Scotland's new child poverty laws and the Holyrood baby

Written by Tom Freeman on 27 December 2017 in Inside Politics

The Child Poverty Bill won unanimous support, but can it make a difference to Kirsty, the Holyrood baby?

 

A lot has happened in the first 18 months of this parliament, political fortunes have ebbed and flowed, and reputations have been staked and scuppered.

But the stakes have been even higher for young children who have been growing up during that time, especially those living in Scotland’s most challenging circumstances, such as Kirsty, the Holyrood baby.

Our fictional baby was born as the current crop of MSPs first took their seats for the Scottish Parliament’s fifth session.

She has since learned to roll over, to stand and yes, to walk. She has started to talk, using her favourite words “no” and “mum”.

“I want a biscuit” was her first sentence, and “what’s that?” has tried her mother Caley’s patience.

But as explored already in the pages of Holyrood, the fact Kirsty lives in one of Scotland’s most deprived communities has already probably had an impact on her brain development, as Caley’s economic circumstances dictate her environment, life chances and choices.

Kirsty is already far less likely to perform well at school or be offered opportunities to fulfil her potential than children from more advantaged backgrounds.

It’s anticipated she will experience the stress or trauma of an adverse childhood experience, which has been proven to directly have an impact on a child’s life chances.

She is more likely to be obese, have serious illness or suffer from mental ill-health by age three.

Recent life expectancy figures show Kirsty is expected to die 7.8 years before her peers in the least deprived parts of the country. And she is not alone. 260,000 children are living in relative poverty in Scotland, up from 220,000 last year. This means one in four children in Scotland now lives in poverty. 

Furthermore, a Scottish Government report on families with “limited resources” in November showed a fifth of children in Scotland live in material deprivation, so cannot afford basics such as being able to repair or replace a broken kettle.

And across the UK the figure is even starker. A recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation showed 400,000 more children in the UK are living in poverty than five years ago, largely driven by changes in welfare policy, cuts to public services and limited wage growth.

While the rise has been less marked in Scotland, the JRF warned that Scotland’s progress was at a “turning point” in the face of housing costs, low pay and benefits changes.

Ministers welcomed the JRF’s recognition that Scotland had taken action to protect those on low incomes, but acknowledged the economic challenges presented by the political climate across the UK.  

For example, it is likely that that as a lone parent, Caley is among the group experiencing the highest levels of poverty.

But shifting priorities north and south of the border means the poverty rate for lone parents is now lower in Scotland than the UK as a whole – 37 per cent compared with 44 per cent. 
The figures also show clear links between economic status and mental health and social isolation. 

It impacts on relationships too, according to the JRF: “The stress of living on a low income can be linked to relationship breakdown among couples, and to the relationships between parents and children.”

Yet scientific evidence shows children’s relationships shape the way they see the world and affect all areas of their development.

In fact, at 18 months, one of the Scottish Government’s primary targets of policy is already evident in Kirsty: the attainment gap. 

The charity Save the Children has even suggested Scottish Government attainment gap funding is targeted too late in a child’s life.

Policy manager in Scotland Vicky Crichton said: “Statistics from Scotland’s health visitors have shown that young children living in poverty are twice as likely to have difficulties in early development of language and communication.

“The earlier we tackle this, the more likely we are to make a lasting difference to children’s learning.

“So many children start school without the developmental building blocks they need to learn and struggle to catch up throughout their school years. 

“If we’re serious as a nation about investing to close the attainment gap, we know we can make the biggest difference in those crucial early years.”

At Kirsty’s age, language and literacy skills are learned best through everyday moments between a parent or carer and a child, like talking, laughing and playing together.

Caley’s stressful life has meant she has less time to do this. However, the books she has received through the Scottish Book Trust’s Bookbug scheme – handed out when Kirsty received her MMR vaccination – are well loved and have provided important moments of attachment between Kirsty and Caley. Reading to a child also usually means cuddling a child.

As she grows up, Kirsty is already more likely to enjoy books as a result, which has the potential to transform her life chances. A growing body of evidence suggests reading for pleasure can play a bigger role than either parental income or parental qualifications in attainment. 

The Scottish Government has said it recognises the relationship between attainment and poverty, pointing to funding anti-poverty initiatives, providing free school meals, investing in free childcare, promoting the living wage, and investing in welfare mitigation measures such as covering the bedroom tax.

Labour and the Scottish Greens, meanwhile, have pointed to cuts to local services administered by increasingly stretched local authorities.

However, apart from two budgets from Derek Mackay, one major piece of legislation has been passed by the Scottish Parliament in Kirsty’s life, and it directly relates to her situation.

The Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill was passed unanimously at Holyrood in November, which sets targets for reducing the numbers of children in poverty by 2030. 

Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities Angela Constance tells Holyrood: “The Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill is a statement of our ambition to eradicate child poverty in Scotland. Kirsty is 18 months old and, in today’s Scotland, over one in four children like Kirsty live in poverty. 

“Those children will be less likely to get qualifications, less likely to get a job or go to university. That is completely unacceptable in a country as prosperous as ours.”

Constance points out the bill establishes Scotland as the only part of the UK with ambitious statutory income targets, with a “robust framework” for measuring and reporting on the efforts of the Scottish Government at a national and local level. 

“If we are successful in meeting our targets, by the time Kirsty is 14 in 2030, only one in ten of her classmates will be living in poverty. The bill is the first important step on our journey towards making a Scotland without poverty a reality for Kirsty and her peers.”

But as the bill was passed, Constance told MSPs: “Meeting our ambitious targets to eradicate child poverty by 2030 will be challenging and it will feel at times as if we are fighting with one hand tied behind our backs in the face of the cuts which, according to the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), will see the biggest increase in child poverty since the 1960s and mean that more than five million kids across the UK are growing up in poverty.”

Her Conservative counterpart, Adam Tomkins, said: “It is right that they are ambitious and the Scottish Parliament will today send our country the strong message that we are united in saying that the targets should be met. We can make child poverty history in Scotland, so let us get to it.”

Scottish Labour’s Mark Griffin’s closing note in the debate summed up what many were thinking: “The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. The passing of this legislation in itself will not lift a single child out of poverty. The proof of the pudding will be in the delivery plans that the government puts in place and the funds that are allocated in the budget to tackling child poverty.”

Former SNP minister Alex Neil also warned the plans would fail without investment.

“If we do not attack poverty at its root and provide a cash injection, many of our other objectives, such as reducing health inequalities and closing the educational attainment gap, will not be met,” he said.

For while the Scottish Parliament stood united in passing the bill, to win that unanimity, it stopped short of committing to any radical solutions to help Scotland achieve the targets.

However, amendments from opposition parties now mean delivery plans will need to be presented to parliament, and will have to make express reference to health, education and the attainment gap, housing, the availability and affordability of childcare, employment prospects and the skills training of parents and families.

Local authorities and health boards in Scotland will also have a duty to produce local child poverty action reports and to measure progress.

The bill was welcomed by poverty campaigners. John Dickie of CPAG in Scotland said it would also require action at a UK level.

“Politicians at Holyrood have sent a powerful message that ending child poverty has to be a top priority,” he said.

“It’s now vital that their UK counterparts reinstate the child poverty targets and duties that are needed to drive progress at UK level. With the latest analysis from CPAG and the IPPR showing a further million children are being pushed into poverty, there really is no time to lose.

“The unanimous support for income-based child poverty targets and for national delivery plans setting out the employment, social security, housing and childcare measures needed to end child poverty creates an important springboard for the action and investment that is now needed.”

Despite the addition of interim targets, is there a sense the legislation can directly help Kirsty? As Constance points out, by 2030 she will be 14.

It will be the actions taken to meet those targets which may support our Holyrood baby, some of which have already begun. 

Professor Steve Turner, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health Officer for Scotland, said: “The devastating impact of deprivation on child health and wellbeing cannot be overstated and so tangible, target-driven measures are a very welcome step towards tackling this desperate problem. 

“To wait until 2030, though, for the rate of children living in relative poverty to fall below 10 per cent, will feel like very slow progress to each and every one of those children affected and so this target should be an absolute minimum, with faster progress sought at every opportunity. 

“One way to limit the effects of poverty on child health would be to expand health visitor numbers and to fully roll-out the Family Nurse Partnership, both of which were announced in the government’s Programme for Government in September of this year, and we call for these measures to be introduced without delay.”

The role of the newly established Poverty and Inequality Commission may also have an impact. The ambition was to have an “inclusive and engaged commission that provides both challenge and accountability,” but in Mark Griffin’s words, the proof will be in the pudding.

The commission is chaired by former head of Save the Children in Scotland Douglas Hamilton, who was Scotland’s representative on the UK-wide Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission under Alan Milburn from 2012-16.

He may find his new role includes many of the responsibilities he performed for Milburn, after the former Labour minister, and other members of the Social Mobility Commission, quit recently, claiming the UK Government’s commitment to tackle inequality was “all talk”.

The decision to put the Scottish Poverty and Inequality Commission on a statutory footing in November, therefore, could be significant.

While the Child Poverty Bill is a step towards turning talk into action, Scotland’s children’s commissioner has said he would consider legal action if he felt human rights were being breached.
“Poverty is the biggest human rights issue facing children in Scotland at the moment,” said Bruce Adamson. 

“We are talking about things like having a warm and secure place to live, having regular hot, nutritious meals and also the ability to access things like transport to get to school and to enjoy social and cultural activities that we know are so important to their development.

“While we don’t have the Convention on the Rights of the Child within our domestic law yet, we do have the Humans Rights Act which brings in the European Convention on Human Rights and the courts look very closely if a state falls below that minimum standard required, where the state fails to provide those basics of life.

“So certainly, if children in Scotland aren’t getting those basic things, then legal action may be the way to take this forward. But it’s not the best way.”

He added: “We really need political leadership here and we need to make sure that we are never in a situation where children are going without the basics that they need.”  

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