There can be no doubt that child poverty in the UK is rising. Under the Brown/Blair Government it fell dramatically as a result of very significant additional spending on benefits and tax credits. Since then, however, things have gone backwards. The number of children living in poverty is set to hit to hit 37% this year – that is more than 1 in 3 children. This exceeds the previous high of 34% recorded in the ‘90s, and should shame us all.
The causes of child poverty are complex and the impact long lasting, but right now the combined impact of wage stagnation, high rents, unemployment and welfare reform are combining to create the perfect storm in Edinburgh. Indeed, the ongoing Tory leadership race suggests matters may be about to worsen, as it is has already been shown that Johnson and Hunt’s tax proposals will increase child poverty.
Scotland is little different to the rest of the UK where child poverty is concerned, but but it does have the power to be more different. The Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017 places a duty on the Scottish Government to eradicate child poverty by 2030. Holyrood also has significant welfare powers, but have chosen to delay using them. Indeed, the Nationalist Government appeared until recently quite unwilling to use their welfare powers as a tool to tackle child poverty.
Many people in Edinburgh supported the Poverty Alliance’s calls for the Nationalist Government to increase Child Benefit payments, and ultimately forced this to act one year earlier (2021) than planned for those under six. However, that is almost two years away and children over 6 will have to wait a further year – this is apparently “bold and ambitious“!
Whilst kids in poor households wait for this benefit to reach their mum’s purse, poverty will manifest itself in many ways. Recently the Edinburgh Trade Union Council (ETUC) wrote to a cross-party group of Councillors raising concerns about “holiday hunger” in our capital.
I know from my own upbringing in Kirkcaldy what holiday hunger is. The school holidays can be grim affairs for low income families as money must be found for school uniforms and to fill the space left in stomachs normally filled by free school meals. For many households in Edinburgh, this is a tough time of year.
The Council’s is, however, trying to address the issue via income maximisation (making sure families claim what they are entitled to) and via the excellent “Discover!” programme. This complements the diverse range of work being undertaken across the city by charities, community groups and, no doubt, grandparents. It is estimated, however, Discover! will reach less than 10% of those eligible for free school meals – and it operates only 3 days a week from just 4 hubs in our capital.
I had hoped when I was first elected that our Capital could emulate Labour run North Lanarkshire and provide free school meals to everyone that needs it – this tiny Council operates their “Club 365” from 23 hubs. Unfortunately, my proposal to do this was not funded. Instead, “Discover!” was trialled in Oxgangs Primary School in my Ward and also elsewhere in the city in the summer of 2018. This targeted the most vulnerable households in a way that went well beyond just providing free food.
I raised the Club 365 experience as part of the discussion stimulated by ETUC, and was appalled to see a Nationalist Councillor was silent on Council cuts and the Scottish Government’s intransigence on welfare powers, but instead focused the blame on the UK Government. I accept that the UK Government is the key driving force behind rising child poverty, but I cannot accept the Council and the Scottish Government can’t do more. Why else would the Scottish Government have a target to end child poverty? Why does the City of Edinburgh Council have the Edinburgh Poverty Commission?
Instead of considering doing more to help the poorest children in Edinburgh, the Nationalist Councillor shared this thought:
It won’t surprise you that I believe to have a truly compassionate Scotland where we are able to invest in our public services, end austerity and provide support to our most vulnerable citizens we must become an independent country – able to make our own decisions about our priorities and reject the agenda of tax cuts for the rich while public services and our poorest citizens suffer.
In other words, rather than act now she hopes independence is the answer. This is despite no independent economist saying we’d be wealthier as a nation and their economic blueprint being labelled as a “continuation of austerity” by the IFS.
We have to do much more than grandstand if we really want to deal with child poverty in our Capital. As someone who grew up in a deprived household I know how difficult it can be for parents to feed their children over the summer break. I find it frustrating that some Councillors in Edinburgh publicly claim to want a “truly compassionate Scotland”, but behind the closed doors of the City Chambers repeatedly block attempts to call both the UK and Scottish Government to account on the issue like the 2 Child Cap. For them child poverty is a political tool, and they are happy for other Councils to take the lead on this.
Once the summer recess is over, I hope to again bring a motion to Council which will ask that we learn from Dumfries and Galloway Council, North Lancashire’s “Club 365”, North Ayrshire’s “Wrap, Run and Fun” and “Fife’s “Cafe inc“. Edinburgh should be leading on fighting child poverty, not following others.
In the build up to this, I have created a poll on my Facebook page and also Twitter: