Alison Johnstone: Child poverty levels are a poor show – things have to change

Alison Johnstone is a Green MSP for LothianAlison Johnstone is a Green MSP for Lothian
Alison Johnstone is a Green MSP for Lothian
Parliament recently passed the Children (Equal Protection from Assault) Bill, which granted children the same protection from assault afforded to adults. This Bill was introduced by my Scottish Greens colleague, John Finnie MSP, and it was extremely moving to witness Parliament take this important and historic step.

It is fitting that this November will mark the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. There is growing awareness of the rights of children and young ­people, sparked in no small part by a climate emergency which has motivated thousands of youngsters to claim their right to a healthy planet. Children have the right to food, education, shelter and play, but too many are unable to access even these basics – 23 per cent of children live in poverty in Edinburgh and this must change.

We need significant extra investment in our children and young people. The Young Carer Grant, based on a Green manifesto proposal, will be launched before the end of the year. The Scottish Child Payment, when it is introduced, will provide a £10 per week boost to our poorest families, but Greens are concerned it won’t reach all poor families because it requires applicants to claim. UK payments we know are under-claimed. In Edinburgh, about £80 million a year in social security entitlements is not paid out.

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That’s why we need to not only find the investment, but ensure it gets where it needs to go. Many families are so bewildered by a complex and often hostile social security system that they don’t know how to claim, or what is on offer.

Organisations in Edinburgh, often in the very challenging circumstances, are doing a heroic job of helping ­people access the support they are due. VOCAL, for example, helps ­carers access benefits in Edinburgh and Midlothian.

The NHS, too, has a crucial role to play. NHS workers develop trusting relationships with patients and so they are in an excellent position to assist those experiencing financial difficulties by referring them to local money and welfare rights advisors.

Launched in 2010, the Healthier, Wealthier Children initiative, run by NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, aims to reduce child poverty by helping families with money worries. The project targets pregnant women and families with young children experiencing, or at risk of, child poverty, and offers referrals via health visitors and midwives to money and welfare advice. As of March 2019, the financial gain by families is more than £20 million.

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The positive impact of this scheme is self-evident. That is why I secured a commitment from the Scottish Government to roll out the Healthier, Wealthier Children scheme across Scotland, including to NHS Lothian. It’s essential that help exists in the places we find ourselves, in schools, libraries, in dental and doctors’ surgeries. In Edinburgh, the expert help provided by the Granton Information Centre has never been more needed, and we need to ensure that well-established, busy advice agencies like this have all the support they need to ensure they can continue to provide advice, advocacy and representation for all who need it.

I will certainly be monitoring the situation closely, and I also look forward to ­scrutinising the Scottish Government’s benefit take-up strategy, due in the next few weeks. We need rapid and radical change to tackle the unacceptable levels of poverty that too many children across Edinburgh are facing, and helping families access the support they are due is an important part of that change.

Alison Johnstone is a Lothian Greens MSP.