This year's annual Fairer Scotland Action Plan Progress Report provides an update on the actions within the Fairer Scotland Action Plan, and, similar to last year's report, also includes an update on the recommendations in the two reports produced by our then Independent Advisor on Poverty and Inequality.
I recognise that this is a difficult time for many families and more people are facing financial insecurity from the impacts of coronavirus (COVID-19). We know that the effects of this awful virus have been felt unevenly and particularly keenly by the most disadvantaged people and communities. More than ever, the pandemic has highlighted the need to tackle poverty and inequality to support people in need, and we are already taking significant action in this regard.
In 2019-20 our estimated spend targeted at children in low income households increased by £144 million to £672 million. Similarly, spend on low income households increased by £554 million to £1.96 billion.
To help 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, we invested £43 million to allow us to reach 50,000 low income households, providing a device, internet connection, training and support to get people online.
We are also building on the holistic support model of our Parental Employability Support Fund, by making a further £2.35 million available this financial year as a boost to the £5 million already allocated. This investment is in addition to the £100 million of employment measures and will provide vital support to parents who may have seen their hours and earnings reduced as a result of COVID-19. Importantly, it will help young and disabled parents facing additional barriers to the labour market to progress toward employment and access the opportunities available.
We recognise that more families are now relying on benefits due to the events of this year therefore we have prioritised delivery of the Scottish Child Payment for families with children under the age of six. This is in recognition of its importance in our efforts to tackle child poverty, helping those who would be facing even more hardship as a result of COVID-19. We opened applications for the Scottish Child Payment on 9 November 2020 and the benefit will start on 15 February 2021. Introducing a benefit in under 18 months from announcement to delivery is unprecedented in the UK and is a testimony to the priority that the Scottish Government has put on tackling child poverty. It is the biggest benefit that we have introduced to date, and could support up to 194,000 children this financial year.
We are doing everything we can to help people, communities and the third sector through this horrendous pandemic and have invested over £480 million in support. This includes our initial investment of £350 million communities funding in March, a further £30 million to local authorities in October to tackle financial insecurity over winter, including provision of free school meals over holidays to Easter, and the £100 million Winter Plan for Social Protection for families and children announced on 30 November. The Winter Plan will help those on low incomes, children and people at risk of homelessness or social isolation cope with winter weather and the economic impact of the coronavirus and Brexit.
We are not alone in taking action to make Scotland a fairer and more inclusive country. It is through well-established partnerships that we are able to continue making progress in realising our vision of a Fairer Scotland. This will be the final progress report on the current Fairer Scotland Action Plan and I'd like to take this opportunity to say a huge thank you to all the organisations who continue to work in partnership with us to realise our vision of a Fairer Scotland, in particular to those organisations who made annual fairness pledges in previous progress reports.
I know that the wide reaching impacts of the coronavirus pandemic are yet to be fully understood and, in addition to uncertainty surrounding Brexit, alongside continuing UK Government welfare cuts, we are entering a challenging and largely unknown future. As we navigate our way through and out of the current public health crisis it is clear that there remains significant challenges ahead.
We have worked across portfolios, with a range of partners, dramatically changed our way of working and delivered positive outcomes in a number of areas in addition to our immediate health response and have done so whilst putting equality and human rights at the heart of our response.
As our focus moves to 'Recovery' and 'Renew' phases, we aim to build on policy and practice changes that have shown the potential to be genuinely transformative. We are now taking forward a programme of Social Renewal, which will seek to shape the new normal that we now move into. This includes our recently established Social Renewal Advisory Board which will provide independent advice to support Ministers in overcoming the challenges faced and help drive progress towards a fairer, more equal Scotland in the wake of COVID-19.
There is no doubt that the coming year presents challenges in abundance, but it also offers us opportunities - to learn from the response to COVID-19 and to work together to 'build forward better', reducing poverty and inequality at every level across Scotland.
Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government