There can be no greater responsibility for any government than ensuring that all young people get the best possible start in life.
It is totally unacceptable that, in a country as wealthy as the UK, any child should be living in poverty. But the latest figures show that, over the last three years, almost one in four children in Scotland were living below the poverty line, once housing costs are taken into consideration.
These aren’t just numbers on a page. Behind every figure lies a human story; a child whose living environment, education, health – their entire life chances – are being limited by poverty.
Of course, many of the key powers relating to tackling poverty remain reserved to Westminster. And with the Tory government currently engaged in the biggest assault on the welfare state since its creation, no one should be seriously surprised that figures show poverty to be rising.
As long as the Tory government continues down this path – which they seem intent on doing despite evidence of the damage they are doing – the Scottish Government will always be fighting poverty with one arm tied behind our backs.
But frustrating as this is for me, it does not excuse us in the Scottish Government from doing everything we can, with the powers and resources we do have, to tackle poverty and inequality.
On the contrary, it actually makes our actions doubly important – because without further action, we estimate that UK welfare cuts could see the number of kids living in poverty rise to more than one in three by the end of the next decade.
That is not acceptable and we are not prepared to just sit back and let it happen.
Of course, we already doing a lot to support families on low incomes by, for example, supporting the real Living Wage and through measures like free prescriptions, free school meals and the widely-praised Baby Box – and of course through our significant investments in social housing and expanding childcare.
And we’re already spending £100 million a year from the Scottish budget – money that could be spent on services such as schools and hospitals – mitigating some of the worst of the UK welfare cuts, like the Bedroom Tax.
Last year MSPs unanimously backed our ambitious Child Poverty Bill, committing us to eradicating child poverty by 2030.
And last week we published a new Child Poverty Delivery Plan – outlining the new actions we will take to ensure that we’re fully responding to the current challenges facing families.
A lot of work and engagement has gone into this plan. We established our own Poverty and Inequality Commission to ensure that we were getting the best possible expert advice – but crucially we have listened carefully to the views of people with direct experience of poverty themselves.
As a result of their input, we will be focusing on “priority families” which we know are most at risk of poverty – lone parents, families with a disabled adult or child, young mothers, minority ethnic families, families with a child less than a year old, and families with three or more children.
And we are proposing a range of actions to support them.
There is action to tackle the cost of living that families often struggle with.
On top of the existing steps I outlined above, we’re going to introduce new, more targeted measures – such as a guaranteed minimum payment for the School Clothing Grant, £1 million on new practical support for children facing food insecurity during the school holidays, and a new Financial Health Check service to ensure families are maximising their incomes.
There is action to support parents in the workplace – because we know that sustainable, well-paid work is the best long-term route out of poverty – so we will invest millions of pounds in intensive employment support for parents, building on their skills and helping to progress through their careers.
But perhaps the most radical proposal is a new Income Supplement.
Clearly, maximising incomes is an effective tool in tackling poverty, and I have some sympathy with people who asked us to top up child benefit for everyone. However, doing so would mean that seven out of every ten pounds spent would in fact go to families who are not living in poverty.
We want to see a much more targeted approach, to maximise support for families who need it most.
The Income Supplement is an ambitious policy, and the detail is still to be developed fully – for example, we need to consider the level at which it will be set, who exactly should benefit and what the delivery mechanism will be, as well as crucial issues such as ensuring that the interactions with UK benefits is properly understood. Once it is fully up and running, it will go a long way to reducing the unacceptable levels of poverty.
I don’t pretend that tackling poverty is easy. I’ve been in politics long enough to know that there are no overnight solutions – no quick fixes to what are deep-seated problems.
But I’m absolutely determined that we do not take our eye off the ball for even one moment.
This article originally appeared in the Evening Times.