Time to step up a gear on child poverty

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by John Dickie

Scotland’s first national child poverty strategy was launched recently, a development welcomed by anti-poverty campaigners.  However with one in four of Scotland’s children still officially living in poverty, jobs and wages under threat and unprecedented welfare cuts hitting families in and out of work, the next Scottish Government faces a real challenge in making progress towards the target of eradicating child poverty by 2020.  Is the new strategy robust enough to meet that challenge?

The Scottish strategy builds on existing frameworks to tackle poverty and inequality, address health inequalities and support the early years.  Its two main aims are to maximise household incomes and improve children’s wellbeing and life chances.  There is a welcome recognition of the need to tackle the underlying social and economic determinants of poverty, and also the stigma and discrimination families living in poverty face.

In terms of maximising incomes, the strategy focuses on increasing the number of parents in good quality employment, supporting financial inclusion, and reducing pressure on household budgets.  It restates the Scottish Government’s commitments in these areas: for example, to pay a ‘living wage’ as part of public sector pay policy (currently £7.15 an hour compared to the UK national minimum wage of £6.08); support advice and information services that maximise incomes; and reduce pressure on family budgets through the energy assistance package, extended free school meals and access to affordable food.

There are gaps (including a failure to address how additional costs at school such as charges for school trips, activities and materials undermine educational opportunity and increase the burden on family budgets), but on the whole the strategy sets out the areas where action is needed with an understanding anti-poverty campaigners would support.  Crucially it recognises the underlying structural causes of child poverty in a way that it’s more recently published UK counterpart, with its emphasis on individual behaviour and the consequences rather than causes of poverty, fails to.

Barriers to employment, low pay that means work is not a route out of poverty, and inadequacies in early years provision that restrict parents’ employment options and undermine early learning, are all highlighted.  The central role lack of income plays in driving child poverty is acknowledged, with actions described to identify ways in which incomes can be maximised through financial inclusion policies, and costs reduced to free up family budgets.

However the strategy is too often limited to restating what is already happening.  Whilst the identified areas of activity are largely right, the eradication of child poverty from Scotland requires a fundamental reprioritisation across the public and private sectors to ensure children and families gain a fairer share of Scotland’s still abundant national wealth.  Commitments to a living wage in the public sector, for example, are only the first step in ensuring more equal distribution of pay across the labour market; commitments to extend and improve early years provision need to be backed up by plans to ensure resources to do so are available at every level; and action to support business growth needs to be explicitly based on ensuring the benefits of growth are more fairly shared than in the past.

If the analysis and ambitions in Scotland’s child poverty strategy are to lead to real change a far greater sense of high level political leadership will be required, backed up by a far more robust approach to ensuring that government at every level is held to account for delivering the action needed to address the issues the strategy describes.  Far greater clarity is needed on how different areas and levels of government will be held to account to ensure spending and policy decisions actually reduce, rather than increase, poverty.

Furthermore there is a lack of specific timelines or indicators setting out when and how we will know progress is being made and, unlike in England or Wales, there is to no statutory duty on local authorities and their partners to produce local child poverty strategies.  Existing commitments of local government to address poverty and reduce educational barriers by for example, introducing universal free school meals, making school clothing grants more consistent and generous and extending entitlement to preschool education have been scaled back or have stalled altogether.

There is little evidence to suggest ending child poverty is being systematically prioritised in spending decisions at local or national level, and with UK Government policies set to exacerbate the problem, the need for high level leadership and accountability could not be more urgent.

Whoever leads the next Scottish Government must step up a gear in providing that leadership and demanding that accountability.

John Dickie is head of the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland