A new report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation this week confirmed the UK’s shocking position in terms of child poverty - which is now almost a third, 31% in England and 28% in Wales. The report found Scotland has a “much lower” child poverty rate of 24%.
A report from UNICEF, last month, provided us with comparable child poverty statistics for most advanced economies. It showed the rapid progress the UK has made in terms of child poverty - in the wrong direction. With a rise of 20% in a decade, the UK is doing twice as badly on this metric as any other country in the report.
We reported then that the child poverty rate in Scotland was 4% less than England and Wales - that has now widened to 7% for England and 4% for Wales. That is largely attributable to mitigations by the Scottish government - but poverty among children and adults is still too high. Holyrood can only do so much - an independent country could take a different course.
The Scottish Child Payment and universal free school meals for under-10s
The Scottish Government is spending millions on trying to mitigate the UK’s drive to impoverish children and families, in measures such as housing support and the Scottish Child Payment. That contributes to child poverty in Scotland now being significantly lower than England, 31% compared to 24%.
In the most recent Scottish budget, the Scottish government raised the Scottish Child Payment to almost £27 per child per week and extended free school meals provision - it already covers more than half of the school roll, compared to a quarter in England.
But with the limited powers as it has, the Scottish government cannot realistically hope to deal with the root causes of the problem and make the kind of progress some other small independent countries. Countries like Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are improving instead of getting worse, like the UK.
The UK Labour Party will keep key policies that impoverish children
Meanwhile, both of the leading UK parties are committed to maintaining the policies that are causing the problem - the Labour Party has pledged to retain a two-child cap on benefits which is plunging children born into larger families into desperate poverty.
The UK government also tightly limits free school meals so only a small minority of the pupils who need them can qualify, whereas in Scotland all pupils below P6 receive them. Hunger is now a real issue in England’s primary schools. The benefits caps imposed across the UK by the Westminster government ten years ago have pushed many families into substandard housing.
The UK Home Office plunges asylum seeker and refugee families into poverty and the British Red Cross says many face destitution.
An independent Scotland would not have to let its funding be decided by the UK government’s policy choices - it could emulate others that are making progress in this area, often small independent countries like Denmark and Estonia.
The UK’s has zoomed in the wrong direction on child poverty
Over the last decade, the UK has shot into the red with a 20% rise in the number of children living in poverty. It is very far below any of the other 39 countries which feature in the UNICEF report. The next worst country is Iceland with a rise of 11% in the rate - about half what the UK has let slip.
At the other end of the table, Poland has reduced child poverty by nearly 40%. Also pushing into the green are Slovenia, Latvia and Lithuania who have all reduced child poverty by almost one third.
Not only has the UK surpassed every other country with the speed of change but in absolute terms it is also far below many countries that are less wealthy.
One in 10 children are in poverty in Denmark - nearly one in three in the UK
In many of the Scandinavian countries that have comparable geography and population size to Scotland, about one in ten children live in poverty. Denmark is at the top of the list at just under one in ten.
Around 14 in every 100 children in Ireland, Poland and Estonia are condemned to a life below the poverty line - these countries have all made progress in recent years.
Wealthy countries like Germany, Belgium and Canada have a higher absolute rate of child poverty - between 15 and 17 per hundred. In the UK, the most recent figures from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation show it is around 29%.
The USA is even lower on this absolute measure - with a quarter of children struggling in poverty, around the same as its neighbour Mexico, despite the US’ stronger economy.
Only Turkey and Colombia worse on income poverty plus prosperity measure
Britain ranked 37th out of the 39 nations in the European Union (EU) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) based on a measure combining income poverty rate for children and the country’s success in reducing child poverty in a time of growing prosperity.
Only Turkey and Colombia ranked below Britain, based on a statistical average of the two indicators.
“While some countries in this group have taken steps to increase support, in the UK we have seen a reduction in spending on child and family benefits and more children growing up in poverty as a result," Chief Executive of UNICEF UK, Jon Sparkes said.
Scotland’s child poverty rate is lower according to the Joseph Rowntree Trust - but it is still too high
In its annual report: “UK Poverty 2024: The essential guide to understanding poverty in the UK”, the Joseph Rowntree Trust found that Scotland has a lower rate of overall poverty (24 per cent) than England (31 per cent) and Wales (28 per cent).
Scotland has seen the largest fall in poverty of any area in the UK - six percentage points below where it was 20 years ago. The report praised the Scottish Government’s move to limit rent increases and the Scottish Child Payment scheme, whereby poorer households receive £26.70 a week for each child under 16.
The Scottish government is making policy where it can, in line with the choices of the Scottish electorate. But too many of the levers of power lie with the UK government - and that is selected at the ballot box by a much bigger electorate with different priorities. While Scotland has not elected a Conservative government for more than 50 years, the UK has been led by Conservative administrations for the vast majority of that time.
An independent Scotland could do better
Poverty is still affecting too many families and individuals in Scotland - a shocking new report showed that many of the poorest are at risk of having pre-payment energy meters cut off. - and compared to other wealthy countries, UK families are struggling more than most. The UK is a relatively wealthy country.
Yet it has not put in place policies to help children.Looking at the tables in the UNICEF report and the Joseph Rowntree Trust, Scots will see other small independent countries like Denmark, Latvia, Lithuania and even Slovenia doing better. These countries are nowhere near as rich as Scotland in terms of natural resources - but they are speeding past in their rush to improve the situation of their youngest citizens.
Scotland has to sit and wait for its funding to be determined as a consequence of policies that England votes for. The decisions made are not based on what Scotland needs or what her people vote for. They are ‘consequentials’ of what another country chooses.
The appalling rates of child poverty in the UK are the result of choices, They are choices Scotland’s people did not make. An independent Scotland will be free to make different ones and to learn from the example of other nations which are tackling child poverty.
Read the UNICEF report here
Read the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report here