After almost four years, this is my last week working for the Poverty Alliance. I leave knowing much more than when I arrived, particularly about the steps that we need to take to build a better Scotland. Since I joined the Alliance in 2014, poverty in Scotland and the UK has continued to rise but I am also more certain than ever that it doesn’t need to stay that way.
Working with the Poverty Alliance and third sector organisations across Scotland has opened my eyes to the extent of poverty across Scotland, but also to the solutions and the strength and resilience of individuals and communities.
This year was the fifth Challenge Poverty Week and more organisations than ever got involved, with over 150 activities taking place across the week. These activities ranged from the Poverty Alliance’s annual conference to a fun day in Priesthill, and at each event I attended I met people with a real drive and commitment to tackling poverty and making Scotland a better place to live for everyone.
I have been incredibly lucky to spend the past four years with the Alliance. My colleagues there are some of the most knowledgeable and dedicated anti-poverty campaigners in Scotland. Their belief that a better Scotland is possible has kept me going in the face of growing despair as the true impacts of welfare reform has become apparent.
Over the past few years, I’ve watched as my colleagues on the Living Wage team have increased the number of accredited employers in Scotland from 15 to over 1000. I’ve witnessed our research team produce reports that have been hugely influential in how we speak about issues relating to poverty, and I’ve seen our fieldwork team work with community activists who can deliver speeches 100 times more powerful than anything I could ever hope to say. On the policy and campaigns side, we have seen Stick Your Labels making real changes to the way organisations talk to and about people experiencing poverty, and have witnessed the discourse around social security change to talking about dignity and respect. We have also had a significant impact in the passage of important legislation such as the Child Poverty Act.
I know real change is possible because I’ve witnessed the Poverty Alliance deliver it, and as we watch the new Social Security Bill progress and the development of the new agency, organisations like the Poverty Alliance are more important than ever.
To paraphrase Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP, lobbyists do not always have a good name but Poverty Alliance are first rate champions, and as I move on I know I leave you in capable hands.
Carla McCormack, policy and parliamentary officer, Poverty Alliance
We were pleased to be joined by Laoise Rogers for Challenge Poverty Week 2017. Here she writes about the strength of the communities she visited.
Having enjoyed my work experience so much this summer, I was delighted to have the opportunity to be involved with Challenge Poverty Week. On day 3, I was fortunate to visit two community projects as part of CPW’s goal of highlighting the great strength of Scottish communities, which often goes unnoticed.
At a community breakfast in Priesthill I saw firsthand how the warmth of the people there (and the bacon butties) was appreciated on the otherwise stormy day. As well as finding out about inventive Hallowe’en costumes from some very lively children, and discovering how particular some people are about their tea, I heard how much the local people value the project. This weekly breakfast is just as much about giving people a space to socialise with each other as it is about providing them with a hot drink and food. A volunteer from the organisation “Urban Roots” demonstrated how to make soup in the background, with each individual then being able to take away a paper bag full of vegetables, other ingredients, and a copy of the recipe. I thought it was great that the ingredients were provided because, as I heard, often its not the cooking that’s the difficult part, but rather getting hold of fresh ingredients for a manageable price. Towards the end of our visit I ended up sitting at a table, colouring in vegetables and princesses (an unusual pairing, I know) with a group of young girls. I think I enjoyed it just as much as they did, if not more!
The second place we visited was “Drumhub” in Drumchapel, another volunteer-led project in the local community that arranges cooking, crafts and food. It was a really positive environment with everyone sitting round a table, chatting over bowls of soup. This project also provides the opportunity for new skills to be learnt or existing skills shared. The lady sat next to me was teaching another lady to crochet – I couldn’t contribute much myself but I sat and watched her nimble fingers in awe. I also came away with some book recommendations after an extensive discussion with one of the women there.
These projects are extremely valuable as support networks for the locals, giving them the chance to either talk to each other about their problems or get some respite by discussing other things. By getting to know each other the sense of community is strengthened and I can imagine it helps to talk to others who are dealing with similar issues. It is really important that we as the public, but also the government acknowledge the work that goes on in communities across Scotland. The power of a strong community should not be underestimated and should be recognised, however that does not mean it should fall on their shoulders to lift people out of poverty.
Monica Lennon, MSP for Central Scotland and Scottish Labour inequalities spokesperson
Challenge Poverty Week 2017 is here, and this year I’m using the opportunity to highlight the campaign I’ve been working on to highlight what can be one of the less obvious or hidden impacts of poverty: the struggle to manage menstruation if you’re living on a low income.
Periods can still be an awkward topic for most people to talk about openly – and if you’re trying to survive on a low income, are homeless or have certain health conditions, talking about and managing your period isn’t just awkward, it can be impossible and messy.
Period poverty, which can lead to people not changing sanitary products frequently enough or improvising with rags, is both humiliating and unsafe, and that’s why I’ve been using my voice in the Scottish Parliament to draw attention to this issue since I was elected in 2016.
At present, there is no mechanism or statutory position which ensures the provision of sanitary products for anyone who needs them. In some cases, women on low incomes are forced to make the choice between sanitary provisions and other basic necessities – or indeed rely on the kindness of strangers to provide them. When I first asked the Scottish Government about the topic in the summer of 2016, their response was that they had no plans to provide free sanitary products to women and girls but it was their understanding that foodbanks could provide them.
Thankfully, thanks to continued pressure – from a cross-party section of MSPs as well as countless amazing activists who are tackling the problem of period poverty in their own communities – the Scottish Government has come a long way on this issue since last August.
The Aberdeen pilot scheme for low-income women is a really welcome step in the right direction, and I am looking forward to seeing its outcome. In addition, the announcement in the Programme for Government 2017/18 which has agreed with my member’s bill proposals to introduce free sanitary products in every school, college and university is an amazing result. No women, girl or trans person who experiences menstruation in Scotland in 2017 should have to miss out on their education purely because they can’t afford vital sanitary protection. I’m delighted that the Scottish Government are listening to the campaigners on this topic.
However, I believe we need to enshrine this right to sanitary products in law – and that’s why I’m pushing ahead with proposals that would grant universal access to free sanitary products to every woman who needs them. The Aberdeen pilot will help a small number of women in the North East, but there are thousands of people across Scotland, every day, who are struggling to manage their period because they are living in poverty. The provision of free condoms via NHS boards is already available in Scotland, and has been for some time – so why can we not do the same for period products?
That’s why I’ve proposed we establish a similar system for the provision of sanitary products, that would ensure everyone who needs sanitary products, especially those on low-incomes, have an easily accessible way to do so. I launched my proposed Member’s Bill consultation in August, and the survey runs until the 8 December 2017.
I believe it will be an effective way to address a hidden aspect of poverty which, until this last year, has never before been so high on the political agenda. I want as many people as possible to give their views on the survey and help shape change. You can respond to the survey at http://www.smartsurvey.co.uk/s/EndingPeriodPoverty/ and full details of the consultation document can be found at http://www.periodpoverty.scot
By working together, we can ensure that period poverty becomes a thing of the past.
Paul Bradley, Project Coordinator for Open Government at SCVO, on why trust is needed between government and civil society to make Scotland poverty-free.
It becomes clear after flicking through the pages of Poverty in Scotland that the knowledge base exists to tackle poverty. We also know this simply through the everyday response of Scotland’s third sector.
Yet many of us know we aren’t able to transform society at a pace that matches the knowledge and skills at our disposal. Of course it isn’t straightforward – but I don’t accept that we don’t have a decent idea of what the problems are. Indeed, we are very clear on the tools needed to tackle poverty. If we have the ideas, what’s stopping us from putting them to action?
Let me ask you a question: do you trust government and does government trust you?
Transforming Scotland towards a poverty-free country requires government to trust us with the information we need to spot where the issues lie and to deliver anti-poverty solutions. It also requires us to trust that government is making well-informed choices. I say this about tackling poverty, but it’s true for every policy area.
If we are to achieve no poverty in Scotland – just one of 17 Sustainable Development Goals the Scottish Government has signed up to – then a new way of working is needed where greater trust exists. This trust will enable much more participation from the public and civil society, a better understanding of what government is doing to deliver results and an awareness of how it arrives at the decisions made.
We have the knowledge base in Scotland to achieve so much. Imagine if we were trusted with more information on where money is spent. Mexico’s development of an Open Budgets Portal, which has led to a greater sense of where the money flows and has enabled real involvement of citizens in decision making, could be replicated in Scotland.
What if government called on us and citizens to define the information they should publish and how it should be done? In proactively publishing budgetary information in a friendly and intuitive way, we would find it simpler to identify priority policies and campaigns that reflect the tough choices government must take.
If we had more of an idea as to how budgetary decisions are made, we could work with government to find even better solutions or simply feel more confident and less uncertain with those that are pursued.
If you haven’t yet realised, I like to think about open government in terms of trust. In some ways this link is obvious because greater transparency means we are reassured that there is less to hide. On the other hand, people often see this trust as a one-way transaction from the citizen to government. In fact, open government is just as much about them trusting you with power, information and access over what’s happening.
There’s an obsession for wanting more and more evidence of what the problems are and how they might be fixed. Going back to the drawing board to find the perfect solution would be fine if we had time. The issues might not be simple but my argument is – trust can be a tool for ensuring all the other tools we have for tackling poverty are put to their best use.
I’ll finish with the question I posed earlier: do you trust government and does government trust you? Whatever your answer, I’d like to hear your thoughts. Scotland’s Open Government Network is open for all to join, whether you’re keen to get involved or simply want to lurk and learn in the background.
Scotland’s first Open Government Action Plan may be coming to an end, but our movement for two-way trust is getting stronger by the day. Greater transparency, accountability and participation could transform our approach to ending poverty, the goal that both ourselves and government share.
The sector must renew its commitment to supporting people in hardship, says Wheatley Group Chief Executive Martin Armstrong.
When the temperature plunged, she wore extra clothes. When it became really cold, she turned on a small electric heater for short spells. She had no money to buy a cooker and got by with a second-hand microwave.
Her life changed when eventually she opened up to her housing officer. Put in touch with one of Wheatley’s welfare benefits advisors, it was discovered she had been missing out on £60 a week in benefits to which she was entitled. The Department for Work and Pensions backdated her payments, resulting in a cheque for £10,000.
At a stroke, she was taken out of poverty. Not only could she afford to heat her home, but she was also able to buy furniture and a cooker – things most of us accept as the norm.
According to Scottish Government figures released last month, one million people are living in ‘relative poverty’ in Scotland. Shockingly, around a quarter of the country’s children are growing up without many of life’s basics which the rest of us take for granted.
Many of the people Wheatley works with and for are struggling in one form or another. As an organisation, we exist to be a force for good in the lives of those people. That means doing all we can to break the cycle of poverty and exclusion that so many still experience.
Employment and training are two of the keys to Wheatley’s aim of making homes and lives better. Over the past decade or so, Wheatley’s housing associations – Glasgow Housing Association, Cube, Loretto, West Lothian Housing Partnership, Dunedin Canmore and Barony – have created no fewer than 11,000 jobs and 2,000 training places. Most have been taken up by people living in our homes. For many, it is a lifeline out of poverty and a springboard to a better life.
One lad, taken on by Dunedin Canmore in Edinburgh, was homeless at 16. Now, he has his own tenancy and is six months into his housing apprenticeship. He has set his sights on becoming a housing officer.
Most of the group’s social and economic programmes and activities are run through the Wheatley Foundation. This charitable organisation, chaired by Scotland’s former chief medical officer, Sir Harry Burns, is on course to support 10,000 people across the country. Its latest initiative will see it partner with the National Theatre of Scotland to give 200 young people, many from deprived areas, a taste of the theatre through workshops and trips to see plays and shows.
For the past four years, I’ve been a member of Glasgow’s Poverty Leadership Panel, a multi-agency partnership involving public, private and third sector organisations, as well as people who have experience of poverty. It’s doing great work to create a fairer and more inclusive city.
At Wheatley, some of our latest contributions include designing new online courses for our 2,500 staff, highlighting the latest facts and best practices in tackling poverty, and launching a social media campaign to challenge negative attitudes and help more people understand the causes of poverty and what it’s like to live in hardship.
Our social media campaign will ask people from all walks of life to review and reconsider their take on poverty, challenging stereotypical behaviours and misconceptions as well as removing stigma.
Too many people still believe poverty is inevitable. That needs to be challenged, and changing society’s attitude to those in need is a great place to start.
Blog appeared in Inside Housing 26 April 2017.
Rebecca Marek, Parliamentary and Policy Officer, Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights looks at the life chances of BME young people in Scotland
Challenge Poverty Week 2017 asserts that poverty exists in Scotland and is solvable; acknowledging this is the first step to tackling poverty.
For BME groups in Scotland, it is certainly true that poverty exists. On the whole, BME groups are twice as likely as their white counterparts to live in poverty.  This is due to a range of factors, many of which vary from those experienced by white groups. The recognition of this variance is key to addressing poverty in BME communities.
One of the major causes of poverty in BME groups is a lack of employment. The employment rate in Scotland is considerably higher for white groups (72.0%) than for BME groups (55.2%) aged 25-49, despite school leavers from BME groups having significantly higher attainment than their white counterparts and going onto positive post-school destinations at higher rates. Even when BME individuals find work, it is often low-paid and beneath their qualification levels.
For BME young people struggling to transition to the labour market, there is a range of hurdles that must be overcome to achieve parity with their white peers. Children from a BME background are significantly more likely to grow up in disadvantaged circumstances than white children, with 36% of BME children living in a household with an annual income in the lowest quintiles compared to 22% of white children.  BME children aged 0-15 are more likely to live in a flat or mobile/temporary accommodation than their white counterparts (45.2% vs 22.5%). In school, BME children face racism and racial bullying from their peers, often in contexts where teachers are unable to adequately address and prevent racist behaviour.
Despite this, BME children and young people achieve considerably in school. Overall, 74.8% of BME pupils (including 76.8% of Asian pupils and 79.0% of African pupils) achieved one or more qualification at SCQF level 6 or better compared to 61.1% of white pupils.  80% of BME school leavers go onto further and higher education, compared to 65% of leavers from other backgrounds. In Scotland, degrees are held by 32% of BME people compared to 20% of white people, and 47.6% of BME people hold a Level 4 qualification or higher compared to 25.3% of white people.
And yet, this does not translate into advantages when entering the labour market. BME groups are less likely to be an employee (44.0% vs. 51.0%), especially a full-time employee (28.8% vs 36.7%). In contrast, BME individuals are more likely to be employed part-time (15.1% vs 14.3%), be self-employed (8.3% vs 6.9%), and be unemployed (8.0% vs 5.0%).Overall, people form BME groups are clustered into lower-grade jobs and denied access to training opportunities that may help them progress into promoted posts.
The key factor in these disparities is discrimination. A 2009 DWP study found that people with a ‘BME name’ had to submit 16 job applications to receive a positive response in contrast to 9 for those with a ‘white name’, even though they were submitting the same application. A CRER study evidenced that for local authority jobs, even after the interview stage, white candidates were almost twice as likely to be appointed as BME candidates.
The Scottish Parliament’s Equal Opportunities Committee asserted in its report “Removing Barriers: race, ethnicity, and employment” that, “We can only make progress if we refuse to accept defective aspects of current employment and recruitment practices and challenge segregation within employment. Without confronting existing practices, we cannot address any underlying racism and discrimination that the evidence confirms exists.”
For BME groups in Scotland, poverty has a clear cause – discrimination in entering the labour market and in employment. Initiatives aimed at increasing attainment and encouraging young people to enter further and higher education will miss BME young people, and the discrepancy between these groups will continue to grow.
To boost incomes for BME groups, measured and considered work must go into addressing discrimination – unwitting or otherwise – in public, private, and third sector bodies. Scotland must accept that measures for the majority do not serve as a proxy for measures for everyone. Poverty amongst BME groups is solvable, but the solution is different from the solutions for white communities.
Recent publications including the Removing Barriers: Race, ethnicity, and employment; Race in the Workplace: The MacGregor-Smith Review; and the Race Equality Framework for Scotland provide recommendations to address this issue.
After decades of research, reports, legislation, and equality policies, we know what the problems are and we know what the solutions are. Now we must act to bring about real change.
 The Scottish Government (2016). Equality characteristics of people in poverty in Scotland, 2014/2015.
 Scottish Government (2013). Growing Up in Scotland: Birth Cohort 2 – Results from the first year.
 2011 Scottish Census
 Data requested from the Scottish Government
 The Equal Opportunities Committee (2016). Removing Barriers: Race, ethnicity, and employment.
 The Scottish Government. Ethnicity and Employability, Skills and Lifelong Learning.
 2011 Scottish Census
 2011 Scottish Census
 The Equal Opportunities Committee (2016). Removing Barriers: Race, ethnicity, and employment.
 Department for Work and Pensions (2009). A test for racial discrimination in recruitment practices in British cities.
Hi my name’s Laoise Rogers, I’m a 17-year old 6th Year student, and I was fortunate to recently spend a few days of work experience with the Poverty Alliance.
Many people these days unknowingly share a narrow view of charities and third sector organisations: failing to see beyond shop-fronts selling second-hand goods or groups of people shaking cans of loose change. I began my pursuit for work experience with some knowledge of how charities work, as a result of my weekly volunteering with Marie Curie, but after spending time researching third-sector parties more and visiting the Poverty Alliance office, my understanding and appreciation has significantly increased.
What immediately struck me, and left a lasting impression, was the passion with which the Poverty Alliance team speaks about their work. Since being a young child I’ve had a strong sense of justice and for human rights so it was inspiring to speak to Rachel Thomson, Carla McCormack, and Fiona McHardy who are responsible for campaigns, policy and research– women campaigning for what they believe in. Anyone can say that they believe in social justice or wish we could end poverty once and for all, but a small proportion of those people are actively working to bring about real social change.
I began my experience by learning about the main campaigns that Poverty Alliance are currently focused on which are the “Give Me Five”, “Living Wage Campaign”, and “Stick Your Labels” campaigns. As someone hoping to study politics at university, their policy influencing work was particularly fascinating. I learned about the nature of the relationship between the Alliance and the government – where possible an amicable relationship is maintained but they are ready to fight their corner when a different approach is needed.
It is important that organisations in regular communication with the public keep up with the changing times, and social media is a vital tool for doing so. Upon scrolling through the Poverty Alliance Twitter page I was admittedly attracted to the abundance of animal gifs, proving that their unique tactics for luring people in to completing surveys do work! After looking at a huge number of examples, my morning culminated with the terrifying task of tweeting an article on their behalf. Joking aside, the pressure was immense as my finger hovered over the mouse ready to send that tweet.
On my last day, I attended a meeting with members of South Lanarkshire council, along with representatives of other organisations, to discuss the upcoming Challenge Poverty Week (October 15th-21st, get involved if you can!). The opportunity to sit in on a meeting may register little importance to someone whose diary is filled with them, but I gained valuable insight in to how a professional meeting is conducted, and learned a huge amount about what it takes to plan such a big event as CPW. There was a particular emphasis in discussion about the wording of promotional materials and branding, as the way we word things can be make or break in terms of getting the correct message across, and removing stigma around the biggest issues in our society such as poverty.
Like many 17-year olds I have little idea of the career I wish to pursue, but as I left Hope Street on my final day, I was leaving with a few criteria I hope my future job will meet. In 10 years time I want to be doing something worthwhile, I want to be creating positive change, and most of all I want to be achieving the same sense of enjoyment and fulfillment that the people I met seem to get from their everyday work. Huge thanks go to the whole team at the Poverty Alliance for giving me this opportunity.
Jeane Freeman, Minister for Social Security, sends her thanks for your involvement in the development of Scotland’s social security system
The publication of the social security Bill is not only another significant step in Scotland’s social security journey, it’s also a historic moment for our country.
We now have the opportunity to decide on what works for Scotland and what we have published is an approach that works for the people who need it.
I want to thank you all for the role you have played in helping us to get to this point.
I have always been clear that the best way to create this new public service and a system that works is to build it from the ground up, using the lived experience of people currently in the UK benefit system, those working to support them and those with other relevant experience. With your help, ideas and challenge over the past year we are, together, making real progress towards our shared goals of a rights based social security system for Scotland that has the principles of dignity, fairness and respect at its heart and in its everyday work.
These rights are there clearly in this Bill and are embedded in our approach throughout – whether it is how entitlement to benefits is determined or in a more just review and appeals system.
We’re taking a planned approach to setting up that new system because it’s a large scale and very complex task and I am very conscious of our primary objective to deliver a safe and secure transfer of the benefits we will be responsible for. Whatever else we can achieve, we must make sure that as the powers transfer, everyone continues to receive the support they are entitled to, at the level they are due and on the day they expect it.
We will not lose sight of the fact that investing in our people is investing in the future of our country.
Now, with the publication of the Bill, we take our next important step and I look forward to working with you, with colleagues across the Chamber, the Expert Advisory Group, our stakeholder interests and our Experience Panels to make the best decisions we can.
We have made a good start. But there are challenges ahead if we are to deliver a system of which we can all be proud. Thank you again for your work in getting us to this historic point.
Carla McCormack and Rachel Thomson from the Poverty Alliance’s policy team look at the stigma of poverty and what it can mean to speak out
In last night’s television debate ahead of the General Election, a nurse admitted that she had been forced to use a foodbank. This blog isn’t about nurses’ pay, or the election, but about the reaction that this statement provoked online and the impact this can have on people with direct experience of poverty.
The first area we want to address is the idea that someone on a nurse’s salary would not need to use a foodbank. There were many tweets online about why someone on this amount of money would need to go to a foodbank, and many accused the woman of lying. However, we already know that nurses are having to use foodbanks – we’ve seen evidence from the Royal College of Nursing on this. With the cost of living rising faster than people’s incomes (both for those in and out of work) people are likely to come to pressure points and this is when they find themselves having to rely on food banks. Housing costs, childcare and transport are taking up more and more of people’s incomes and one unforeseen circumstance could push many of us into needing help.
It is not up to us to make a moral judgement about how people spend their money. The nurse in question had recently tweeted about a bottle of rose wine. Many seized upon this as evidence of either lying or fiscal irresponsibility. The problem with this is that it ignores the realities of living in poverty or on a low income. It is the same argument that we see every time an episode of Benefits Street is on TV and people ask how someone could be in poverty and have a big TV. People move in and out of poverty, very few people remain in poverty throughout their entire lives. Items can also be gifts, bought on finance or with a credit card. It is also important to remember that people on low incomes deserve the same treats we all enjoy – there are very few of us who can say we have never bought a treat when the money could have been better spent elsewhere. There is often a clear double standard when we talk about how people experiencing poverty spend their money – for those who are well off a treat is deemed just that – a treat. However, when people on low incomes do the same they are often deemed irresponsible and to blame for their own situation.
Finally, we want to raise the fact that by attacking someone online for saying that they have had to go to a foodbank to feed themselves or their family, we reduce the likelihood of people experiencing poverty speaking out. People with lived experience are the experts but a stigma exists around poverty, and it is a brave and difficult decision to speak publicly about what it is like to live on a low income. We work to support activists to do this on a daily basis but the reaction from many people last night will no doubt cause some of our activists to think twice about doing so in future.
People relying on foodbanks for food is a sign of societal failure, not individual failure, so let’s stop blaming people for their poverty and start addressing the structural issues that cause it.
You can find out more about the myths of poverty by checking out our Stick Your Labels campaign.
Hanna McCulloch, policy and parliamentary officer at CPAG Scotland, outlines the case for a £5 top up of child benefit
In the last few weeks official figures have shown that rates of child poverty in Scotland have leapt from 1 in 5 to 1 in 4.
Despite receiving very little media attention, the figures are big news for the 260,000 children now classed as living in poverty in Scotland – many of whom will have their prospects and hopes for the future dashed by a lack of the basic resources their friends and classmates take for granted.
Worse still, these latest figures could be just the tip of the iceberg. The Institute for Studies has forecast that by 2020 the number of children living in poverty in the UK will have doubled compared to 2010. And while a lack of good quality, decently-paid jobs is key cause of child poverty the key factors driving up poverty are dramatic cuts to the UK social security system.
UK government policies such as the decision to freeze the value of working age benefits (regardless of how much the cost of food or clothes or nappies rise) and cuts to tax credit and universal credit for working families have been cited time and again by independent analysts as key drivers of the ongoing rise in rates of poverty.
It’s a bleak picture and it can sometimes seem overwhelming. There’s a real temptation for us to throw up our hands in frustration and defeat. After all, what can really be done here in Scotland to make a dent in such massive rises in poverty and such swinging cuts in spending?
We should, however, steel ourselves and remember that, in reality, a huge amount can be done.
No, child poverty cannot be eradicated overnight in Scotland. But well designed, adequately funded policies could start to turn the tide on child poverty – and make a significant difference to the tens of thousands of families that are struggling to make ends meet. The Scottish Government knows this. It’s one of the reasons for its decision to introduce a Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill to eradicate child poverty in Scotland by 2030.
One policy that would set the Scottish Government well on its way to this goal would be using newly devolved social security powers to top-up reserved benefits.
CPAG along with the Poverty Alliance, One Parent Families Scotland, the Church of Scotland and the Children’s Commissioner for Children and Young People and many others are calling on the Scottish Government to use its new social security powers to top-up child benefit by £5 per week for every child in Scotland.
To some, £5 a week sounds like small change. Enough for a latte and a Sunday paper. But we know that it’s enough to make a significant difference both at national level (by reducing levels of child poverty by up to 14%) and at household level (by making a significant contribution to the everyday cost of living).
£5 a week could mean seven breakfasts of cereal, milk, fruit juice and a banana for a child. Over two months it could mean a good quality coat to see a child through the Scottish winter. Over the course of a year it could pay for a child to go away on a week-long P7 trip with his friends. These are real, tangible resources and experiences that could make a significant difference to the health, wellbeing and attainment of Scotland’s children.
£5 could also help to ease the pressure on stressed out parents that are struggling to make ends meet. Rebecca, a lone parent living in Inverness told us that an extra £5 a week “would be beneficial. With so many bills it would be one day less crying”.
While many support the idea of using top-up power to invest in family benefits, they are less convinced that child benefit is the right one to top-up. Surely it makes more sense, they argue, to top-up benefits that are only paid to families on the lowest incomes. Why not add £5 or even more to the value of means tested benefits like universal credit or child tax credit that are targeted at those on the lowest incomes?
Indeed, at a time of strictly limited resources and competing demands for government spending such an approach makes a lot of sense and it’s an approach that we have given a great deal of thought here at CPAG. The real difficult, however, is that getting extra money only to those at risk of poverty can be administratively problematic – even impossible – and would result in many of the children in the greatest need missing out.
Problems with making a Scottish top-up dependent on the family being in receipt of a ‘means-tested’ benefit include the following.
Means tested benefits are unpredictable
Cases that CPAG has gathered through its early warning system highlight the fact that means tested benefits are often subject to long delays, sanctions and suspensions – often with little rhyme or reason. The resulting sudden falls in household income often drive families into income crisis and to the doors of their local food bank.
A young couple with two small children have been left with very little income for five months and substantial rent arrears as they were repeatedly incorrectly advised that they were not entitled to UC. Initially their claims were not accepted and they were advised to claim tax credits, but this was refused as the couple live in a full service area. After three months a claim was accepted but immediately erroneously closed.
In terms of the Scottish Government’s powers, the problem lies in the fact that topping up unpredictable benefits would make that top-up unpredictable too.
Child benefit on the other hand is administratively simple. It isn’t based on complicated income calculations that can be botched. It isn’t subject to sanction or suspension. Indeed it is very often the only source of income that families presenting at food banks have when their means tested benefits and the system delivering them have failed.
Fewer and fewer families get means tested benefits
There was a time when most families with children at risk of poverty were in receipt of some kind of means tested benefit – whether that be income support or child tax credit or both. Cuts and restrictions to benefit entitlements, however, mean that the pool of families eligible for those benefits is shrinking. So while six out of ten families with children were eligible for tax credits in 2015, only five out of ten families will be eligible for universal credit by the time it is fully rolled out. In this way, making the Scottish Government’s top-up contingent on eligibility for UK benefits could chip away at its value over time, leaving many of the 70% of children in poverty that live in working households at risk of missing out.
It can be hard to know who gets what means tested benefit
Finally, families move in and out of eligibility for means tested benefits over time as their incomes rise and fall with changing earnings, redundancy, pregnancy and the many other complexities of everyday life. Again if the Scottish Government’s top-up was linked to receipt of means tested benefit then it too would come and go as families circumstances changed. The real difficulty would be keeping up to date with who is and who isn’t entitled to these means tested benefits. Much of this information is held by the DWP or HMRC so making the Scottish Government dependent on those agencies ability and willingness to share that information in a timely way.
So while any use of new powers that significantly boosted family incomes in Scotland would be welcome there are strong arguments for prioritising a £5 top-up to universal child benefit.
Above and beyond administrative and practical concerns topping up child benefit would send a powerful signal that all children in Scotland are worthy of support. In terms of Scotland’s relationship with its social security system, sending a message like that could be invaluable.