Dani Garavelli: Child benefit top-up an acid test for SNP

With so many depressing headlines on austerity and lengthening food bank queues, it was reassuring to see charities and churches come together last week to launch their Give Me 5 campaign.

Too often the true costs of child poverty are overlooked. Photograph: John Devlin

The joint initiative aims to put pressure on the Scottish Government to use its new welfare powers to top up child benefit by £5 a week, and is backed up by research from the University of York which suggests the move could lift 30,000 children a year out of poverty.

The policy is a variation of the proposal included in Scottish Labour’s Child Poverty manifesto which suggested child benefit should be raised by £240 a year by 2021. A child benefit top-up is also supported by the Scottish Green Party.

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Such an investment does not come cheap; Labour’s version would set us back £225m a year, but you have to set that against the additional costs of poverty which – as Green MSP Alison Johnstone has pointed out – are estimated at £29bn a year across the UK.

Tackling child poverty is one of the Scottish Government’s top priorities; it has already pledged to get rid of sanctioning and spent around £8m to mitigate the lowering of the UK benefit cap, for which it should be congratulated. The reduction from £500 a week for a couple or single parent with children to £384.62 is said to have had a profound impact, leaving many families unable to pay their rent.

The latest figures suggest 260,000 – or one in four – children in Scotland are now living below the breadline. The Scottish Government’s Child Poverty Bill sets a target to reduce the figure to one in ten by 2030; last week it appointed independent commissioners to help achieve it. These members of the Poverty and Inequality Commission will look at how government budgets, policy and practice can make an impact on social and economic inequality and advise on the first Child Poverty Delivery Plan due in April 2018.

Despite all this, the SNP’s reaction to the idea it might top up child benefit to the tune of £5 a week has been lukewarm. Responding to calls by Scottish Labour and the Child Poverty Action Group back in March, Social Security Secretary Angela Constance said the move would not be an efficient way of tackling the problem because the universal nature of the benefit meant only £3 out of £10 would be spent on the poorest families, the rest going to those who were doing fine (although anyone earning over £50,000 wouldn’t be getting it anyway).

Now, the debate over universalism is a legitimate one, with a strong case to be made on either side. To some, the notion of freebies for the better off is the very opposite of progressive. Targeting, usually through the process of means-testing, is more fiscally efficient as it ensures resources are directed where they are needed most.

One way of doing that here might be to top up means-tested child tax credits instead of child benefit, except that child tax credits are unwieldy, they have a low income cut-off (which means some poor families would miss out) and the UK government last year imposed a two-child cap (which means larger families would miss out).

The problem with means-testing generally is it’s complicated and often expensive to administer, the stigma attached to the benefit can lead to low take-up and the need for a cut-off point means someone will always fall just below the line.

Universal benefits and services are hugely expensive, but easier to administer, there is no stigma (people in receipt of child benefits aren’t seen as “skivers”) and they contribute to a more cohesive society.

If there’s one party that doesn’t need a lecture on the advantages of universalism, it’s the SNP; its MSPs have been making these arguments quite convincingly for ten years, often in the face of fierce opposition. They have used this rhetoric to justify free prescriptions, free university tuition and most recently the baby boxes. When people suggested giving nappies and babygros to middle class mothers was a waste of money, they insisted it was all about sending a message: that all children are valued by the state, and about making sure everyone feels they have a stake in society. Why, at this late stage in the game, are the disadvantages of universalism suddenly becoming apparent to them?

Of course, it may be there are valid arguments against the top-up policy. Someone suggested to me that the unpredictability of Brexit (its potential future effect on inflation etc) could render its impact “ephemeral”. But I’m not sure why this would be more true of a child benefit top-up than it would be of anything else.

I sincerely hope the SNP’s reticence is not because this policy originated with Scottish Labour and the Scottish Greens; this is far too important a problem to fall victim to petty party politics. I hope it’s not because using the new welfare powers might set a precedent and prevent the party from passing the buck to Westminster. Although clearly the UK Government is responsible for the welfare reforms that have caused an explosion in the poverty figures, constantly attacking the Tories will not help those affected.

It is worth pointing out, too, that there is an obvious way to offset the problem of middle class people accessing universal services and benefits: it’s called progressive taxation. So far the Scottish government has shied away from radical and redistributive polices, but what’s the point of demanding powers if they do not intend to use them?

Eradicating child poverty should be the SNP’s most pressing concern – in a civilised society, no-one should go hungry, but it’s also the key to so many other problems. Give children shelter and enough to eat, increase their aspirations and their opportunities, and anti-social behaviour will fall away and the attainment gap will narrow.

The SNP has been in government for ten years now; it has fought for and achieved some of the autonomy it demanded. But to what purpose if it is not prepared to be bold in its attempts to build a fairer and more equal society?