The past, present and future of child poverty in Scotland

15 September 2015

Over the coming weeks, we’ll be running a short series of blogs on child poverty in Scotland from voices across the children’s sector. In this first piece, our Head of Policy Máire McCormack gives an overview of the past, present and possible future of the issue.

Like many people, I was extremely disturbed to hear last week that the Educational Institute of Scotland has issued guidance to teachers so they can spot malnourishment in children.

I was not, however, surprised.

Child poverty has been a growing concern in both Scotland and the UK for some years. The Institute’s guidelines only highlight that its scale is getting greater.

The situation is a far cry to the one we'd hoped for at the turn of the millennium. In 1999, the UK Government commited to wiping out child poverty in the country. Legally binding targets were set to significantly reduce it by 2020.

These targets, however, were scrapped by the UK Government this July, and poverty has been going up rather than down. More than 1 in 5 of Scotland’s children were recognised as living in poverty in 2012-13, and this number is predicted to rise to nearly 1 in 3 by 2020 as austerity measures bite.

Along with the other UK children’s commissioners, Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People has prioritised child poverty as a matter of urgency. In the UK Commissioners’ recent report to the UN, we called on the UK and devolved governments to make tackling child poverty a priority. We’ve also urged the UN Committee of the Rights of the Child to make this a key issue when it questions the UK Government on its record on children’s rights next year.

Scotland’s approach

Regarding the current situation, the Scottish Government has put some positive measures in place. In the Commissioner’s office we’ve welcomed steps they’ve taken, including:

  • investing in advice and information services to support families to access finance
  • rolling out of free school meals for children and young people in their first 3 years of primary school
  • focusing on trying to close the gap between low-income pupils and their better off peers
  • pledging to take child poverty into consideration in local children’s services planning when wellbeing is considered in the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014.

We were also glad to hear the recent news that Scotland's government will not follow the UK's in changing the legal definition of poverty.

We don't think the Scottish Government's approach is perfect, however. While it's positive that they've set out outcomes and measurements framework in their child poverty strategy, we still need a clear delivery plan which sets out responsibilities, leadership and accountability.

There's also no mechanism in place for the Scottish Government to make sure that local authorities and their partners deliver on their child poverty strategy. It's important that one is created, as there is no legislative duty on local authorities in relation to child poverty. This would help to hold local authorities to account.

An important development in the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act is its introduction of new duties on planning and reporting for a range of public bodies. In regard to children's services, the Act puts in place new arrangements for plans that best safeguard, support and promote the wellbeing of children and young people in a particular area. These provide an opportunity to recognise the extent to which child poverty undermines wellbeing, and make sure that resources are put in place to tackle this.

A blight on lives, a burden on society

Children and young people tell our office that poverty is a blight on their lives which impacts hugely on their education. Cuts to child tax credits – which are being debated in the House of Commons today  – are likely to make this situation worse for many. The Child Poverty Action Group say these cuts will:

”...make life harder for the 4.6 million families who rely on tax credits by reducing how much they receive and increasing how quickly tax credits are withdrawn as parents earn more— either by working more hours or finding a better paid job, meaning there is less incentive for parents to do either.”

The effects of poverty, however, go much wider than that. They can stay with children and young people for the rest of their lives.

The UN will examine the UK's record on child poverty in May next year.

With the situation as grim as it is, can we really afford to wait that long?

Get in touch if you or your organisation would like to contribute to our series of blogs on child poverty.