Tackling child poverty in the Capital

The poorest children need to benefit from Edinburgh’s successes, argues Dr Dan Heap.

The film “I, Daniel Blake” has been out for a month now. For my money it is as every bit as striking as the film which first made director, Ken Loach’s name – “Cathy Come Home”, 50 years ago. “I, Daniel Blake” may not have the same impact as Cathy, but only because our viewing choices are much more divided now.

The backdrop to “I, Daniel Blake” is an unthinking, uncaring welfare system. One which ties people in knots and operates a “sanctions” regime which takes money off benefits for even the most trivial matters. As a result, people get thrown back on desperate measures, as shown by the dramatic rise in foodbanks over the last six years.

The savagery of the sanctions regime is why I have been delighted to work with Green MSP Alison Johnstone to argue that Scotland should use its new powers over employment programmes to ensure that sanctions don’t apply. I am even more delighted that Scottish ministers are listening and seem to recognise that Scotland can build a more caring welfare system.

But it is only one very small part of the system. And figures released recently show just how much our welfare system is failing.  According to Child Poverty Action Group 22% of children in the capital are living in poverty.  That rises to over a third (35%) in the Sighthill-Gorgie area, in which I am standing as Green candidate in the next council elections.

Those are children in families who are cut off from the many things other families take for granted. Added to that, they fare less well at school, on average, have a poorer diet and suffer worse health, both as children and later on in life.

And it is a problem set to get worse if nothing is done. Between now and 2020 people in Edinburgh will lose a total of £

78 million in benefit payments, with some of the cuts in the pipeline directly hitting children: for example freezing of child benefit; and applying an overall cap to the level of benefit paid.

Edinburgh cannot prosper while so many children are left behind. And it is not enough to complain that the big levers over employment, tax and welfare lie in the UK Parliament. So what can be done?

In recent years, the Scottish Government has used its powers to top up housing funds, to end the hated bedroom tax. Applying the same principle, it could choose to top up child benefit by, say, £5 a week, a move which would take 30,000 children in Scotland out of poverty.

Of course, the experience of poverty is wider than just pounds and pence and that is where councils can come in, with education being the biggest spending area. There are tried and tested ways of tackling the gap between poorer and better-off children in the classroom, many of them set out by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.  The next few years should be spent doing that rather than in a stand-off between councils and government about who is best to run schools.

Equally, programmes to improve the energy efficiency of homes will put more money in the pockets of those who are at home most: families with young children, and older people.

And, at a time when advice services are under threat, a project in Glasgow has shown that health visitors and other frontline staff can be trained to help the one in five families who don’t claim all the benefits they are entitled to.

And so the list goes on. It is not lack of ideas or opportunities to tackle child poverty which is the problem. It is political will.

So it’s great for Edinburgh to win prizes for best city to visit or in which to do business. But I think I shall leave my celebrating until Edinburgh wins the prize for tackling child poverty.

This blog was first published in the Edinburgh Evening News on 5 December.