DESPERATE people in Inverclyde are stealing food to survive because the controversial Universal Credit benefit is leaving them penniless, it has been suggested.

Thefts of food and groceries are up 35 per cent across the district and police are now exploring reasons for the spike as senior officers say they won't 'criminalise' certain incidents.

Chief Superintendent Gordon Crossan told the Tele that the suspicion is people are turning to theft as a last resort to feed themselves and their families.

He said: "There's definitely something going on within the community just now that is creating a number of thefts of foodstuffs."

Inverclyde Council's Police and Fire Scrutiny Committee were told of the hike in shoplifting amid recent reports that foodbank usage here has jumped 162 per cent in the last two years.

Depute local authority leader Councillor Jim Clocherty described the rise in such thefts as 'sad' and urged that work be done to 'scratch beneath the figure'.

Cllr Clocherty said: "These are not people who are stealing stuff to flog up at the Barras in Glasgow, these are people who are stealing food because they need it to live."

Chief Inspector Debbie Reilly said: "If there are individuals who are reported for this and are identified it is not actually about criminalising them each and every time.

"There are occasions where we will submit a concern for person report which can then prompt further action from some of the different agencies in our community."

Ch Insp Reilly added: "We do note that there can be social work concerns and we do recognise that."

Ch Supt Crossan told the committee that police are 'working to understand' the 35 per cent jump, adding: "Theft of food can be a crime of survival. It is desperate people who are doing this."

Tory Cllr David Wilson however insisted that there is no link between Universal Credit and shoplifting.

The Conservative member said: "If I look at the crime statistics, they work out at one case of shoplifting every day in Inverclyde.

"I don't see how in any way one can draw an association with Universal Credit from a figure like this."

Cllr Wilson added: "I was brought up in Tollcross in the east end of Glasgow and in those days we were poor, everybody round about us was poor — we shared a toilet on the landing with two other families and I don't remember anybody going out shoplifting.

"It didn't happen.

"So I really think it's wrong to draw this conclusion about Universal Credit and shoplifting."

Ch Supt Crossan said: "I'm not saying that the increase in shoplifting is attributed to Universal Credit, what I said was that the deputy chief constable is looking to see if it has had an impact."

Cllr Clocherty turned to Cllr Wilson and suggested his statement was due to a 'guilty conscience'.