Divergence in child poverty trajectory between Scotland and England ignored by the media

Twenty years ago, Scotland had higher rates of child poverty than England  - now they are significantly lower. Scotland is on a completely different trajectory to the other nations of the UK. 

And yet media coverage of the situation ignores this, the media talks about ‘the UK’ when they mean ‘England’ - while the Scottish-based media blasts that ‘targets risk being missed’ -  instead of looking at the bigger picture, and reporting on the different trajectories of the four countries. 

Scotland - historically seen as one of the poorest parts of the UK - now has lower child poverty rates than the southeast of England, the most prosperous part. 

The Unionist media ignores the trend

Newspapers that regard themselves as being objective, quality publications with no political agenda such as the Financial Times, the Independent and the Observer have stubbornly refused to cover the divergence between Scotland and England on this vital metric. 

When reporting new child poverty statistics last week, for example, most supposedly UK-wide media used the ones for England (produced by the UK Department of Work and Pensions) and wrote that these are for ‘the UK’. 

Meanwhile, newspapers that cover Scotland from a Unionist perspective and BBC Scotland used the equivalent Scottish Government stats. But they also failed to report this divergence and cast about for a negative angle, for example: ‘Child Poverty Targets At Risk of Being Missed’ from the Herald. BBC Scotland chose the headline “Child Poverty in Scotland Shows Little Change”.

This is not to say that child poverty, which is 24% in Scotland, is not a major issue and one that deserves the maximum attention - but the reasons why it is lower than England’s 30% are important and should be reported. A group of experts at the London School of Economics has praised the Scottish Child Payment and wants the UK to learn from that to improve the lives and outcomes of children. 

The underlying trend is important

Anybody trained to look at statistics realises the vital importance of the underlying trend - child poverty in Scotland is going in the opposite direction from England. It was 31% in 2003 and it is 24% now. In England, the graph is rising not falling, up from 28% 20 years ago to 30% now. And absolute child poverty is rising faster than at any time for the last 30 years. 

Twenty years ago, child poverty rates across the whole UK were similar but if you drilled down, then Scotland was close to the top, while the south of England was at the bottom with far fewer children living in poverty. Now it is the other way round. 

Child poverty in Scotland is stable and predicted to fall

The latest Scottish government poverty statistics released last week show 240,000 children (24% of all children) were in poverty in Scotland in the period 2020 to 2023. Children remain at significantly higher risk of poverty than pensioners (15%) and working-age adults (21%). 

The figures show levels of child poverty are broadly stable in Scotland, but they don’t yet include the full impact of the rollout of the Scottish child payment and its increase to almost £27 per week in April. The rate is predicted to fall after that. 

The Scotsman ignores the big picture

The figures are calculated on a three-period as you can see from the table. Rather than reporting these figures, the Scotsman highlighted a news release by think tank the IPPR that pulled out the last year and focused on a rise in that year. 

Over the three-year-period, the figures are stable and the Scottish government forecasts that the rates will fall over the next three years, though in a way that is likely to be slightly uneven. These families receive UK government payments like ‘cost of living support’ (which ends next year), varying energy support payments, and inflation also impacts the figures. 

But the point is that the Scotsman did not report on the differing trajectory between Scotland and England at any point. They completely ignored this important story where the different priorities are impacting the trend. 

Several papers reported English figures as UK ones

The Independent referred to the rapid rise in child poverty in the UK - but its figures refer only to England. It was not alone in this - in an editorial entitled “The Observer View of Deprivation”,  the Observer’s editorial team showed that they are completely unaware of different policies in Scotland. 

The editorial said: “Poverty figures published last week show that in 2023 one in six British children lived in families suffering from food insecurity, up from one in eight children in 2022. And one in 40 children lived in a family that accessed a food bank in the previous 30 days, almost double the proportion the previous year. The growing number of children whose parents struggle to afford to feed them properly in a country as rich as the UK is a shameful reflection of just how low a political priority tackling child poverty has been for Conservative prime ministers and chancellors since 2010.”

The newspaper team did not mention research by the Trussell Trust, showing that the Scottish Child Payment is also making a difference to food bank use. Their most recent research showed that in England, the number of children forced to turn to the charity’s services in the period ending March 2023 was 42% higher than it had been. In Scotland, the rates also rose, but by only 17%.

Polly Jones, the Trussell Trust’s head of Scotland, said: “We know that when the Scottish Government does things differently, it makes a real difference. We are seeing this with the Scottish Child Payment.”

A ‘special report’ that distorts the facts

The FT recently ran a special report on child poverty - which featured as one of the paper's Big Reads. But it was misleading - presenting England’s figures as if they applied to the whole of the UK. The report said: 

“The UK’s record on reducing child poverty since 2017 has been poor by international standards, but it is set to get even worse, according to projections from the Resolution Foundation. By 2029, the think-tank projects that more than half of children in large families will be living in relative poverty, a higher rate than in 1997.”

It reported that rising child poverty rates are mainly because the benefits cap and the two-child cap mean that larger families with low incomes are especially likely to be impacted. In England, almost half of children in large families are living in absolute poverty according to the Joseph Rowntreee Trust. 

But that information and the graphs that accompany it don’t apply to Scotland, where the Scottish Child Payment of almost £27 per child in low-income families is paid for every child in a family not just the two oldest. Other policies such as universal free school meals to age 10, and free bus travel also apply to all children.

The piece did mention Scotland in passing. It said: “Other countries have made different choices. In Scotland, the devolved government estimates that 90,000 children were lifted out of relative and absolute poverty in 2023 as a result of its £25 weekly child payment to low-income families, first introduced at £10 in 2021. The result was that in 2022, Scotland’s child poverty rate was 24 per cent, according to the devolved government, which is lower than that of the south-east of England, the most affluent part of the UK.” 


Child poverty statistics in the UK and Scotland are not a cause for complacency. They are far too high. UK government policies like the egregious two-child cap which says that when a family falls into poverty they can claim benefits for two children are effective across the whole UK.

If the Scottish government had greater control over its own natural resources, EU membership, immigration, tax and spending it would have the levers to make choices more in line with the priorities of Scotland’s people. It could hope to achieve child poverty levels similar to other small European countries. 

However, the child poverty stats show clear evidence that despite the constraints imposed by the UK government’s austerity measures, the Scottish Government has been able to hold child poverty rates broadly stable. That has been done by pursuing different policy objectives that are more in line with the priorities of Scottish voters.

Readers and viewers of the Unionist media won’t be surprised that Scotland’s relative success in bringing down child poverty rates over time, while they go up in the rest of the UK, is not reported.