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
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.”