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GPs asked to refer patients to food banks

GPs are being placed in an ‘impossible position’ by charities who require them to refer patients to food banks before they give them support, GP leaders say.

Pulse has learnt that practices are being asked to write recommendations for patients or assess their suitability to be referred to food banks, organisations that provided emergency food supplies for 346,992 people nationwide in 2012/13.

The issue was recently raised in a parliamentary debate, where one Conservative MP claimed that GPs were responsible for ensuring there was not a ‘culture of dependency’ on food banks.

But GPs have said that the additional responsibility puts them in a difficult situation with patients and that they are ill-equipped to know the social situation of their patients.

Dr Paul Moore, a GP in Newhaven, East Sussex, said he had been asked to write recommendations for patients seeking support from the ‘Food 4 Seahaven’ charity in his region.

He told Pulse: ‘My problem with it is, people ought to be able to get food in other ways than going to their doctor, it ought not to be an issue that you have to refer people for food. I expect people to be able to access their basic human rights in a civilised society through social support, rather than charitable giving.’

He added: ‘It’s not a job I resent for the sake of the patient, but I resent it for the sake of society, that we have that role, and that role is necessary.’

Dr Peter Swinyard, Chair of the Family Doctors association and a GP in Swindon told Pulse these protocols were putting doctors in an ‘impossible position’.

He said: ‘Who do you say “feed me” too, and who do you not? I don’t know what the food bank’s criteria are. I don’t know the social background of quite a few patients - I know most of my patients, because I’ve worked here for a long time – but there are people who are working in practices where they haven’t worked for a very long time.

‘How are they supposed to know whether someone is – what in Dickensian terms, you might call the “deserving poor” - and who’s basically a scrounger who’s just trying to a get a meal out of the system. I think that’s putting GPs in an impossible position.’

Alun Cairns, Conservative MP for the Vale of Glamorgan, raised the matter in a House of Commons debate on Wednesday, where said GP recommendations were essential to ensure that food banks ‘rightly limit the provision they make available’.

He said: ‘First, people must have a voucher that comes from recognised body such as the social services, a GP, or a women’s aid or drug support group. They rightly limit provision because they do not want to create that culture of dependency. They are about bringing those people back into the state support system and the charitable groups that need to address those problems.’

A spokesperson for the food bank charity Trussell Trust told Pulse that they system had been put in place to ensure people were ‘plugged in’ to official support networks to address the cause of their immediate crisis.

They added that individuals who presented at a food bank without a referral, may still receive a meal, but would have to consult with a suitable authority before they could collect food to take home.