Social security powers needed to help tackle child poverty - report

26 February 2018, 13:57 | Updated: 26 February 2018, 13:58

Child Refugee

The Scottish Government must make significant use of new social security powers if it to meet "extremely challenging" targets to reduce child poverty over the next 12 years, according to a report.

Scotland's Poverty and Inequality Commission said ministers must be "realistic" about the scale of the challenge the country faces in tackling the problem, adding that there is a "long way to go" to reach ambitious targets for 2030.

It found that investment in social security is a "necessary element" to meet the child poverty targets and said topping up the child element of Universal Credit could be the most cost-effective way of achieving that aim.

The commission has made 40 recommendations for ministers on ways of cutting child poverty, which also suggests there should be action in areas such as getting parents into work, reducing housing costs and improving quality of life.

The Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017 sets four targets relating to child poverty in law which are to be met by the end of the next decade.

The Scottish Government has to publish three plans over the period to 2030, setting out the actions it will take to meet the targets, and it asked the commission to advise on its first delivery plan.

The independent body's resulting report sets out three areas likely to have the biggest impact on the child poverty targets - work and earnings, housing costs and social security - and said a combination of actions in these fields will be needed, some with "substantial costs attached".

"Meeting the Scottish child poverty targets will require a significant increase in the amount of money going to households where children are currently growing up in poverty," the report said.

It said the goals of the UK Government's Universal Credit plan, which include simplifying a complex system of benefits into one payment and making it easier for people to move into work, are "laudable" but that its roll out "has caused significant hardship to many claimants".

Modelling suggests that "topping up the child element of Universal Credit, combined with removing the two-child limit and removing the benefit cap, is potentially the most cost-effective way of reducing child poverty", the report said.

It went on: "The commission endorses the Scottish Government's commitment to creating a new social security system based on dignity, respect and fairness.

"It recommends that the delivery plan should set out the extent to which the Scottish Government intends to use the social security powers to meet the child poverty targets and the options that it will consider over the period to 2030 to top up or create benefits."

The report found that work will be the most effective route out of poverty for many households, but that higher employment alone will not necessarily address poverty for all children.

It recommended that the Government's plan includes action to support parents into employment and to address in-work poverty.

Action to address housing costs must also feature in ministers' plans and the prioritisation of building new homes for social rent should be continued, the commission said.

Chairman Douglas Hamilton said: "The Scottish Government needs to be realistic about the scale of the challenge that the country faces in tackling child poverty. It needs to set out the actions that will make the greatest impact.

"New social security powers will need to be used to help reach the targets and the Government needs to be clear the extent to which it is prepared to introduce new benefits or top-up existing ones.

"Benefits are not the answer alone, however. More needs to be done to support parents into work and to progress in work while finding new ways to reduce housing costs for the poorest households."

Equalities Secretary Angela Constance has welcomed the "invaluable" report.

She said: "We established the commission to provide independent advice and scrutiny on where more action could be taken to reduce poverty and inequality and this work highlights many of the challenges we face, such as in-work poverty, housing costs, and the devastating impact of UK Government welfare cuts. Those are areas where we are taking action where we can, with the powers we have, and the commission's advice provides a strong base to build on.

"Importantly, the advice makes clear that poverty and inequality cannot be solved through any one portfolio area or policy. I have been working closely with colleagues across government to ensure an approach that delivers action across every aspect of life."

Bruce Adamson, Children and Young People's Commissioner Scotland, welcomed the report saying: "Child poverty needs to be recognised as a significant children's rights issue in Scotland and we need a sustained, systematic and human rights based approach to tackle and eradicate it.

"Children and young people will provide important insight and can often suggest new approaches and ways in which they can best be supported.

"Some children are more vulnerable to poverty and deprivation than others. Any legislation designed to tackle child poverty in Scotland must therefore pay particular attention to the needs and voices of these groups of children and young people."