Since its inception, the Scottish Government has made a clear commitment to eradicating child poverty. A renewed commitment to tackling child poverty was made in the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017. This renewed commitment aims to utilise, where possible, the wider powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament following the 2014 independence referendum, the Smith Commission and, in particular, the range of social security powers devolved via the Scotland Act 2016.
The Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 introduced a range of new benefits devolved to Scotland. The Best Start Grant (BSG) is one of those new benefits and forms part of the strategic commitment outlined in the Scottish Government's Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan (2018-2022) - "Every Child, Every Chance". The Best Start Grant aims to reduce financial pressures on low income families. It is also part of the wider Scottish Government strategic objectives focusing on early years, early intervention and improving health, well-being and educational outcomes for low income families.
This evaluation aims to provide learning about the overall implementation of the benefit and the extent to which the objectives of BSG have been met. In doing so, it can also assess the likely contribution of BSG to wider long-term outcomes for children, alongside other Scottish Government interventions outside of social security that are also designed to support children and their families.
Importantly, although BSG is fully rolled-out, fuller impacts may only be assessed after at least 5 years from the roll-out when eligible families have had a chance to receive multiple payments for the same child. At this point, we are only reporting from the impact of the first payments.
Morever, due to limited availability of other data at the time of this interim evaluation, this report focuses primarily on findings from the qualitative research that was commissioned externally and undertaken by ScotCen Social Research, which is summarised below and attached in full in Annex B. Official statistics are also discussed briefly. Other data may be available in time for the full evaluation in the future including data from established surveys (e.g. Scottish Household Survey, Family Resources Survey), the Social Security Scotland Satisfaction Survey, and additional Management Information.
Applying for the Best Start Grant
BSG recipients consulted in the evaluation research (hereafter 'respondents') became aware of the BSG in a range of ways, most commonly through word of mouth. Health and social care staff, parental support organisations, money advice teams and social media were all cited as ways in which respondents heard about the grant.
Respondents applied for BSG in order to help with additional expenses associated with having a baby, or their child attending nursery or school with the resulting financial implications. There were respondents who said they would have struggled to meet these expenses without the grant.
In general, respondents applied when they heard about the payment, or applied as soon as they were eligible. A few respondents had to wait until their child reached a certain age to apply.
Overall, respondents said that the application process was straightforward, which was helped by clear and easy to understand wording and format, a variety of application formats (online, paper, telephone), the option for data to be used from other applications (e.g. Baby Box), text and letter confirmations that the application had been received and awarded, payments being made directly into respondents' bank accounts, and helpful call handlers if advice was needed.
The most common negative factor reported by respondents was having to wait longer (for example, up to 5-8 weeks) than advertised to receive the grant. Respondents were also not always sure if they were eligible for the BSG.
Use of the Best Start Grant
Respondents generally had specific plans for the grant and used the money as they had intended. Those who did not use the grant in this way cited the extended length of time taken to receive the payment, or receiving these items by other means, as the reasons for this. There were respondents who spent the payment as soon as it arrived, whereas others bought items over time, or saved some of the payment to buy specific items at a later date.
Items bought were often essential items needed at these specific transitional stages, for example, cots, prams, nursery or school uniforms.
In addition to essential items, respondents used the BSG for social and educational activities for children and the whole family, for example, outings during school holidays. A small number of respondents said that the grant payment had been used to pay bills and household expenses during times of financial strain.
Respondents who received more than one of the BSG payments reported spending the grant in similar ways to those who only received one. Purchases relevant to the transitions of the age group were again the most commonly reported uses of the grant, with remaining funds going towards social and educational activities.
With each of the BSG payments, parents and carers tended to spend the money in similar ways regardless of different family characteristics.
Impact of the Best Start Grant
The consensus among respondents was that the BSG had a very positive impact on their household finances. It was said that the grant prevented respondents from going into debt or having to cut down on other essential household spending, such as for food and bills. The grant enabled respondents to buy what they needed at key transitional stages of their children's life, and some claimants were also able to buy items for older children or to organise social and educational activities for the family.
BSG was also thought to have a positive impact on the health and well-being of respondents. Parents and carers said that the grant reduced financial stress and enabled them to feel prepared for key transitional stages in their child's life. Respondents expressed feelings of pride and increased self-esteem in being able to provide for their child rather than being dependent on others, and also as they could buy the items they wanted without having to compromise due to cost. Some purchases, such as social outings, provided opportunities for parents, carers and the children to bond as a family.
Respondents perceived that the grant had a positive impact on their children in a number of ways. The BSG enabled children to take part in social and educational opportunities that families would otherwise have been unable to afford. Children experienced excitement at picking out new clothes, toys or participating in activities. Items such as new uniforms allowed children to feel as if they fitted in with their peers. Educational purchases were thought to aid children's development (e.g. language and number skills, hand-eye co-ordination).
As the respondents' views of the impact of the BSG were overwhelmingly and similarly positive, it was not possible to draw out any differences by family characteristics.
Suggested improvements to the Best Start Grant
The BSG was very well received by the respondents. The straightforward nature of the application process, the ability to spend the payment at key transitional stages of the child's life and its perceived positive impact were all reported by the parents and carers. The respondents were unanimous that, if eligible, they would apply for another payment in the future and would also recommend the grant to others.
It was commonly reported that the BSG did not require any modification. Those respondents who did propose changes suggested that only slight adjustments were necessary, the benefit did not require a radical overhaul. Suggestions to improve the BSG centre around two broad themes; the application process and promotion of the grant.
Applying for the Best Start Grant
Respondents gave a number of suggestions which might improve the application process in the future. These were:
- Improved communication in order that applicants are notified if the process is likely to be delayed, for example, through the use of a tracking system for individual applications.
- The provision of dedicated staff for each BSG payment type at busy times to ensure applications are being processed promptly.
- The provision of support and advice in terms of completing the grant application for those who experience difficulties in reading and writing, and for those who do not have English as a first language.
- The availability of a greater choice to applicants regarding how they can communicate (e.g. online live chat function) or receive information about the application process (e.g. email, letter or text).
- Online application format to be made more compatible with phone screens.
- Streamline the process for those making multiple applications for different children within a specified time period.
Promoting the Best Start Grant
Respondents gave a number of suggestions related to the wider promotion of all three BSG payments to all eligible parents and carers, as there was a view that the grant is not yet widely known about. These suggestions were:
- Placement of posters and information in nurseries, libraries, doctor surgeries and shops.
- BSG information to be included in the 'Birth to Five' book given to new parents.
- Increased advertising and promotion of BSG on buses, billboards, TV and social media.
- Informing and/or training relevant health and social care professionals and support organisations about the BSG in order that they can promote it consistently to eligible parents and carers.
- Letters being sent by the Scottish Government to eligible individuals.
- Tailored and targeted promotion of the BSG to fathers, kinship carers, LGBTQ+ and Black and Minority Ethnic parents and carers to ensure that all eligible parents and carers are aware of the grant. Promotional material should include information about eligibility criteria.
Other suggested modifications
A few additional changes were proposed by respondents:
- Provide option to receive the BSG payment in instalments to help them with household budgeting.
- Pregnancy and Baby Payment: potential for the first payment for a family to be £600, even if it is not for the first child.
Conclusions and implications for policy and practice
The Best Start Grant was viewed very positively by the respondents in the evaluation. The consensus was that the BSG application process was straightforward, the use of the grant led to positive outcomes for child and parent alike, it was not stigmatising to receive the payment and the BSG should be promoted in order that all eligible individuals apply for it. Importantly, the BSG was perceived as easing financial strain on low income families at key transitional stages for their children, and prevented some families from going into debt. As the respondents thought of BSG as an entitlement and not as a donation, it allowed them to spend it appropriately, increasing their confidence as parents and carers. As a result of the very positive reception for the BSG, any proposed modifications were relatively minor. This suggests that the BSG is already operating smoothly and successfully across Scotland, and only relatively minor changes should be considered in the near future.
Assuming that the BSG continues to operate in Scotland, consideration should be paid to the suggestions made by recipients to improve the benefit, particularly those which would enable greater awareness of eligibility for the grant.
Future research should also be considered. A quantitative survey of BSG recipients would enable the Scottish Government to examine the longer-term impact of BSG across Scotland. Follow-up qualitative research, also involving those who applied unsuccessfully for the grant, should also be considered to explore the views of key interest groups in more detail.
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