Caught in the trap

Food-bank or­gan­is­ers fear child poverty will get worse in Scot­land as Uni­ver­sal Credit is in­tro­duced and su­per­mar­kets stop sell­ing cheaper, ba­sic food ranges a year af­ter ‘his­toric’ Child Poverty Bill was in­tro­duced

The Herald on Sunday - - THE BIG READ - By Stephen Nay­smith Home Af­fairs Cor­re­spon­dent

THERE is no chance of Scot­land meet­ing its tar­gets on cut­ting child poverty, with­out a change of wel­fare pol­icy at West­min­ster, ex­perts have claimed.

In­stead, a year on from the “his­toric” pas­sage of the Child Poverty Act, anti-poverty cam­paign­ers and food-bank or­gan­is­ers are brac­ing them­selves for it to get worse – pos­si­bly much worse – in the com­ing year as Uni­ver­sal Credit is ex­tended across the coun­try.

Poverty al­ready blights the lives of an es­ti­mated 230,000 Scot­tish chil­dren and the num­ber is ris­ing. In many ar­eas, only sin­gle peo­ple have so far been trans­ferred to the con­tro­ver­sial ben­e­fit, but that is set to change, bring­ing fears that more fam­i­lies will be join­ing the queues at the na­tion’s food banks.

Al­ready food banks re­port that the ma­jor­ity of those ac­cess­ing emer­gency food aid are sin­gle peo­ple, and that the pre­dom­i­nant cause of their dis­tress is ben­e­fit prob­lems, par­tic­u­larly with Uni­ver­sal Credit.

This was not how it was meant to be when the Scot­tish Par­lia­ment unan­i­mously passed the Gov­ern­ment’s Child Poverty Bill on Novem­ber 8 last year. At the time An­gela Con­stance, then Equal­i­ties Sec­re­tary, called the Bill a “his­toric mile­stone” in the fight against poverty.

The law was quickly fol­lowed by a child poverty strat­egy and new tar­gets to be de­liv­ered by 2030. The Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment has pledged to re­duce the num­ber of chil­dren liv­ing in rel­a­tive poverty from 23 per cent to less than 10 per cent, and cut the num­ber of fam­i­lies un­able to af­ford ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties to five per cent.

But many doubt this is achiev­able.

Last month, a brief­ing to the Ac­counts Com­mis­sion on child poverty de­scribed the tar­gets as “ex­tremely am­bi­tious”. This is es­pe­cially the case, it said, given the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment can’t con­trol key pol­icy ar­eas. “Given the pro­jected rise in child poverty over the next few

We know aus­ter­ity isn’t over. In fact, the worst is prob­a­bly still to come be­cause 75% of the last round of cuts to so­cial se­cu­rity made by Ge­orge Os­borne haven’t taken place yet

years stems mainly from UK so­cial se­cu­rity re­forms, it is clear the tar­gets will not be met by ac­tions in Scot­land alone,” the re­port from Fraser McKin­lay, di­rec­tor of per­for­mance au­dit at Au­dit Scot­land, warned.

The Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment lists three main “driv­ers” of child poverty: low pay for those in work; the ris­ing cost of liv­ing; and the level of in­come a fam­ily re­ceives from so­cial se­cu­rity.

While Chan­cel­lor Philip Ham­mond’s Bud­get last week in­creased fund­ing for Uni­ver­sal Credit, pre­vi­ous cuts made by his pre­de­ces­sor will con­tinue.

Econ­o­mists com­mis­sioned by the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment agree the ben­e­fit freeze and the two child limit on tax cred­its will lead to a sub­stan­tial rise in child poverty over the next five years. “The con­sul­tants con­sider the tax and so­cial se­cu­rity re­forms re­cently an­nounced by the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment are not enough to fun­da­men­tally change the over­all in­crease pro­jected in lev­els of child poverty in Scot­land,” McKin­lay notes.

While Scot­tish min­is­ters do have new pow­ers over so­cial se­cu­rity, they equate to just 15 per cent of so­cial se­cu­rity spend­ing here in Scot­land, his re­port says. The UK Gov­ern­ment dic­tates what hap­pens to the other 85 per cent. “This lim­its the ex­tent to which the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment and pub­lic bod­ies in Scot­land can in­flu­ence child poverty.”

Anti-poverty cam­paign­ers and man­agers of food banks across the coun­try ac­knowl­edge the prob­lem, al­though they wel­come the child poverty strat­egy and say there is still much that can be done.

The strat­egy con­tains more than 50 ac­tions in­tended to make an im­pact on poverty over the next four years.

Ma­jor el­e­ments in­clude an in­come sup­ple­ment, a new ben­e­fit that will of­fer reg­u­lar fi­nan­cial help to the poor­est fam­i­lies, lift­ing more peo­ple on to the liv­ing wage, and us­ing the £96 mil­lion Fair Start Scot­land ser­vice to help peo­ple find em­ploy­ment.

Also, £50m has been set aside for a Tack­ling Child Poverty Fund to back in­no­va­tive ideas and pro­vide in­ten­sive em­ploy­a­bil­ity sup­port for low-in­come par­ents.

But this may be a drop in the ocean. The In­sti­tute for Pub­lic Pol­icy Re­search think tank has es­ti­mated re­duc­ing the num­ber of peo­ple in rel­a­tive poverty to the tar­get fig­ure of 10 per cent will cost Scot­land £3.8 bil­lion a year.

So is the pol­icy doomed?

Pe­ter Kelly, di­rec­tor of the Poverty Al­liance, says de­vo­lu­tion was al­ways about Scot­tish so­lu­tions for Scot­tish prob­lems, and tak­ing a dif­fer­ent course from that set at West­min­ster.

“We sup­port the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment tar­gets. The prob­lem is the tra­jec­tory of UK wel­fare and so­cial se­cu­rity pol­icy is not help­ing us re­duce child poverty,” he said.

“For all the talk of end­ing aus­ter­ity, right at the heart of the cuts to so­cial se­cu­rity is the ben­e­fits freeze. There is no move­ment on that, and it is one of the main ways in which the poor­est fam­i­lies see their in­come re­duced.”

That makes the tar­gets harder to achieve, but not im­pos­si­ble, he says.

“There are things we can do dif­fer­ently in Scot­land, such as the in­come sup­ple­ment. But we want to see some of that hap­pen a lot quicker. There is also a need to re­duce the costs for fam­i­lies who are strug­gling. The strat­egy puts an em­pha­sis on that with a new fuel poverty and trans­port strat­egy planned.

“I wouldn’t want to be fa­tal­is­tic. We have called for child ben­e­fit to be topped up by £5 as well. We would like to see a trial of this, we still think it is a really ef­fec­tive way to make a dif­fer­ence.”

John Dickie, of the Child Poverty Ac­tion Group in Scot­land, also called for this to be in­tro­duced. “The Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment re­mains un­con­vinced, but top­ping up child ben­e­fit would be one of the most ef­fec­tive ac­tions they could take,” he said.

“Be­cause of cuts to UK so­cial se­cu­rity there will be in­creas­ing num­bers of chil­dren liv­ing in poverty, but there is still a lot that can be done by the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment and coun­cils in Scot­land.”

He hailed the in­come sup­ple­ment and the in­crease in the school cloth­ing grant to at least £100 for el­i­gi­ble fam­i­lies as mea­sures that will put real money in the pock­ets of strug­gling fam­i­lies, but said the need was press­ing.

“The mea­sures in the child poverty strat­egy are hugely wel­come, but we need a greater sense of ur­gency. The longer we wait for the in­tro­duc­tion of mea­sures such as the in­come sup­ple­ment, the greater the scale of the prob­lem we store up and the harder it is to have an im­pact.”

Pro­fes­sor John McKen­drick, of the School For Busi­ness And So­ci­ety at Glas­gow Cale­do­nian Univer­sity, said: “We know aus­ter­ity isn’t over. In fact, the worst is prob­a­bly still to come be­cause 75 per cent of the last round of cuts to so­cial se­cu­rity made by Ge­orge Os­borne haven’t taken place yet.”

“It is not na­tion­al­ist, but a state­ment of fact to say it is dif­fi­cult to re­alise the am­bi­tions of the Child Poverty Act with­out more con­trol of ben­e­fits.”

As well as cen­tral gov­ern­ment ini­tia­tives, such as in­creased uni­form grants and the in­come sup­ple­ment, lo­cal coun­cils will also have to con­trib­ute to the child poverty strat­egy, with a statu­tory duty to re­port an­nu­ally on what they are do­ing and how suc­cess­ful it is, he said.

“Schemes like wel­fare max­imi­sa­tion can make a di­rect dif­fer­ence, but, equally, lo­cal au­thor­i­ties can do a lot to con­trib­ute to a bet­ter stan­dard of life, with­out re­duc­ing poverty – such as pro­vid­ing free ac­cess to swim­ming and leisure for chil­dren in the sum­mer, and mak­ing sure their own work­ers are prop­erly paid and con­trac­tors are liv­ing wage em­ploy­ers,” he said.

“They can’t trans­form it. But there is a lot they can do to make a dif­fer­ence with the level of re­source they have.”

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