people suffering from welfare cuts being driven to use food banks.

He praised churches who have led the way in the development of food banks, but added that these were the very people who wished they did not have to exist.