By Evan Williams
In one of a series of blogs reflecting on the main findings from our recent reports for the Poverty and Inequality Commission, one of the report authors Evan Williams argues that the success of the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill will rely on policy initiatives that explicitly target welfare and housing provision.
In November 2017, the Scottish Parliament voted unanimously to set ambitious child poverty targets into law, which the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland has described as a “hugely welcome step” that recognises that “child poverty is unacceptable, that it is not inevitable and that it can be eradicated”. The recent passage of the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill provides a good opportunity to reflect on the Scottish Government’s previous Child Poverty Strategy 2014-2017, and the measures it set out to combat child poverty in Scotland.
The Strategy was novel in its aim to tackle separate dimensions of poverty through a focus on the ‘3Ps’ of ‘Pockets’, ‘Prospects’ and ‘Places’: maximising household resources; improving children’s wellbeing and life chances; and ensuring that children from low income households live in well-designed, sustainable places. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation subsequently built on this framework by adding a fourth ‘P’ – ‘Prevention’ – in its vision for an end to poverty in the UK. Our report on the Child Poverty Strategy for the Poverty and Inequality Commission analyses the ‘Pockets’ and ‘Places’ outcomes.
The ‘Pockets’ outcome aims to maximise household resources for families on low incomes through a focus on maximising financial entitlements, lowering the cost of living and increasing incomes through paid work. Progress with regard to child poverty is affected by both devolved and reserved policy measures, and this is particularly true in the case of ‘Pockets’ where planned tax and benefit reforms at the UK-level are set to see child poverty rise over the next few years. The Strategy identified a number of policy initiatives, such as the Scottish Welfare Fund (SWF) and the extension of free early learning and childcare (ELC) provision, which are intended to have both direct and indirect effects on reducing child poverty. Importantly, recently devolved powers are being developed into a framework for a new Scottish social security system through the ongoing passage of the Social Security (Scotland) Bill. This means that the Scottish Government has an opportunity to expand its current efforts in order to bypass the effects of UK-wide benefit reforms and to achieve significant reductions in child poverty in the future.
The ‘Places’ outcome is considered to underpin potential achievements in ‘Pockets’ and ‘Prospects’, and centres on providing high quality sustainable housing and creating places that are socially, physically and economically sustainable. Housing is of crucial importance to poverty rates. For over a decade, child poverty has been consistently lower in Scotland compared with the UK as a whole following adjustments for housing costs, due to lower than average housing costs in Scotland. Unfortunately, however, this gap between Scotland and its southern neighbours has narrowed in recent years as a result of emerging housing cost pressures in Scotland, which represents a threat to the possibility of reducing child poverty in the future. Promoting affordable housing is key: in this respect, the Strategy pointed to the Affordable Housing Supply Programme (AHSP) 2011-16, which successfully surpassed its targets. Importantly, the new AHSP 2016-21 aims to build more affordable homes than its predecessor, a higher proportion of which will be for social rent. A significant challenge to tackling child poverty is presented by the recent growth in the private rented sector in Scotland, which is becoming the default destination for many low income households. There are concerns regarding the quality and affordability of housing in this sector, whilst it will take time for the effectiveness of the new Private Residential Tenancy to be proven.
Taken as a whole, these challenges highlight the interlinking nature of the causes that drive child poverty, and emphasise the need for policy interventions to reflect this. With its focus on the ‘3Ps’ of ‘Pockets’, ‘Prospects’ and ‘Places’, the Child Poverty Strategy 2014-2017 represents a positive step in this direction. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Scotland “stands at a turning point” where its recent progress on child poverty is “in peril.” It is crucial, therefore, that the delivery of the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill is targeted at the connected areas of welfare and housing, in order to achieve its ambitious child poverty targets.