Shona Robison: There are too many children whose life chances are hampered because of where they were born
When Nicola Sturgeon addressed her party’s conference at the end of last month, there was no major announcement on independence, no new plan on how to secure a second referendum.
Yet for many of the poorest families living in Scotland there was something else of real significance.
In confirming plans to double to £20 per week the Scottish Child Payment, the first minister was doing the one thing poverty campaigners had identified as most likely to have an impact on tackling rising levels of child poverty.
Even before the pandemic, the number of children living in poverty in Scotland had begun to rise. According to the Scottish Government’s own figures, more than a quarter of Scottish children (26 per cent) were living in poverty in 2019/20, up from 23 per cent the previous year.
Shona Robison, the minister whose vast brief includes tackling child poverty, should be under no illusions as to the size of the challenge. Parts of Dundee, the city she represents, are among the poorest in the country.
“Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve invested around £2.5bn to support low-income households and nearly £1bn of that was to directly support children,” she says. “We’ve already been investing in children and trying to tackle child poverty and obviously the Scottish Child Payment is a part of that.
“The Scottish Child Payment is absolutely critical, but there are other things we have to do. We’ve been looking across government because it can’t just be my portfolio that tackles child poverty…there are things like supporting parents into employment, wraparound childcare, all of these things are really important…”
The £20 child payment, which will initially benefit more than 100,000 eligible children under the age of six and will eventually be rolled out to include children up to the age of 16, is set to cost the Scottish Government £360m a year by 2023/24.
My worry this winter is that with the Universal Credit cut, and rising food and fuel prices, that people who were just about keeping their head above water are going to struggle.
There’s also an awkward asymmetry for the UK Government in that the weekly payment is the same amount taken off families earlier this year when the £20 uplift to Universal Credit controversially came to an end.
It was a contrast Robison sought to make use of during her own speech at the SNP’s conference last month when she told delegates: “They don’t care. We do.”
But does she really think the Conservative government at Westminster are uninterested in tackling child poverty?
“Actions speak louder than words, don’t they? We’re about to double the Scottish Child Payment and the UK Government cut the £20 Universal Credit uplift from families – and that doesn’t help us in trying to deliver on our child poverty targets.
“These families came to rely on that £20. To then remove it is without doubt driving families into further hardship and undermines the efforts that we’re making. It’s not unfair to draw the comparison (between the two governments) and suggest that if they did care about child poverty, they wouldn’t have taken that action.
“From where I stand, I see a government in Scotland with a fixed budget, with limited revenue-raising options, putting every penny it can into tackling poverty and child poverty. I don’t see that same purpose from the UK Government.”
Robison says comments made by some MPs during the debate about second jobs and MPs’ salaries last month were “embarrassing”.
Tory Andrew Rosindell was among those who were widely criticised in November when he cautioned against removing MPs’ right to a second income after earlier backing the removal of the Universal Credit uplift. The basic annual salary for an MP is £82,000.
“It shows a complete disregard and how completely out of touch (some politicians are) with how many people are living their lives, making ends meet and barely keeping their heads above water,” Robison says.
“My worry this winter is that with the Universal Credit cut, and rising food and fuel prices, that people who were just about keeping their head above water are going to struggle.”
From the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, income inequality grew at an alarming rate in the UK, outstripping every other OECD country during the 1980s. By the early 1990s, children had displaced pensioners as the single largest group in poverty.
According to a paper published recently by the Scottish Parliament’s Information Centre (SPICe), child poverty fell markedly across the UK between the mid-1990s and 2008, with Scotland experiencing some of the biggest falls. As levels of debt and deprivation fell, child well-being improved and families spent more on fruit and vegetables, children’s clothes and books, while spending less on alcohol and tobacco.
Yet while child poverty in Scotland remains lower than elsewhere in the UK (largely due to lower housing costs), progress has stalled and may even have gone into reverse due to the pandemic. A third of those currently reliant on food banks in Scotland, for example, are children.
Robison, as Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government, is charged with helping tackle the issue. Born in Redcar, North Yorkshire, in 1966, she went to school in Clackmannanshire before studying for a degree in social sciences at Glasgow University One of her earliest memories is of her parents helping Chileans to settle in Scotland after fleeing the regime of Augusto Pinochet.
“They arrived with nothing, and my mum and dad were involved with helping find accommodation and basic items such as clothing. I do remember suddenly having an awareness of what goes on in the rest of the world and thought about what I would do if I had to leave with just what I stood up in, leaving everything behind. That really had an impact on me.”
Now it’s Robison herself who is responsible for helping resettle refugees, part of her vast cabinet brief.
She admits to being frustrated by recent discussions with the Home Office over the settlement of child asylum seekers in Scotland. She wrote to Home Secretary Priti Patel last month to express her concerns about mandating Scottish councils to accept vulnerable children, effectively replacing a Scottish rota system that allowed the children to be placed with the local authority best placed to meet their needs.
It’s the bloody-mindedness (on the part of the Home Office) that is really frustrating
“We’ve been offering to take our fair share of people and we have done that through various programmes,” Robison says. “We had come to an agreement with the Home Office that we would take 45 children out of every 650 arriving in the UK.
“Again, this is an example of the UK Government not behaving in a way they should. We were all summoned to a meeting, including the Welsh, and told that they were going to mandate that each local authority would have a figure.
“In Scotland, we have some very small local authorities where they just don’t have the support structures in place. But we were told that (the Scottish rota) was being scrapped and we would be mandated to take 44 children.
“We could have a situation where children are passed around local authorities because they’re all mandated to take a certain number of children even if it’s not the appropriate place for those children to go. It’s a bloody-mindedness (on the part of the Home Office) that is really frustrating.”
Asked about Labour MSP Paul Sweeney’s proposal to provide free bus travel to asylum seekers in Scotland, Robison says she has raised the issue with cabinet colleagues who are overseeing a review of free travel arrangements.
“I’m always sympathetic to look at whether there are further supports we can give to people who are pretty much living on nothing,” she says.
Prior to becoming an MSP in 1999, Robison worked in the social work department at Glasgow City Council.
“I was a home care organiser working in one of the poorest parts of Glasgow. It gave me a real insight into some of the challenges involved in breaking that circle of poverty that many families are living in and how complex that is and how inter-generational that is. It’s really important for me, being in government, trying to do something about that.”
She admits to shedding tears over the recent case of six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes who was killed by his stepmother and father in Solihull, West Midlands. Arthur’s maternal grandfather has said concerns raised by family members were “not acted on” by social services or police in the months before the child’s death.
“There are unfortunately very cruel people who should never have any control over children,” Robison says. “The people to blame here are the two individuals who inflicted torture, misery and ultimately death on this poor little boy. However, there are obviously questions – social work saw the little boy and he had raised concerns himself about his safety. That wasn’t picked up on and it’s important to understand why.
“Social workers – and I’ve worked with amazing social workers – often get the blame, but they have a horrendous job to do, trying to look after some of our most vulnerable children. We don’t hear about the success stories of the children that are protected and the tragedies that have been avoided.”
Robison said she had cried over the case of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes Picture: Alamy
The Scottish Government talks about making Scotland “the best place in the world to grow up”. Robison rejects the cynical view that it’s simply a phrase that sounds good in press releases and says it’s a genuine aspiration. But even she concedes that there is still a long way to go, should it ever be possible.
“Progress has been made in many respects – housing conditions have improved…there’s been a lot of regeneration,” she says. “I see that in Dundee when I look at areas like Whitfield, where there’s been a huge regeneration. Housing is an important anti-poverty lever, making sure that people have access to affordable, safe homes.
“But still there are too many children whose life chances are being hampered because of where they happen to be born. That’s why we need to close the attainment gap, help parents into decent jobs, tackle addiction issues and break the cycle of poverty. I’m under no illusion – we have a long journey still to go…”