Child poverty in Scotland: It’s make-or-break time for Scottish Parliament to meet its legally binding targets – Chris Birt

The record turnout in the Holyrood election shows a Parliament in good health but it puts MSPs under significant pressure to deliver for their constituents.

Child poverty is significantly lower in Scotland compared to the UK average because of lower housing costs, which shows the value of social housing, says Chris Birt (Picture: John Devlin)
Child poverty is significantly lower in Scotland compared to the UK average because of lower housing costs, which shows the value of social housing, says Chris Birt (Picture: John Devlin)

No more so than for the one million people in Scotland who are trapped in poverty. In the election debate, all the parties were clear that levels of poverty were unacceptable and there was more to do. We have been saying that for quite some time.

Actions must match the rhetoric quickly. Not only is poverty increasing, destitution is rising alarmingly rapidly and food banks are seeing eye-watering demand. These patterns predate the pandemic, foretelling the further damage that the pandemic could do.

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That urgency is underlined by an important litmus test of the Parliament’s ambitions for reducing poverty. In 2017 it unanimously set legally binding child poverty targets. The interim targets must be met in the middle of this Parliament – it’s make-or-break time.

The hard truth is that progress has been too slow in tackling the injustice of child poverty – pre-pandemic figures show around 25 per cent of children live in relative poverty, the interim target is 18 per cent and we have less than three years to meet it.

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But we know the choices we have made in Scotland have made a difference. Child poverty is significantly lower in Scotland compared to the average across the UK because of our lower comparative housing costs. That shows the value of investing in social housing. However, we have quite rightly set ourselves a higher standard, so we have got much more to do.

This week, the new government will take shape and begin its work to steer the country out of the crisis caused by the pandemic. As the new ministers assume their posts, lifting more children out of poverty must be at the top of their boxes, marked “immediate”.

One such priority is doubling the Scottish Child Payment to £20 per week per child. This will further reduce child poverty by around two percentage points compared to the planned £10 payment and will benefit tens of thousands of low-income families.

It is an investment in Scottish families supported by the entire Parliament. A bold commitment that shows the potential that our Parliament has to create a Scotland without poverty. But that doubling must happen as soon as possible.

To contribute to meeting the interim targets it will have to be in place, at the very latest, for the start of the 2023/24 financial year and arguably recovery from the pandemic requires it sooner.

The Child Payment must not be the end of our ambitions and, frankly, it won’t get us to the targets. If the UK government wrongly goes ahead with the cut to Universal Credit in October, all the doubling of the Child Payment will do is erase the harm done to families by that cut. It will still leave us four percentage points short of our targets and leave tens of thousands of children in poverty.

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It also won’t provide the systematic change that we need to transform the lives of those experiencing poverty. It won’t reverse post-industrial decline, it won’t bring down rents and it won’t reverse the inequality faced by lone parents, Black, Asian and minority ethnic people or disabled people. The lack of such change means we spend hundreds of millions of pounds tackling the symptoms of poverty, instead of focusing on its causes.

As a society we must concentrate on making jobs a reliable route out of poverty and providing good quality affordable housing as a platform to build a more compassionate and adequate social security system around people.

In housing, as well as continuing to dramatically increase the supply of social housing, there will need to be a real focus on supporting renters who have been hardest hit by the economic crisis, including easing the burden of debt the pandemic has imposed on them.

And jobs are far too often low-paid, inflexible and come with unreliable hours. It means that two-thirds of children in Scotland in poverty are in working families, a shameful situation.

Employers have made incredible sacrifices to tackle the public health crisis and they have a vital role in ensuring our recovery is built on stronger foundations of good pay, reliable hours and flexibility. The prize is lower poverty and more productive workforces. Solutions lie in collaboration between the private, public, and third sectors along with trades unions to specifically target action to support people and areas that are most at risk of in-work poverty.

If we succeed in this task, we can insure ourselves via a social security system that truly supports us when we need it and demonstrates the type of society we want to live in. A firm foundation that defines how people in Scotland expect to be supported by the state in the same way that we have clear expectations of our NHS.

All of this will require an entrepreneurial spirit that we have seen across our economy and society during the pandemic.

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It is that which must give us hope. Being innovative, nimble and compassionate has allowed us to achieve unimaginable things under the most immense stress. But the trauma of coronavirus should pass, so we need to turn our sights on poverty.

Scotland faces a major debate as to its future and those on either side of the debate will argue that their vision of the future can lead to a fairer Scotland. However, people in poverty cannot wait any longer. We need to be courageous and compassionate in our decisions and act with urgency. For people experiencing the constant pressure of poverty now, a brighter future cannot come soon enough.

Chris Birt is deputy director for Scotland at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

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