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by Rebecca McQuillan
09 May 2024
The Holyrood baby turns eight:  There’s no end to the cost-of-living crisis for Kirsty

The Holyrood baby turns eight: There’s no end to the cost-of-living crisis for Kirsty

Priced out of fun

Caley is listening to the radio while she makes tea for herself and her daughter Kirsty. The Chancellor Jeremy Hunt is on, saying that inflation is down and it’s “helping people’s money go further”.

“Could have fooled me,” Caley thinks as she peels potatoes. The price of tatties, peas and many other items just seem to keep going up. 

Anxiety about the cost of everything is grinding both mother and daughter down. Soon it will be Kirsty’s eighth birthday and she’d love a party at the trampoline park, but at more than £10 a child, it’s out of the question. The constant shortage of cash and the feeling that Kirsty could be missing out because of it makes Caley stressed every single day. 

Kirsty is the ‘Holyrood baby’, a fictional child born in a deprived area of Scotland on the day of the Holyrood election in May 2016. Her story reflects the difficulties facing many thousands of disadvantaged children. Charting Kirsty’s progress over the last eight years has allowed us to consider how far politicians have fulfilled their promises to improve the lives of children living in poverty.

Fiona King, senior policy and public affairs manager at Save the Children Scotland, says that just because the cost-of-living crisis has fallen out of the headlines, it’s not over for many families: “We feel really strongly that families like Kirsty’s are still walking a really difficult tightrope. Food is still too expensive; the cost of energy is causing stress.

“There’s no room to budge at all any more, because there are no savings left,” she says. Parents tell Save the Children that they never get any respite from the money worries because everything is “silly expensive”. 

Like other parents in the same position, Caley really hates having to say no to Kirsty so often, and often goes without herself if it means Kirsty can have a bigger helping of dinner or a small treat like some chocolate. Every single penny matters and there just isn’t enough money, ever. 

As well as her own birthday, Kirsty’s friend Nadia’s birthday party is coming up and that means finding the cash for a present. Caley is also washing clothes by hand at present because the washing machine has developed a fault, and she can’t afford to get it repaired.

One of the things that bothers Caley most is that extra-curricular and weekend activities for Kirsty are too expensive. Some of the other children in Kirsty’s class do things like swimming, music, dance, and football, but Caley can’t afford classes for Kirsty. 

“At this age, there are lots of activities at school where the cost is just prohibitive,” says King.

“Parents would look to take their kids swimming but again, the cost is prohibitive.

“If you don’t have money to spare, you just don’t have money to spare.”

These activities may not be a part of the core curriculum, but as King points out, they are part of a child’s wider learning, enrich their lives and bring joy. Being excluded from them is a contributing factor to children falling behind their peers.

Even what appear to be free activities, like going to the beach, have costs attached like bus fares and ice-creams, making them difficult for families in financial distress.

“I think in Scotland in the 2020s we should expect children to experience joy and have an ice-cream when they go to the beach,” says King. “This shouldn’t be seen as a frivolous extra.”

Last summer, Caley, Kirsty and gran Jackie went by bus to stay with Jackie’s sister in the north of England for a few days. Caley came back in more debt, but Kirsty just loved it. Caley would like to do it again, but with all her other expenses, she just can’t. 

She is anxious about the summer holidays. In common with more than half of parents in low-income households surveyed by Save the Children and the charity In Kind Direct, Caley worries about Kirsty spending time alone because she can’t join in the activities her peers are enjoying.

Caley is also concerned that Kirsty is finding aspects of schoolwork challenging. Kirsty has been receiving extra help at school for reading, writing and maths. 

King says: “Eight is quite a key age developmentally. For children living in poverty, there’s lots of evidence that having started behind their peers, the gap gets wider throughout primary school.” The latest official data shows the poverty-related attainment gap has barely narrowed. As King says, “those from poorer backgrounds are still 20 percentage points behind their better off peers despite significant investment”.

Caley lives with anxiety and depression. She would like to get a job, has an employability key worker and is hoping to get some training, but isn’t sure she’ll find the sort of flexible part time work she needs. Even with a job, she wouldn’t be able to afford costly after-school care. 

Kirsty stays at her dad Scott’s one night a week. If Caley gets a job, Caley’s mum Jackie has offered to collect Kirsty from school a couple of days a week. Caley is reluctant to take her mum up on this, as Jackie isn’t in good health and it feels like it would be a lot for her, but she can’t see an alternative. 

The future of employability services is not assured. Spending on them went up to £133.6m in 2023-24, but goes down to £102.9m in 2024-25, according to the latest Scottish budget.

John Dickie is director of the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland. He says: “We’re starting to see recognition of the importance of employability support for people in priority groups including lone parents, but we’ve seen cuts to the employability budget. It’s an area in the Scottish budget where the resources being allocated don’t match the ambition in the tackling child poverty delivery plan.” 

He adds: “The Scottish Government is committed to developing school-age childcare and there are approaches being piloted but it’s very inconsistent throughout the country. It’s hard to see additional resources being provided for that.

“When hours of childcare are extended, it needs to be properly resourced so the infrastructure and workforce are in place to deliver it.”

In the meantime, Kirsty and Caley are left struggling. While benefits will rise 6.7 per cent this financial year, they won’t get the £900 worth of cost-of-living payments they received last year. 
The Scottish Child Payment is making a difference. It is currently worth £25 a week per child to qualifying families and charities want to see it increased urgently to £30, but a promise to raise it has not been fulfilled.

Dickie says: “It’s so disappointing. The first minister said he wanted to see the Scottish Child Payment increased to £30 in his first budget and he’s failed to deliver on that. The Scottish Government is being told by groups across the sector that the Scottish Child Payment needs to be £40 by the end of the parliament. To see only an inflationary increase is a huge disappointment.”

This means that progress towards meeting the Scottish Government’s child poverty targets has stalled. The latest figures, released in February, show 24 per cent of children were living in households in relative poverty (on less than 60 per cent of median income) from 2021-23. 

The Scottish Government’s interim target was to get that down to 18 per cent in 2023-24. Statistics for this period will be released next February, but the target may not be achieved and the longer-term aim of driving child poverty below 10 per cent by 2030-31, is also in doubt.

It’s widely hoped that the 2023-24 figures will at least show a drop in child poverty, reflecting changes last November raising the Scottish Child Payment to £25 and rolling it out to under 16s. But campaigners fear that without further action – and funding – progress will stall after that.

Child poverty campaigners also want to see changes to UK policy, in particular the two-child limit which restricts means-tested benefits to the first two children in a family. 
UK Labour, which is likely to win the general election, has resisted promising to abolish the two-child limit but have pledged to introduce a Child Poverty Strategy.

Dickie says: “It’s so clear-cut that the two-child limit is pushing children into poverty, so it’s hard to imagine a child poverty strategy that retained it. 

“It needs to be scrapped. It affects families in and out of work. There are at least 15,000 children in Scotland alone pushed into poverty [by it] and many more affected.” 

As the Scottish Parliament marks its quarter century, Scotland may not feel to Kirsty and Caley like a great place to grow up but has devolution had a positive impact?

King feels it has: “Undoubtedly there’s more support now for Kirsty than if the Scottish Parliament hadn’t been created or than if she lived in England,” she says. “But the child poverty rate is still at 24 per cent of children in Scotland. We are not seeing big changes to really shift the dial.”

Dickie points to “real divergence” between Scotland and the rest of the UK. “For a lone parent who is not working, the total cost of raising a child at UK level is £122,000 but here it’s £95,000. That’s because of policies here like free school meals, free bus travel for children and the Scottish Child Payment,” he says.

“The level of child poverty is already significantly different. One in three children in England live in poverty, compared to one in four in Scotland. Here, the figure’s not going up but it’s not going down. 

“There is no UK child poverty strategy whereas we do have one in Scotland, with the requirement in place to produce child poverty statistics and report on progress. All the parties are committed to supporting that.”

That said, for families like Kirsty’s, it doesn’t feel like they are the lucky ones. If politicians want to eradicate child poverty in Scotland, then bolder action and more cash, it seems, is the only way. 

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