Tam Baillie: We will all pay if we fail to invest in our children

THE Scottish Government may have postponed the pain of budget cuts until after the election, but it's clear that councils are having to wield the axe now.

In anticipation of harsh funding reductions next year, talk of tough choices is now the norm as councillors face the unenviable task of finalising where the cuts should fall.

My concern is that, across Scotland, those cuts will focus on services for children and families, as councils struggle to make ends meet.

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Take, for instance, Edinburgh City Council. The Capital's council is considering cutting the early years spending on nurseries by 113,000. This is despite the fact that the Scottish Government and Cosla have committed to transforming early years services through the Early Years Framework, published in 2008.

This was meant to lead to the development of early years services – not a reduction, as this instance in Edinburgh appears to be.

The UK's experience post-WWI and in the 1980s recession are evidence that sacrificing support for children and young people is at best a false economy and at worst, a recipe for a generation blighted by lack of opportunity.

The economic crisis of the 1980s will be remembered by many Scots as being characterised by reduced public services and a steep rise in child poverty.

What we know about the decisions taken then was that they corroded educational attainment, health and wellbeing and the long-term life chances for several generations of children. And we are now at risk of repeating those mistakes.

The tendency in identifying services for cuts is always to retain services on the basis of statutory duty, rather than their ability to deliver long-term benefit.

The limited universal entitlements for children and young people leaves numerous service areas which are now vulnerable to swingeing cuts and stalled development. Child benefit, one of the few universal benefit payments, was frozen for three years as part of David Cameron's budget last week.

There is solid evidence proving that, pound for pound, the return on investment in children's early years has the biggest impact on future development and life chances, compared to investment later on.

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Likewise, we know how crucially important youth work can be to a successful transition by young people into adulthood.

Many politicians have the best of intentions when it comes to providing high quality services for children, and ensuring that the most vulnerable can access them. But the harsh political reality is that politicians are currently driven, first and foremost, by the need to make savings now – rather than taking a long-term view beyond their four-year electoral cycles.

So it is not enough to leave local authorities, as budget holders, to act in the short term with little challenge as to the long-term consequences.

That is why the Child Rights Impact Assessment developed by my office should become standard in policy-making in local and national government. It can help officials weigh up the short and long-term impact on children of the cuts they propose, allowing them to make informed judgements. Better decisions in relation to young people will minimise the damage to future generations.

And in terms of early years, the Scottish Government has clearly stated that support and services are key to ensuring children's rights are upheld.

Indeed, ministers have also stated that children's rights should underpin all children's policy.

This year marks the 21st anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child – yet respecting and protecting these rights remains too far down the political and public agenda. This must change if we are to see children and young people of Edinburgh – and Scotland – thrive.

So in the rush to slash spending, I'd urge politicians to consider the long-term consequences of every decision made now with regard to children.

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The desperate push for austerity – and the short-term political interests of politicians – should not be prioritised over and above investment in providing children with the opportunities and support that we know they need and deserve.

Tam Baillie is Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People

EDUCATION and children's services in Edinburgh are facing big financial challenges as the council is seeking to save more than 90 million over the next three years:


• A 240,000 saving over the next two years has been approved from three nursery and six community centre closures, school budgets slashed and funding for community groups reduced.

• The creation of a new role of "senior nursery nurse" in four nurseries will save up to 113,000.

• A scheme to reduce unemployed school leavers is to be scaled back.

• The removal of free bus travel to school for hundreds of pupils.

• One-to-one music tuition has been cut back in primary schools.