Child poverty: has Scotland lost its bottle?

Written by Tom Freeman on 19 December 2016 in Feature

Holyrood's child poverty event heard from leading voices in the fight against poverty

Craigmillar - Andrew Crummy

“How can Scotland achieve its potential when 20 per cent of the population can’t achieve theirs?” This is how former first minister Henry McLeish opened Holyrood’s event on tackling child poverty in Scotland. 

The topic is high on the political agenda, of course, with the proposed Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill articulating the Scottish Government’s ambition to eradicate child poverty by 2030. 

John Dickie, who leads the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, revealed just how ambitious that aim is, with current statistics showing one in five children in Scotland living in poverty, two-thirds of them in working households. 


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Expected to form part of the bill will be targets based on income, similar to the ones set out in 2010 UK legislation but subsequently repealed by the Conservative government.

Those targets include fewer than 10 per cent of children in Scotland in relative poverty by 2030, and fewer than five per cent in absolute poverty, which uses a set base regardless of whether other higher incomes go up.

The Scottish Government’s independent poverty adviser, Naomi Eisenstadt, reappointed as the consultation for the new legislation was launched, told delegates the targets were useful.
“I know there are sceptics, but I have to say I think it’s really good to have targets because now you can measure them. It holds government’s feet to the fire,” she said.

More important than arguments about long-term savings and preventative spend when making a case for tackling child poverty is social justice, Eisenstadt argued.

“We want less child poverty because it’s pretty miserable for a kid to be poor,” she said. “It’s miserable for their parents to be poor, and we want everyone’s lives to be as nice as they can be while they’re living it, and not some notion about what happens in the future.”

But what can governments do? They can prioritise reducing poverty, reducing inequality or ameliorating the impact of poverty on poor children, and each requires different policy responses, according to Eisenstadt. 

“You can reduce child poverty by increasing family incomes, and I have to say the Labour government until 2010 was very good at that. But they did nothing about inequality, in that the top went up faster,” she said.

Tackling inequality is harder than tackling poverty alone, she warned, because there would be “winners and losers”.

But when families are in perpetual crisis situations long-term planning becomes unrealistic because “the urgent replaces the important”, she said.

“That’s true for all of us if we’re having a crisis in our life.”

This is evident when it comes to choices on diet, research has shown. Eisenstadt challenged the assumption that poor parents feed their children cheap food because they don’t know any better. 

“They absolutely knew better. The reason they gave their children that food is because they couldn’t afford the waste, they couldn’t afford the hassle and they couldn’t afford the ‘try a little and if you don’t like it we’ll try something else. Just eat half a Brussels sprout tonight’. They just couldn’t afford it. Affording it isn’t just about finance. It’s about tension and stress in your life.”

Can government reduce that stress?

“You can reduce poverty by raising family incomes, you can only tackle inequality by taxing the top, through some redistribution, and you can ameliorate the impact by having good quality public services that poor people are happy to use,” said Eisenstadt. “That’s the tension of targeted versus universal, because often targeted services are stigmatised services.”

But does Scotland have the will to take on the issue? 

“If we loved children in this country we wouldn’t be having this discussion,” said John Carnochan, former Director of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit. “We seem to be stuck. We’re stuck in the idea we need big systems and a plan and a strategy to get us out of this, and we forget about people and attitudes.”

Professor John McKendrick of Glasgow Caledonian University said the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey revealed the vast majority of Scots recognise child poverty and think it should be tackled. But they also believe the main factor is alcohol or drug abuse. 

“Legislation alone is not enough to tackle child poverty,” he suggested, it will need buy-in from business and communities of interest.

Delegates heard how Renfrewshire Council and Queens Cross Housing Association in Glasgow had allowed change to be led by people experiencing poverty.

Renfrewshire councillor Jacqueline Henry said the local authority had decided to think beyond the usual electoral cycle, putting ‘Families First’ multidisciplinary teams into schools to support families, including giving financial advice.

There were warnings about the Scottish Government’s proposed expansion of free childcare. Writer Sue Palmer argued the expansion of formal education ignored evidence that play was how young children learn, something modern children get less and less time to do.

Eisenstadt warned the policy was “a political choice” because it focused on employability over child development. 

“It is part of the solution, but don’t believe you can kill six birds with one stone. You can’t,” she said.

Meanwhile Scotland’s new powers over welfare can help achieve those national targets. 

Dickie said topping up child benefit by £5 a week would have a knock-on impact.

“We are under no illusions that social security is the only solution to child poverty. It will take a range of measures to achieve those targets. Improving the labour market, improving childcare, improving our housing. But there’s no question that social security is a key lever.”  

Nevertheless, it will take more than “cold systems”, warned Carnochan. “Scotland has economy of scale, but we’ve lost our bottle,” he warned. 

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