Kirsty the Holyrood Baby: 'Every day that goes by, the Scottish Child Payment is worth less and less'
The heating hasn’t been on for weeks now, so when seven-year-old Kirsty comes home from school, she knows not to take her coat off straight away.
Instead, she goes straight to her room and swaps her coat for her oversized rainbow hoodie, a Christmas present from her gran Jackie. Then it’s time for a snack (is that girl never full? wonders her mum Caley most days).
Through in the wee kitchen, Caley has made toast. The smell of it makes Caley’s tummy rumble and she breaks off a corner for herself. It’s the first thing she’s eaten since breakfast.
Kirsty is the “Holyrood baby”, a fictional child born in a deprived area of Scotland on the day of the Holyrood election in 2016. Her story closely resembles that of many thousands of disadvantaged children. Charting Kirsty’s progress over the last seven years has allowed Holyrood to consider how effective the promises politicians made in 2016 to improve the lives of children have actually been, especially Nicola Sturgeon’s stated commitment to “make Scotland the best place to grow up”.
It doesn’t feel like a land of opportunity to Kirsty or her mum. Caley has not been able to work since Kirsty was born due to a lack of flexible part-time work or affordable childcare, and gets by on social security benefits.
Every day that goes by, the Scottish Child Payment is worth less and less
It’s been a tough few years for mother and daughter, Caley struggling with depression and anxiety, and both of their lives rocked by the death from Covid of Kirsty’s beloved grandad, Davey, Caley’s father, in January 2021.
When lockdown ended and Kirsty went to school, it gave Kirsty some much-needed structure and Caley some much-needed time to herself. Kirsty has also been seeing more of her dad, Scott.
But overshadowing it all have been money worries, which blight every day.
Price increases in energy bills and groceries have been punishing for families like Kirsty’s, says John Dickie, director of the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland.
He says: “Parents like Caley were already making impossible choices between rent, energy and food for the week ahead without the extraordinary increases in cost we have seen. We’ve seen the impact in terms of increased use of food banks.”
In the year to 31 March, the Trussell Trust in Scotland distributed 260,000 emergency food parcels – a 30 per cent increase on the previous year.
A report last year called Living Without A Lifeline by One Parent Families Scotland (OPFS) laid out how the cost-of-living crisis had impacted single parent families. More than 60 per cent of those surveyed said they were finding it extremely difficult to afford or could no longer afford electricity; almost as many (58 per cent) said the same about gas and nearly 44 per cent said it about food. More than a fifth said they could no longer afford to pay at all for childcare.
Many parents reported they and their children lacked activities and social interaction to look forward to.
Over half of respondents to the OPFS survey reported feeling anxious, stressed or struggling with their mental health most of the time.
Last May, on turning six, Kirsty stopped qualifying for the £20-a-week Scottish Child Payment.
She went seven months without it. Caley received three £130 one-off payments instead, but that wasn’t enough to make up for losing the benefit.
It meant Caley couldn’t afford a new school uniform for Kirsty after the summer.
On November 14, all children in low-income families aged under 16 became eligible for the payment following a change of government policy, so Kirsty now receives it again, and better still, it’s gone up to £25 a week. Because of inflation, that doesn’t feel like much of an increase but Caley is very glad to be getting the money again all the same.
Huge percentages of those in work were still struggling to afford things
The most recent statistics available show that child poverty levels in Scotland are stable – not falling, but not rising either.
However modelling suggests that when figures are published for the 12 months to March 2023, they will show that child poverty has started to decline, in large part because of the Scottish Child Payment. Dickie calls it “a serious investment having a serious impact”.
“It is a really, really significant additional support for the family,” he says. “The Scottish Child Payment means that a family like Kirsty’s is getting £100 more a month than an equivalent family elsewhere in the UK.
“But that additional support is being eroded by rising prices. Every day that goes by, the Scottish Child Payment is worth less and less.”
He is heartened that First Minister Humza Yousaf said during the SNP leadership campaign that he wanted to increase the value of the payment to £30 in his first budget. The Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland wants to see it increased immediately in line with inflation and then for it to be raised to at least £30 in the next Scottish Government budget. It also wants the value of UK Government benefits restored.
Parents like Caley were already making impossible choices between rent, energy and food
Dickie adds that increasing the Scottish Child Payment further to £40 is “the least we’ll need to see” by the end of the parliament if it’s going to hold its real-terms value.
The Scottish Government interim child poverty target of fewer than 18 per cent of children to be living in families in relative poverty by 2023/24, is likely to be achieved, but the picture is more bleak when it comes to meeting the 2030 target of driving that figure below 10 per cent.
Winter was especially difficult for Caley and Kirsty. Like many low-income families, Caley pays for gas and electricity by prepayment meter. She received financial help with her energy bills, but the costs of heating the flat just ate up money. There were times this winter when she just didn’t top up the meter to save money.
On those days they tried to spend as much time as possible at Caley’s mum Jackie’s house or at the local library. At Christmas, they went and stayed with Jackie for several days. Kirsty hated coming home after Christmas. She could see her breath coming out in white clouds.
Kirsty likes school, particularly arts and crafts, but she’s making very slow progress in literacy and numeracy, and is getting targeted support as a result. She’s going into P3 after the summer but still struggles to read.
On the plus side, her speech and language skills are starting to improve after concerns were raised about them last year and she started seeing a speech and language therapist. Among children living in deprivation there are more likely to be developmental concerns around speech and language than among children from wealthier backgrounds. Recent Public Health Scotland research shows that these inequalities have been widened by the pandemic.
Kirsty sometimes feels sad that she doesn’t get to do the things other children can do. Once at a friend’s birthday party, they went to a soft play and had pizza afterwards. Kirsty asked her mum that night if she could have a party like that on her next birthday and Caley couldn’t bring herself to say no, so she said “We’ll see.” She felt like crying.
Caley has one goal this summer: to take Kirsty on holiday, with Jackie, to Caley’s aunt’s house in the north of England. She won’t have to pay for food while she’s there, but still has to work out how to save the fare and a little spending money.
Sick and tired of being in debt, Caley wants to get a job and often thinks she’d enjoy working in catering, like a bakery or cafe. But even if a job came up, she finds the idea of attending an interview intimidating, doesn’t know how she’d be able to get there for an 8am start if she has to get Kirsty to school and doubts she has the right skills anyway. “Don’t sell yourself short,” her mum always says, but Caley struggles with self-esteem. Jackie has offered to help with childcare, but as Jackie isn’t in great health, Caley doesn’t like to rely on her too much.
Caley’s predicament is typical of thousands of single parents. Ensuring affordable, accessible wraparound care and holiday care for school-age children is an essential part of tackling child poverty, says Dickie.
Some schools offer breakfast clubs and after-school clubs, but provision is patchy and they can be expensive. “There is a commitment in the Scottish Government Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan to expand wraparound childcare and holiday cover so that parents like Caley can take up and sustain jobs,” says Dickie.
“What we need is to move beyond a patchwork of provision so that wherever you live you have access to childcare that’s suitable for the child and their needs.”
Caitlin Logan of OPFS agrees. “For low-income families, school-age childcare is so important to help them tackle the poverty they face.”
Although access to employability help and support was highlighted as a priority in the child poverty delivery plan, support for employability schemes has actually been cut due to the cost-of-living crisis and that money used for emergency support instead.
The Scottish Government runs the employment service Fair Start Scotland and the Parental Employability Support Fund.
OPFS also runs employability schemes which Logan says are about “starting right at the beginning”.
“For a lot of parents the issue is confidence so it’s about supporting people to build that confidence and build the skills around interviews and CVs and helping parents to see the connections between their experiences and the skills they have.
“That’s where we have seen that some of the mainstream schemes are lacking. That confidence needs to be built so people can take on and sustain employment.”
She adds: “A couple of years ago, we did some research with Oxfam in Scotland analysing the different employability schemes and found that often they were not working for the needs of single parents of carers.
“One of the things we have called for is that there should be a national programme supported by the Scottish Government that is tailored towards single parents and recognises the challenges they face and that they are one of the priority groups in tackling child poverty.”
Dickie adds: “It’s not just about employability, but it’s about having the sort of jobs in Scotland that are family-friendly, provide security and the rewards needed to sustain a decent income.”
OPFS warns that getting a job does not mean that Caley’s troubles will be over, as their recent survey of single parents showed. “Although the situation was even worse for those who were not in work, huge percentages of those in work were still struggling to afford things,” says Logan.
Lifting children like Kirsty out of poverty will take sustained long-term investment and hard work.
Dickie says: “The UK has higher levels of child poverty than many other European countries. We know that it’s possible to have significantly lower levels of child poverty and you tend to find that in countries with infrastructure of increased childcare but also social security support and better paid jobs.”
Scotland and the UK have a long way to go.