Presiding Officer, tackling child poverty is at the very heart of this government’s ambition and today I have published the second annual progress report due under the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017.
This details our progress in the reporting year 2019-20 in delivering the range of actions committed through ‘Every Child, Every Chance’, our first Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan and considers our progress against the challenging targets that were unanimously agreed by this parliament.
As members will be fully aware, much of this report and the actions I have described relate to the period before the outbreak of coronavirus and therefore before the nationwide lockdown and significant restrictions placed on everyone’s lives. This resulted in the delay to this progress report and of course, COVID 19 will also have an impact on poverty levels. I will come back to that shortly, but let me provide some details from our comprehensive report first.
The report analyses the latest child poverty statistics, which were published in March and cover the period 2018-19 – the first year of our Delivery Plan.
The statistics highlight that relative child poverty levels, once housing costs are taken into account, are 7 percentage points lower than the UK average. However, the fact remains that almost a quarter of children in Scotland were living in poverty in that year – and that is absolutely unacceptable.
The figures also show slightly lower child poverty levels across three of the four target measures in the Act, which is welcome – particularly so because the independent projections we published alongside the delivery plan had anticipated sharp increases in rates, because of UK Government welfare cuts.
New estimates published today highlight that we have increased our investment targeted at children living in low income households by £144 million to an estimated £672 million in 2019-20. This is part of an estimated £1.96 billion directed at low income households through a range of programmes – again an increase of £554 million.
Presiding Officer, our approach remains to focus on the three key drivers of child poverty reduction – an approach that has been strongly supported by stakeholders. Let me give a few examples from our progress report on where our action is making a difference to people’s lives.
Maximising income through social security is the first of these key drivers which is why we have increased support from social security across the early years through Best Start Grant and Best Start Foods. The Best Start Grant Early Learning and School Age payments, were introduced in 2019-20 and offer, through a £250 grant, entirely new support to help families with children, helping them to buy the essentials they need around the time their child starts nursery or school. More than 75,000 payments were made to families on low incomes through the three elements of Best Start Grant, backed by an investment of £21 million in 2019-20. By comparison in 2017-18 the UK Government only awarded 4,300 Sure Start Maternity Grant payments with a total value of £2.4 million – this means that through Best Start Grant we made 17 times more payments, worth almost 9 times more.
Increasing family incomes from employment is another key strand of our approach. In February, we launched our new Parental Employability Support Fund, backed by £12 million from our Tackling Child Poverty Fund. This service is delivered by local authorities in partnership with the private and third sector and focuses on providing flexible, person centred employment support with a particular focus on tackling in-work poverty.
The new service provides wrap-around support and advice for parents, helping them to access the essentials that they need including income maximisation, housing and childcare. This will help parents to enter and progress in the labour market and to increase their take home pay.
We also continued to deliver activity to reduce household costs and support families in other ways. This includes delivering a further 9,286 affordable homes, including 6,952 for social rent, supporting 49,000 children through the expansion of Early Learning and Childcare and consulting on our draft out of school care framework - setting out a bold vision for school age childcare.
So we are proud of what has been delivered to date and as the Poverty and Inequality Commission has highlighted ‘all this action will have a positive impact on the lives of children living in poverty’.
And that’s why we will continue to deliver with the pace and scale required to lift children out of poverty, and do this in light of the impact of coronavirus.
Presiding Officer, the impacts of the virus on the health and wellbeing of individuals and on our economy have been unprecedented. The Office for National Statistics last week confirmed that the UK has officially entered the largest recession since records began. As financial supports such as the UK Job Retention Scheme are removed, but the virus continues to take its toll on our everyday lives, the impacts on individuals and incomes will be even greater.
And we also know that the effects of this awful virus have been felt unevenly across the country and particularly keenly by the most disadvantaged people and communities, for example women and young people.
And we are committed to tackling this head on and have already announced a £100 million package of employment measures, including a youth jobs guarantee which is supported by our new Job Start Payment for eligible young people who have experienced unemployment.
And, more than ever, the pandemic has highlighted the need to tackle child poverty and to support families in need, so let me turn to ways which we will do that.
Building on the holistic support model of our Parental Employability Support Fund, I am confirming today that we will make a further £2.35 million available this financial year as a boost to the £5 million already allocated. This additional investment will focus on supporting local delivery in three key ways:
First, £1 million will be invested to improve alignment with Early Learning and Childcare with local parental employability support. Second, a further £1 million will be targeted at supporting disabled parents to progress toward employment and to compete for suitable jobs.
And third we will support young parents who we know will be at particular disadvantage as a result of the pandemic, to get help and support on matters such as housing and income maximisation.
This investment builds on the £100 million of employment measures announced by the Economy Secretary and will provide vital support to parents who may have seen their hours and earnings reduced as a result of COVID. Importantly, it will help young and disabled parents facing additional barriers to the labour market to progress toward employment and access the opportunities available.
Next, let me turn to how we will tackle the digital divide in Scotland which has been shown in sharp focus during the pandemic when physical ways of staying in touch and contact were restricted. Earlier this week I announced £15 million of new funding to expand our ambitious Connecting Scotland Programme.
Building on the success of the programme we introduced in May, over 30,000 low income households will now receive support to get connected through access to a device, data, skills training and technical support. Our focus is on low income families with children and young care leavers and we will work closely with our partners in local authorities, SCVO and the third sector to deliver this support by the end of spring 2021.
This is just one way we are increasing our support to families with children in the coming year.
The Scottish Child Payment will provide £10 per child per week and combined with the Best Start Grant and Best Start Foods this means that low income families are eligible to receive over £5,200 of support for their first child by the time they turn six. Importantly this support continues with up to £4,900 available for each and every subsequent child, with no limit to the number of children supported – this is unparalleled across the UK.
However, the Parliament is aware that the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People updated the Parliament on 1 April about the major impact coronavirus would inevitably have on Scotland’s social security. She committed to making sure we prioritised delivery of benefits in place which has been done and we have also now delivered the Job Start Payment.
In addition she said that in recognition of the major role the Scottish Child Payment plays in tackling child poverty, the delivery of this important benefit, would be prioritised and we would aim to open applications for eligible under 6s by end of this year, with first payments being made in 2021.
This vital support is even more critical now as many families are struggling, and facing hardship, as a result of the pandemic.
And despite the significant pressures from COVID-19, we have worked at pace and focused resources at ensuring that families get extra money in their pockets as soon as practically possible.
Therefore, I am delighted to announce today that the Scottish Child Payment will open for applications for under 6s in November 2020 and the first payments will be made to eligible families from the end of February 2021. This is only two months later than originally planned, which is a significant achievement given the unprecedented challenges for social security and other areas of life from COVID-19. Of course, we know that any further lockdowns or a rise in the virus which could reduce staff numbers, could risk this. Like many programmes we are working in a time of pandemic and need to be aware that continues to be a major challenge.
So to conclude, Presiding Officer, the 2019-20 progress report makes clear the range of action underway across government to deliver reductions in child poverty. We have increased our investment for low income families and are on track to deliver the infrastructure for lasting change – not least through the new Scottish Child Payment.
Whilst the coming year presents challenges in abundance, it also offers opportunities - to learn from the response to COVID and to ‘build forward better’, reducing child poverty at every level across Scotland.
As a government, we remain totally committed to delivering the action needed, at the pace and scale required. Working together, we will reduce and ultimately eradicate child poverty in Scotland.
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