A Fermanagh and Omagh Councillor has been criticised after he suggested during a discussion on poverty that some people claiming benefits in the District spend the money on “drugs and alcohol”.

Ulster Unionist representative Bert Wilson told a meeting of the Policy and Resources Committee that there are very few people in the area “who haven’t benefits” almost exactly one month after Enniskillen Foodbank, for example, delivered 500 food hampers to those in need.

“In some cases there are reasons why food poverty is coming to the fore. There are very few people that I believe in any of the countries at this minute of time who haven’t benefits. The unfortunate thing is quite a lot of that money is going on drugs and alcohol.”

He suggested food coupons would assist as “they couldn’t drink food coupons".

"A lot of our crime at this minute in time is to feed those alcoholics... and drugs. I would have thought that food coupons or something in that line would have been a good help. You can't go out, I'm not saying the father of mother, the two parents... they wouldn't drink the food coupons. I see it in the local villages. If you go you mostly see the same people. It's something i think should be looked at," he said.

But his comments were widely rejected by other councillors, including Independent member Josephine Deehan who said it would be wrong “to leave unchallenged the assertion families in receipt of welfare payments are irresponsible in how that money is spent”.

“In my experience the vast majority expend their benefits extremely wisely and are stretched to the absolute limit … In a small number of cases alcoholism does create problems, but that is the exception, not the rule,” she said.

Sinn Fein Council Chairwoman Siobhan Currie described the comments as “disgraceful”, adding that many families with two working adults are also in poverty.

SDLP Councillor Adam Gannon also criticised the remarks, telling the chamber: “While maybe unintentional, it came across as demonising those on benefits. It’s very rarely a choice.

“Those comments do not reflect the reality,” he said.

Councillors have received a report around the issue of poverty within the Fermanagh and Omagh District, with a detailed update on action being taken to address this.

The report was brought before councillors by the Director of Corporate Services and Governance, Celine McCartan.

Councillor Deehan said it indicated how seriously the Council takes the issue, and paid, “particular tribute to the charitable organisations who have worked very hard over difficult times, to support families in need".

Councillor Donal O’Cofaigh described the report as “enlightening to see the range of actions council is already conducting”. He commended the many churches for their work on the ground, and suggested council support this.

There were three points, he felt should be addressed to the Minister for Communities involving a £100 school uniform grant per child; support services for welfare appeals, and finally funeral costs for child deaths.

Ms McCarten responded: “It’s not that these aren’t relevant or important, but I wouldn’t want that as our first letter of introduction to the Minister … I’m not suggesting these are ignored, but deferred until other work is done around engagement on various projects.”

She suggested council establish how its priorities correlate with the ‘New Decade, New Approach’.

Ulster Unionist Councillor Diana Armstrong pointed out the new executive’s commitment to funding children’s funerals, following a successful motion by a party colleague in another district.

Independent Councillor John McCluskey contended the closure of Rosslea Surgery has massively contributed to poverty and mental illness. “A number of people are suffering terribly, and that has added to poverty … I hope to address that with the new Minister.”

Ms McCartan confirmed existing measures do not involve handing out money directly but instead: “It’s in kind and in support. That’s what we are focused on.”

Ms McCartan stressed this would require a multi-agency approach and while “it wouldn’t be an area for which we are statutorily responsible … that’s not to say we wouldn’t try to take any action we could to help”.