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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, August 20, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 20 August 2020

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan

The next item of business is a statement by Aileen Campbell on the tackling child poverty delivery plan second year progress report. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


Tackling child poverty is at the very heart of this Government’s ambition, and today I have published the second annual progress report due under the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017.

The report details our progress, in the reporting year 2019-20, on delivering the range of actions that are committed to through “Every child, every chance”, our first tackling child poverty delivery plan, and it considers our progress against the challenging targets that were agreed unanimously by the Parliament.

As members will be fully aware, much of this report and the actions that I have described relate to the period before the outbreak of coronavirus and, therefore, before the nationwide lockdown and significant restrictions that were placed on everyone’s lives. Those resulted in the delay to this progress report, and, of course, Covid-19 will also have had an impact on poverty levels. I will come back to that issue shortly. Let me provide some details from our comprehensive report first.

The report analyses the latest child poverty statistics, which were published in March and cover the period 2018-19, which was the first year of our delivery plan. The statistics highlight that, once housing costs are taken into account, relative child poverty levels are 7 percentage points lower than the United Kingdom average. However, the fact remains that almost a quarter of children in Scotland were living in poverty in that year, which is absolutely unacceptable.

The figures also show slightly lower child poverty levels across three of the four target measures in the 2017 act, which is welcome, particularly because the independent projections that we published alongside the delivery plan had anticipated sharp increases in rates because of UK Government welfare cuts.

New estimates that were published today highlight that we have increased our investment targeted at children living in low-income households by £144 million to an estimated £672 million in 2019-20. That is part of an estimated £1.96 billion directed at low-income households through a range of programmes, which represents an increase of £554 million.

Our approach remains to focus on the three key drivers of child poverty reduction, and it has been strongly supported by stakeholders. Let me give a few examples from our progress report of where our action is making a difference to people’s lives.

Maximising income through social security is the first of those key drivers, which is why we have increased support from social security across the early years through the best start grant and best start foods. The best start grant and early learning and school age payments were introduced in 2019-20 and offer, through a £250 grant, entirely new support to help families with children to buy the essentials that they need around the time when their child starts nursery or school. More than 75,000 payments were made to families on low incomes through the three elements of the best start grant, backed by an investment of £21 million in 2019-20. By comparison, in 2017-18, the UK Government awarded only 4,300 sure start maternity grant payments with a total value of £2.4 million, which means that, through best start grants, we made 17 times more payments, which were worth almost nine times more.

Increasing family incomes from employment is another key strand of our approach. In February, we launched our new parental employability support fund, which is backed by £12 million from our tackling child poverty fund. The service—which is delivered by local authorities in partnership with the private and third sectors—focuses on providing flexible, person-centred employability support with a particular focus on tackling in-work poverty. It provides wraparound support and advice for parents, helping them to access the essentials, including income maximisation and housing and childcare, and to enter and progress in the labour market and increase their take-home pay.

We have also continued to deliver activity to reduce household costs and support families in other ways, including by delivering a further 9,286 affordable homes, with 6,952 for social rent; supporting 49,000 children through the expansion of early learning and childcare; and consulting on our draft out-of-school care framework, which sets out a bold vision for school-age childcare.

We are proud of what has been delivered to date, and, as the Poverty and Inequality Commission has highlighted,

“all this action will have a positive impact on the lives of children living in poverty”.

That is why we will continue to deliver at the pace and scale required to lift children out of poverty, and we will do that in the light of the impact of coronavirus. The impacts of the virus on the health and wellbeing of individuals and on our economy have been unprecedented. The Office for National Statistics last week confirmed that the UK has officially entered the largest recession since records began. As financial supports such as the UK job retention scheme are removed and the virus continues to take its toll on our everyday lives, the impacts on individuals and incomes will be even greater.

We also know that the effects of this awful virus have been felt unevenly across the country and particularly keenly by the most disadvantaged people and communities—for example, women and young people. We are committed to tackling that head on, and we have already announced a £100 million package of employment measures including a youth jobs guarantee, which is supported by our new job start payment for eligible young people who have experienced unemployment.

More than ever, the pandemic has highlighted the need to tackle child poverty and to support families in need, so I will turn to the ways in which we will do just that. Building on the holistic support model of our parental employability support fund, I confirm today that we will make a further £2.35 million available this financial year as a boost to the £5 million that is already allocated. That additional investment will focus on supporting local delivery in three key ways. First, £1 million will be invested to improve alignment with early learning and childcare with local parental employability support. Secondly, a further £1 million will be targeted at supporting disabled parents to progress towards employment and to compete for suitable jobs. Thirdly, we will support young parents—who, we know, will be at a particular disadvantage as a result of the pandemic—to get help and support on matters such as housing and income maximisation.

That investment builds on the £100 million of employment measures that have been announced by the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture, and it will provide vital support to parents who may have seen their hours and earnings reduced as a result of Covid. Importantly, it will help young and disabled parents who face additional barriers to the labour market to progress towards employment and access the opportunities that are available.

I will turn next to how we will tackle the digital divide in Scotland, which has been shown in sharp focus during the pandemic, when physical ways of staying in touch and contact have been restricted. Earlier this week, I announced £15 million of new funding to expand our ambitious connecting Scotland programme. Building on the success of the programme that we introduced in May, more than 30,000 low-income households will now receive support to get connected through access to a device, data, skills training and technical support. Our focus is on low-income families with children and on young care leavers, and we will work closely with our partners in local authorities, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations and the third sector to deliver the support by the end of spring 2021. That is just one way in which we are, in the coming year, increasing our support for families with children.

The Scottish child payment will provide £10 per child per week, and, combined with the best start grant and best start foods, it means that low-income families are eligible to receive over £5,200 of support for their first child by the time the child turns six. That support continues, with up to £4,900 available for each and every subsequent child, with no limit to the number of children supported—that is unparalleled across the UK.

However, the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People updated the Parliament on 1 April about the major impact that coronavirus would inevitably have on Scotland’s social security. She committed to making sure that we prioritised delivery of the benefits that were already in place, which has been done. We have also now delivered the job start payment. In addition, she said that, in recognition of the major role that the Scottish child payment plays in tackling child poverty, the delivery of that important benefit would be prioritised and we would aim to open applications for eligible under-sixes by the end of this year, with the first payments being made in 2021.

That vital support is even more critical now as many families are struggling and facing hardship as a result of the pandemic. Despite the significant pressures of Covid-19, we have worked at pace and focused resources on ensuring that families get extra money in their pockets as soon as is practically possible.

Therefore, I am delighted to announce today that the Scottish child payment will open for applications for under-sixes in November 2020 and that the first payments will be made to eligible families from the end of February 2021. That is only two months later than was originally planned, which is a significant achievement given the unprecedented challenges for social security and other areas of life stemming from Covid-19. Of course, we know that any further lockdowns or a rise in the prevalence of the virus that could reduce staff numbers could put that at risk. We are working in a time of pandemic and, as for other programmes, we need to be aware that it continues to be a major challenge.

The 2019-20 progress report makes clear the range of actions that are under way across the Government to deliver reductions in child poverty. We have increased our investment for low-income families and we are on track to deliver the infrastructure for lasting change—not least through the new Scottish child payment.

Although the coming year presents challenges in abundance, it also offers opportunities to learn from the response to Covid and to “build forward better”, reducing child poverty at every level across Scotland. As a Government, we remain totally committed to delivering the action that is needed at the pace and scale required. Working together, we will reduce and ultimately eradicate child poverty in Scotland.

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues raised in her statement.

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of her statement. I welcome a great many of the cabinet secretary’s announcements. As she is, I am concerned that about a quarter of children are living in poverty. However, it is encouraging to see the direction of travel in the action that is being taken.

Having said that, I want to ask about early learning and childcare provision, which has been identified as a key pillar of the Scottish Government plan. I will ask in particular about the delay to the flagship policy on provision of 1,140 hours of early learning funding. Ministers have said that the delay is because of the need to divert resources to tackle coronavirus. However, in reality, the Scottish Government was on track to miss the target before the pandemic occurred.

In the report, ministers have confirmed that the promise will not be delivered during this academic year, and will be fulfilled only when they judge that it is reasonable to do so. Will the cabinet secretary provide some certainty for families across Scotland and set out a firm timetable for when the policy will be delivered?

I welcome Annie Wells to her new role and I look forward to working with her. However, from the get-go she has something wrong: in March 2020, Audit Scotland confirmed that we were on track to deliver the 1,140 hours expansion, in partnership with local authorities. I urge Annie Wells, as she gets used to her new brief, to engage with the facts of the matter. We will continue to work hard to support families in that respect.

We know and acknowledge how critical early years provision is for families. It enables women and parents to access work and learning opportunities, as well as enabling them to find a balance in order to support their household budgets. That is what I saw today in Penicuik when I went to visit one of the early years centres there. I heard directly from the mothers whom I met about how important that is, which is why we will continue to work hard.

I know that the Minister for Children and Young People, Maree Todd, and the Deputy First Minister will continue to work hard to make sure that we can get back on track with the expansion of hours. From 15 July, as part of phase 3 of Scotland’s route map, early learning and childcare providers were reopened. Many centres have chosen to reopen alongside schools. Already, throughout the pandemic and lockdown, the children of key workers and vulnerable children have been able to access childcare. That includes children who usually access free meals in other childcare settings.

We will continue to work hard, but, at this point in time, it is difficult to pinpoint a date, although the commitment and the funding are there. A number of local authorities and providers are already providing the additional hours. We will work with our local authority partners to make sure that we can continue to deliver for the families who so desperately need that support.

Child poverty is too high across the world and is a tragedy for every single child. In Scotland, a quarter of our children live in poverty. We can all agree that that is unacceptable. Scottish Labour welcomes a lot of the Scottish Government’s work on alleviating poverty, such as the best start plan, the sure start maternity grant and the employability support fund.

Like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Shelter and others, we recognise the link between housing costs and poverty, and we believe that a larger intervention is therefore needed. We agree with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s call for conditionality such that employers must pay the living wage when they are in receipt of Government money.

Scottish Labour has one big question and one simple message for the Government today, which is around the Scottish child payment. We believe that it is the Government’s centrepiece anti-poverty policy, and we regard the six-month delay as significant—parents stand to lose £260 between now and February. We therefore call on the Government to open the scheme to applications as soon as possible and to review that decision in the light of the fact that the furlough scheme is coming to an end and, unfortunately, families will fall into poverty.

We recognise the difficulties, but we think that February is too late. All we are asking is that the Government review whether it can bring the child payment forward, because it is the Government’s big policy.

Pauline McNeill mentioned a six-month delay, which is not accurate. I said in my statement that the delay has been two months and that we will open applications in November in the drive to ensure that we can get that key policy up and running as quickly as possible, despite the significant pressures that have been faced by the agency as a result of Covid.

The agency has worked phenomenally hard, led by my colleague Shirley-Anne Somerville, to make sure that we can prioritise the Scottish child payment. That is why we are able today to set out the timeframe according to which we will make payments available to families.

It is also important to note that, through the pandemic, we did not leave a gap. We have doubled the Scottish welfare fund, progressed best start foods and best start grants. We have, where we can, enabled families to access resource and help. We will continue to do what we can for families, to the best of our ability. That includes making sure that we get the timetable right for the Scottish child payment, so that we do not leave people waiting too long in a backlog. The timetable has been set out to make sure that families get their applications in and get the payment when they need it.

We move to open questions. If we have succinct questions and answers, please, we will get through them.

The cabinet secretary is right to affirm that it is absolutely unacceptable that almost one in four children in Scotland lives in poverty. Those children have never needed our help more.

The cabinet secretary might be aware that some studies have shown that for every £1 that we invest in benefits advice, £25 can be received. However, it is projected that thousands of poor Scots will still miss out on the best start grant and the Scottish child payment, while other payments—for example, child benefit—have much higher uptake. What is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that every poor family is supported to claim the payments to which they are entitled?

We have a good record of trying to maximise household budgets by making sure that people can access the support that they deserve, and which they need and are entitled to. That is why the money talk team has, over the past year, been doing what it can to maximise household budgets.

There have been other ways in which we have tried to ensure that people get access to the support that they deserve. We will not just sit back and hope that people apply. We will send out invitations; we will invite people to ensure that they know that they are entitled to the Scottish child payment, and that they apply, and we will support them in that process. Fundamentally, that is a shift. It is driven by the fact that we want people to access the Scottish child payment, because it is vital to families on low incomes that they access that money. We will invite them in a proactive way to apply, as opposed to just waiting for it to happen. The points that Alison Johnstone made are critical.

Access to funded childcare can mean the difference between a family making a living and keeping it. As we have heard several times today, the delay in rolling out 1,140 hours of childcare will only perpetuate the cycle of child poverty.

I want to ask the cabinet secretary two questions. First, given that the decision to delay the roll-out of the 1,140 hours was based on the science from March, when was the science behind the delay last reviewed? Secondly, given that universal funded childcare does not work for everybody, will the cabinet secretary revitalise the MacLean commission review of funded childcare and consider some of the flexibility options in that report?

I recognise the real interest that Alex Cole-Hamilton has had in the issue for a long time. In fact, we worked on it when he was in his previous role and I was the Minister for Children and Young People. I know that he has a long-standing interest in ensuring that we do the best for our children.

As I said in response to Annie Wells’s question, unfortunately and regrettably, the pandemic has meant that the 1,140 hours provision has not happened within the time that everyone hoped for. However, we were on track to deliver that, and we continue to work with local authorities to ensure that all three and four-year-olds and eligible two-year-olds can, from August this year, access their statutory entitlement to 600 hours. We will continue to work hard to ensure that we move to support them to access the 1,140 hours as quickly as possible.

However, that is not the totality of our work. There is the child poverty plan and the work that we have been doing to try to maximise its impact, and to align our parental employment support with access to childcare, in order to ensure that we can deliver flexibility and that we can really make that work for families. That is because, as Alex Cole-Hamilton said, we need to ensure that families get the work and employment opportunities that the policy was designed to enable, while ensuring quality provision for individual children, as well.

I set out in the report some of the areas of activity. There is also continuing work across the Government to ensure that the approach can deliver at pace. However, I will endeavour to look at some of the points on the science that Alex Cole-Hamilton asked about and will get back to him on some of the specifics.

The first two back-bench questions and their answers were overlong. We will never get through the questions unless members have a thought for their colleagues.

I would welcome further details of how Covid-19 has impacted on the delivery of the Scottish child payment. In giving those details, will the cabinet secretary comment on whether there is now sufficient capacity and resilience in the delivery team so that the Scottish child payment will be delivered under the revised timetable and vital cash will be delivered should there be another local or—heaven forbid—national lockdown?

I outlined in my statement that, although we set out the timetable as we hope it will progress and that we are working hard to progress in that way, sometimes when there is such a pandemic there will inevitably be—although I hope there will not be—spikes in the virus or further decisions that might impact on different policies. However, we will ensure that successful applicants will not lose out financially, even if there were to be a delay to their payments beyond February. Unfortunately, we must recognise that we are operating in a climate of uncertainty, but we are working hard to ensure that we can deliver to that timescale. Again, I give Bob Doris the assurance that we will ensure that any applicants will not lose out financially.

I note that there is a two-month delay before the Scottish child payment comes into play. Will the cabinet secretary use something like the best start grant for that two-month period to increase the amount for two months and help the most vulnerable with that payment?

I understand Jeremy Balfour’s point and why he asks that question. However, some of these things, in exploration, are technically very difficult and it is not possible to do some of them. I also point to the fact that we have doubled the Scottish welfare fund and that there are ways in which we are trying to support people financially through the progress of this pandemic. We will continue to make sure that people are supported.

Good-quality affordable homes, as well as being good for health, support valuable local jobs; that is a good example of creating a wellbeing economy. What plans are there to ensure that our affordable housing programme meets those aims and continues to contribute to eradicating child poverty?

Ruth Maguire makes an excellent point. We will set out our housing to 2040 strategy later this year precisely because of the point that she makes, which is that housing is about much more than bricks and mortar; it hits a number of my colleagues’ portfolio aspirations and those that are set out in the national performance framework.

In the most recent reporting year of 2018-19, relative child poverty after housing costs was 7 percentage points lower in Scotland than the UK average; that is a significant impact delivered by housing. Again, that articulates why it is so important that we continue to progress affordable housing across the country.

Constituents are telling me that children who are entitled to free school meals are receiving very little to eat for lunch in school due to Covid restrictions. One child had received a quarter sandwich and a little piece of cheese. For many children, a free school meal is the only hot, wholesome meal that they will receive all day. Will the Scottish Government now legislate for a right to food? Will it also ensure that all children now receive an adequate and wholesome school meal?

We have taken proactive steps over the past five months to make sure that food insecurity is tackled. From memory, we have, to date, committed over £100 million to that, which included ensuring that young people could access free school meals over the summer months. We did that precisely because of the points that Rhoda Grant raised about ensuring that people can get nutritious meals when they need them, because that might be the only time when they can access food.

I am therefore concerned to hear about those reports from Rhoda Grant and I would be keen to know a bit more, if she were able to engage with us on that. We see school meals as being really important; that is why the Government legislated to give children in primaries 1 to 3 free school meals, why we committed to ensuring that we tackle food insecurity and why we take a rights-based approach. All of that together shows our commitment to ensuring that people do not suffer the challenges of food insecurity. Of course, that comes back to poverty and that is why we need to tackle it in the round.

What impact has Covid-19 had on plans to tackle child poverty, not only for the Scottish Government but for local authorities and the organisations and the third sector that work in this area?

Although some of our previous child poverty plans, which were developed before the pandemic, might have been put on hold, we continue to work to support families impacted by poverty. That is why, for instance, we recognised very early on back in March that the people who were most financially vulnerable would be impacted most; why we committed the £350 million community response to the pandemic; why we have committed to covering the cost of free school meals during the summer holidays; and why we have committed £110 million to tackling food insecurity over the course of the pandemic.

Some of the policies that we developed before the pandemic have been paused, but that has certainly not stopped the effort to support people. Again, what we can learn from that about what has worked will be critical for enhancing our work going forward, making sure that we work collectively with local authorities, the third sector and the communities that have shown remarkable resilience over the past five months.

I welcome the extra funding announced in the statement that will be targeted at supporting disabled parents to progress towards employment and compete for suitable jobs. However, in reality, an employment gap already existed prior to the pandemic, so what assurances can the Government provide to protect those individuals in the job market and how will we measure whether that money closes the disability employment gap?

Alexander Stewart raises some critical points. Disabled families are among our priority families, and we know that they disproportionately suffer levels of poverty. That is why we need to target our support in the right way, to ensure that that gap can be closed. We want to provide extra support, wraparound support and key worker support to people who require that extra bit of help to access job opportunities so as to close that gap as best we can.

We have therefore been working closely with Fiona Hyslop on the wider employability package, so that, given the job challenges that will exist, vulnerable people will not be left further behind, which is something that we do not want to see. While we have announced some money today, I will look at the bigger, wider package to ensure that the collective effort goes towards tackling the problems that Alexander Stewart rightly highlights.

While the economic impact of Covid-19 is at the forefront of everyone’s mind, we must not forget that worsening poverty levels are likely only to be exacerbated by the impending Brexit. What work is being done to model that impact with regard to both inequalities and poverty?

Fulton MacGregor is right to point out that, while we have been coping as a country with the impact of the pandemic, further challenges will be ahead on the horizon, not least Brexit.

In January, we published an analysis of the social impacts of Brexit. I highlighted that food and energy price rises after Brexit, especially with no trade deal, were likely to hit the poorest households hardest. We also outlined how that would particularly hit low-paid people in low-skilled sectors, which employ a high number of people on low incomes. We therefore already knew just how negatively impactful Brexit would be—we had done a lot of analysis about it. All those concurrent risks mean that we will have to work even harder to ensure that we can protect people who require even more support. That is why we would make calls to the UK Government to make some changes to a welfare system that exacerbates some of that.

The UK Government has shown through the pandemic that it can be swift and can make changes. Those are welcome, but they are not big enough or wide enough—and they need to continue. We will continue to work with the UK Government on that, and we will push as hard as we can, but Brexit is undoubtedly a huge challenge. We will continue to ensure that we understand that as best we can.

The Department for Work and Pensions sends data on exactly who qualifies for the Scottish child payment on a weekly basis. In the light of that, why can the payment not be made automatically and straight away?

We have set out the timeframe. It was always going to require time to get the arrangements in place and to ensure that we could get to the children and families who are entitled to the payment. We have set out that we are going to be proactive in ensuring that people apply for it. There are lots of technical reasons why some of that is not quite as possible as I think Mark Griffin is suggesting. We are endeavouring to work at pace to ensure that we can get the child payment into families’ pockets as quickly as possible, because of the impact that it will have as the “game-changer” that charities described it as when we announced it last year.

There is no reluctance on our part; we want to get it done as quickly as possible. The pandemic has knocked the timescale that we wanted to apply, but we are continuing to work at pace to ensure that families can get the payment into their pockets as quickly as possible.

With one in four children in my constituency living in poverty, can the cabinet secretary outline what future plans the Scottish Government has for tackling food insecurity, in particular where any measures will actually benefit families?

In answering some of the earlier questions I described why food insecurity in Scotland is intolerable. In particular, as we are blessed with natural resources and phenomenal producers, it seems ironic that food insecurity continues. That is rooted in a lack of income that is caused by the three drivers of child poverty.

That is why the Scottish child payment will be critical, as it puts more money back into people’s pockets. That is why we advocate the cash-first approach to local authorities, which help and support families with entitlement to free school meals, as that approach gives families the autonomy and agency to tackle the issue on their own terms. That is also why, over the course of the pandemic, we are investing more than £110 million to tackle the food insecurity that is caused by the crisis. We will continue to take the dignified cash-first approach and will work with local authorities, the third sector and communities to tackle food insecurity properly.

Ultimately, it comes back to not having the means to purchase one of the basics of life: food. That is why the child payment is important, but it is also why the UK Government needs to look closely at what it does and how it supports families that do not have the financial means to afford food.