2. Children's Rights in the Context of the COVID-19 Pandemic
During 2020 and 2021, the global COVID-19 pandemic, the single greatest public health crisis of our lifetimes, has continued to impact on the lives of children and young people across Scotland and the delivery of the vital services on which they, and their families, rely.
The Scottish Ministers have taken steps to ensure that the human rights of children and young people, particularly those who are most vulnerable, continue to be at the heart of the Scottish Government's response to the COVID-19 crisis. Our response continues to be underpinned by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child's 11 recommended areas for governments to focus on when considering the rights of children in relation to the pandemic. In addition to the reporting to the Scottish Parliament undertaken in relation to COVID-19 emergency legislation, the Scottish Government has also reported regularly during 2020 on the actions taken relevant to the 11 recommended areas. These reports can be accessed via the Scottish Government's website. Some specific examples of actions taken to support the needs of vulnerable children and young people during the pandemic have included:
- Investment of around £2.5 billion to support low income households, including nearly £1 billion to directly support children in 2020-21. Over £140 million has been invested to tackle food insecurity, with over £56 million during 2020-21 targeted at continuing alternate Free School Meal provision during periods of school closure, and during school holiday periods for children and young people eligible on the basis of low income.
- Investment of £25 million to support digital inclusion among school-aged children and young people, through the provision of connectivity, devices or both. All councils across Scotland have been securing and distributing devices to meet local needs and over 70,000 children and young people have benefitted to date. An additional £45 million was distributed to councils in early 2021 to enable them to procure additional devices or connectivity, to recruit additional staff, or to deliver wider family support measures.
- Allocation of £48 million to the Scottish Government's Connecting Scotland project, and working with the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) and other partners to identify and support digitally excluded households through the provision of devices, connectivity and skills. This will enable us to reach up to 60,000 households by the end of 2021.
The Scottish Government has also aimed to develop a holistic, evidence-based approach to the needs of children and young people who are at risk during the pandemic. We have continued to work with partners to ensure robust ongoing processes for monitoring the impact of the pandemic on children, young people and their families, particularly those most at risk. As previously mentioned, in May 2020, the Scottish Government established a COVID-19 Children and Families Collective Leadership Group. A regular data collection has provided intelligence to the Collective Leadership Group, bringing together intelligence from the 32 Chief Officer Groups and national agencies and delivery partners including the third sector, police and health. The dataset has included key data on what is happening across children's services partnerships to support children and young people on the child protection register, those looked after and on the edge of care. A second data set covering a range of aspects of adult protection has also been established to help provide a broader picture on related issues such as domestic abuse, substance misuse and specific vulnerable populations. A child health update is also produced by Scottish Government analysts to inform about the wider impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the health and wellbeing of children and young people across Scotland.
From February to April 2021, the Collective Leadership Group led and co-ordinated its action plan as a response to the immediate needs of children, young people and families. The action plan aligned with medium and longer term objectives to support children's and family services and the Coronavirus Strategic Framework. It was linked to the broader cross-cutting issues of mental health and wellbeing; poverty policy initiatives; and family support and was underpinned by engagement with, and feedback from, children, young people and families. As the emphasis now shifts from crisis response to intermediate and longer-term recovery, the focus of the Collective Leadership Group is on providing longer term support for COVID-19 recovery and renewal.
Participation and COVID-19
The Scottish Government has taken steps throughout the crisis to hear the views, concerns and lived experiences of children and young people in relation to COVID-19 and to empower them to participate in the decisions around the Scottish Government's response that affect them. We have also continued to make sure that we listen to 'representative' voices of children and young people, in particular ensuring that the voices of the seldom heard, vulnerable and younger children and families are heard, by working in collaboration with a range of stakeholders who have existing and trusting relationships with various groups of children and young people.
For example, between January and April 2021, qualitative research was commissioned by the Collective Leadership Group and conducted by nine third sector organisations with a range of children, young people and parents in vulnerable or seldom heard groups, to explore their lived experiences throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. These groups included children and young people with additional support needs; with domestic abuse experiences; who were asylum seeking, who were from minority ethnic backgrounds; and in Gypsy/Traveller families. The Report from this research was published on 27 July 2021 and its findings have been shared widely, including to help inform the COVID Recovery Strategy: For a Fairer Future, and the work of the COVID-19 Education Recovery Group.
We have also supported a range of new research activities to address evidence gaps, including funding the COVID-19 Early Years Resilience and Impact Survey (CEYRIS) of parents of 2-7 year olds, and questions on mental wellbeing in the Young People in Scotland survey of secondary school pupils.
We supported the Children's Parliament with their research "Children and the Coronavirus: How are you doing?". This was an online national wellbeing survey of children, aged between 8 and 14 years old, from across Scotland which ran four times between April and October 2020, and collected over 12,000 responses. The final report can be read on the Children's Parliament website. We also supported the Children's Parliament to undertake 15 qualitative interviews with children aged 3-7 years old and their families to understand the impact of COVID-19 on this age group. In a published series of 15 stories, parents and children reflect upon their experience of lockdown and the journey since.
We also commissioned the Scottish Youth Parliament, Young Scot and YouthLink Scotland to deliver in partnership "LockdownLowdown", which was a series of three online surveys that explored young people's concerns in response to the pandemic. Phase 2 of this research also included a series of five focus groups with young people whose voices are seldom heard: young carers; young people with experience of the criminal justice system; care experienced young people, young people with additional support needs and young people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.
We have also maintained an overview of the evidence base on the impact of COVID-19 on children and young people to inform policy decisions around our COVID-19 response. We have published five evidence summaries of the emerging evidence in this area between June and December 2020.
In the context of the pandemic and its continuing impact, Scottish Ministers are supporting a range of initiatives to assist recovery, focusing on addressing the ongoing effects on children and young people. Some examples are set out below:
- On 23 March 2021, the Deputy First Minister announced a £20 million "Get Into Summer" fund to local authorities and national organisations to support the wellbeing and mental health of children, young people and families most impacted by COVID-19 through an enhanced summer offer as part of our COVID-19 and Education Recovery approach. The summer offer specifically targeted children and young people most impacted by COVID-19, particularly those from low income households and those who fell within the Tackling Child Poverty priority groups and provided a mix of universal and tailored support to remove stigma and barriers to participation. We will build on Get Into Summer 2021 to deliver a summer 2022 offer for children and families in low income households which provides coordinated access to food, childcare and activities during the holidays. By summer 2023, we will build on this work to make holiday childcare provision available for all children from low income families.
- We committed to investing £450 million over 2020/21 and 2021/22 to support education recovery. The majority of this funding is supporting a range of work to accelerate learning recovery and to support children and young people's health and wellbeing, including the provision of additional teachers and staff to support those who need it most; devices and connectivity to lift children and young people out of digital exclusion as quickly as possible; and targeted youth work services.
- We have also committed to using the payment mechanism for COVID Hardship Payments and the delivery of alternate Free School Meal provision to deliver Scottish Child Payment bridging payments of £520 in both 2021 and 2022, prior to delivery of this new social security benefit for children and young people aged 6-15 years old. The bridging payments will be made quarterly and are estimated to benefit in the region of 150,000 children and young people. We have also provided a £130 pandemic support payment to every household who received Council Tax Reduction in April 2021, reaching around 500,000 households, many of them families with children.
- In October 2020, we published the Mental Health: Transition and Recovery Plan in response to the mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The plan contains a number of actions targeted at supporting children and young people and is supported by the £120 million Mental Health Recovery and Renewal Fund,announced in February 2021. Specifically, this work includes actions to improve specialist Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, address waiting times, and improve other mental health supports and services for children and young people.
- In October 2021, we published the COVID Recovery Strategy For A Fairer Future. This strategy aims to address the systematic inequalities made worse by COVID, improve people's wellbeing and remobilise public services. Improving the wellbeing of children and young people is one of the outcomes of the strategy, and the strategy includes actions in this area – including investing at least £500 million over the life of this Parliament to create a Whole Family Wellbeing Fund, increased investment in mental health support for children and young people, and support for young people through the Young Person's Guarantee scheme.
The Annex to this Report provides further information on these and other initiatives being taken forward across all areas of the Scottish Government, including in relation to Scotland's recovery from the pandemic.
COVID-19 Public Inquiry
As announced on 24 August 2021, the Scottish Government will establish an independent Scottish public inquiry this year to consider matters in relation to Scotland's handling of the pandemic. The Scottish public inquiry is expected to adopt a person-centred, human rights based approach.
Decisions about the scope of the inquiry are yet to be taken. Public engagement on a draft Scottish public inquiry aims and principles paper took place between 24th August 2021 and the end of September 2021. The Scottish Government is actively seeking the views of equality and human rights stakeholder groups. The Deputy First Minister also met with equality and human rights groups on 30 September 2021. This feedback will help inform the terms of reference to be agreed between Ministers and the inquiry's Chair, once they have been appointed.