Charities, MSPs and the government’s own Poverty and Inequality Commission have demanded “bold action” at a speed similar to that in responding to the Covid pandemic, to ensure Scots children are lifted out of poverty.
The demands came as the new social justice minister, Shona Robison, updated Holyrood on progress to tackling child poverty.
She said investment of almost £1 billion had been made in the past financial year, but also pledged to bring forward new “game-changing” policies and called for society to unite to eradicate child poverty in Scotland.
However, the progress report showed that before the pandemic, relative poverty had “slowly increased while absolute child poverty, persistent poverty and the proportion of children who are in combined low income and material deprivation” had “remained relatively stable, but still well above the targets”.
And the stark conclusion of a Child Poverty Scrutiny Report by the Poverty and Inequality Commission, also released on Wednesday, was that urgent action was needed to “release Scotland’s children from the restrictions of poverty”.
The commission has advised the Scottish Government that more action is needed on social security, employment and fair work, and childcare in order to meet its poverty-eradication targets, set in law in 2017.
The Child Poverty Act said less than 10 per cent of children should be living in relative poverty by 2030, and less than 5 per cent should be living in absolute poverty. Current statistics show one in four children are living in poverty.
Chair Bill Scott said: “Levels of child poverty in Scotland are, at best, stagnating and may actually be starting to increase.
“We appreciate the work the Scottish Government has done to address the impact of the pandemic and its intention to increase the Scottish Child Payment to £20 per week. However, this is not enough.
"Urgent action is still required to ensure we meet our child poverty targets.”
Mr Scott said the full impact of the pandemic on poverty was yet to be fully realised but it was likely families on low incomes had been hit hardest.
Among other recommendations, the commission said the government needed to “apply the same sense of urgency, pace, and commitment to investment and partnership, to eradicating child poverty, that it has shown in responding to Covid-19”, make the case to the UK Government to make the uplift to Universal Credit permanent and provide a “significant increase” in the Parental Employment Support Fund.
Mr Scott added: “Scotland has committed to a national mission to tackle child poverty because it is the right thing to do.
“We now need to make sure that we deliver, otherwise we will miss these targets by a long way.”
Claire Telfer, Save the Children’s head of Scotland, also called for the Scottish Child Payment to be doubled.
Giving the example of a single mum with a three-year-old who received a Save the Children Emergency Early Years Grant during the pandemic, she said the mother had “told us how stretched her finances have been, saying ‘at the end of the month when I got my Universal Credit money there was never as much as even a pound or two spare … many people think £10 is not a lot of money, but an extra £10 a week could totally change the world’.”
Ms Telfer added: “The last year has thrown up many financial challenges for families, but for those on low incomes it has exacerbated already over stretched budgets and, for many, has made life unimaginably tough.
“We welcome the steps that Scottish Government have taken to support families, including introducing the Scottish Child Payment and extra financial support for parents during the pandemic, but we know this isn’t enough to meet the statutory child poverty reduction targets that were agreed with cross-party support in the Scottish Parliament.
“It is simply unacceptable that one in four children in our wealthy, prosperous country are growing up experiencing poverty which will impact on them now and well into the future.”
Scottish Labour’s spokesperson for social justice and social security, Pam Duncan-Glancy, said it was a “tragedy” the government looked set to miss the child poverty targets.
“One immediate step we can take to move towards giving people a life free from poverty is to double the Scottish Child Payment. There is simply no justification for delaying this,” she said.
“Like Scottish Labour, the SNP has rightly defended the uplift to Universal Credit and voiced support for a minimum income guarantee, but they’re yet to use the powers they already have to deliver these things.
“Those in single parent families, people of colour and families with disabled people in them are more likely to live in poverty, and they are being hit the hardest. There is so much we can and must do now.”
Ms Robison said the doubling of the Scottish Child Payment would happen as “quickly as possible” and pointed to bridging payments already being made to families.
She said the progress report showed that “investment in low-income families with children continued to grow as we sought to offer support during the pandemic.
“Direct support to families with children rose to more than £978m in 2020/21 – including £118 million in response to Covid,” she said.
“This was part of almost £2.5bn invested to support low income households, including more than £434m of Covid-related investment in social assistance.”
She added: “The report also shows that all 66 of the actions we have previously reported on are either in progress or being delivered.
“We have made considerable progress over the first three years of this plan, but further action is needed.
“We must continue to deliver at the pace and scale with which we responded to the pandemic.”