Poverty: Scottish government must invest more in family support if it's serious about transforming children’s lives – Joanne Smith

Families struggling to afford basic essentials, such as food, nappies and electricity, was one of the most devastating impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Relentless adversity has a huge impact on people’s mental health and family relationships, creating social isolation and exclusion (Picture: John Devlin)

Yet we know that families across Scotland were experiencing hardship before the pandemic hit; the situation was only exacerbated by the events of the past 18 months.

Sadly, it took a global public health crisis to expose some of the serious inequalities that we, as a society, have tolerated for far too long.

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As we mark the end of Challenge Poverty Week, we reflect on research that NSPCC Scotland and Barnardo’s Scotland published last year which revealed growing levels of destitution in the years leading up to the pandemic, with families struggling to get food, secure housing and heating.

Relentless adversity has a huge impact on people’s mental health and family relationships. It creates social isolation and exclusion. Our research found escalating need in families was being met with diminishing support, as local authority budgets tightened.

The Scottish government has long expressed its commitment to supporting families, acknowledging the importance of early intervention to prevent or mitigate negative outcomes for children. Yet, while national policy around prevention has become increasingly aspirational, the capacity of frontline services has been continually eroded.

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The Scottish government’s recent commitment to invest £500m in holistic family support services is encouraging, and builds on the vision developed by The Promise organisation and the Children and Families Collective Leadership Group.

We have long argued that investment in universal early-years services provides the most efficient, cost-effective and socially just way of supporting families. It means we work alongside families to identify and resolve problems early, preventing the need for future crisis intervention.

Such an investment would build on the wealth of work undertaken over the past decade to improve the start of children’s lives in Scotland. The country has an impressive vision. However, much of the policy hasn’t been implemented locally because of a lack of meaningful integration between health and social care, specialism within the workforce and, importantly, sustainable funding.

It is yet to be seen what difference the proposals to expand the scope of the National Care Service could make to how we support families. But previous attempts at integration have taught us that structural reform doesn’t change culture. People change culture, but to do that they need resources, and currently many of our people, families and professionals, are overwhelmed and burned out.

International evidence tells us that families thrive in countries that value and invest in the early years. If the Scottish government is seriously committed to transforming children’s lives, it is crucial that higher levels of public investment are shifted towards evidence-based supports for babies, children and families. This cannot be an add-on or a burden to be shouldered by an insecurely funded third sector.

In the year the Scottish Parliament voted for the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to be incorporated into Scots law, fundamental reform is required to ensure national and local budget-setting and spending decisions take account of families’ rights to access these services. This must go hand-in-hand with clear proposals to lift families out of poverty, so everyone in society has enough money to live with dignity.

Joanne Smith is NSPCC Scotland policy and public affairs manager (written also on behalf of Barnardo’s Scotland)

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