Hanna McCulloch (Policy and Parliamentary Officer, Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland).
Everyone with an interest in child wellbeing has had their capacity for optimism sorely tested over the last few months. The UK government’s intention to abolish child poverty targets, cut tax credits and aim yet more swinging cuts at low income families have left even the most experienced commentators reeling.
The question CPAG has been considering this week though is whether – against such a bleak backdrop – the devolution of social security powers can offer a ray of light to families in Scotland.
Can control over a small proportion of current UK spend on social security really make a difference to so many households struggling to make ends meet? These are the issues we had to address head on this week as we prepared evidence for the Scottish Parliament’s Welfare Reform Committee.
And despite the negative context, our conclusion was positive. We concluded that with public encouragement, political will and a principled approach, the Scotland Bill does offer scope for genuine and meaningful change. As our response details, the powers earmarked for devolution offer the chance to make a real dent in child poverty.
Using top-up powers to triple lock the value of family benefits, for example, could boost the finances of low income families both in and out of work. Making sure universal credit better reflect real housing costs could also help families enjoy more stable, suitable housing thereby improving the outcomes and wellbeing of their children.
But what came across most clearly as we developed our response was that even those new powers which don’t get much media attention – the ‘small fry’ benefits like cold weather payments and maternity grants – could be remodelled in line with CPAG principles (including poverty reduction, simplicity and consistency) to make a massive difference to hard pressed families.
Take, for example, the sure start maternity grant. The grant is worth £500 and is paid to low income families upon the birth of their first child (and, in limited circumstances – subsequent children). The grant is invaluable to the many families who use it to buy the essential paraphernalia of parenthood – bottles, bibs, clothes and nappies. Yet by reimagining maternity grants in line with CPAG’s objectives and principles and taking the experiences of real families into account, sure start maternity grants could be made better still and do more of the leg work needed to give Scotland’s children the best start in life. For example;
The Scottish Government could increase the value of sure start maternity grants – which have been set at £500 since 2002 – to reflect the rising cost of living and expense associated with a new baby. CPAG has estimated that the cost of raising a child has risen by 5.6% percent in the last 3 years. The maternity grant should grow to reflect this. This would make a huge difference to hard pressed families who are struggling to meet the most basic of costs.
Rebecca, who lives in the Highlands is struggling with the cost of a new baby ‘Sometimes I have actually had to sit and choose between electricity and feeding myself. If the (electricity) meter runs out I have no leeway because the previous tenants run up a huge debt. So sometimes I do have to choose between feeding me and heating the house. I really have to budget’.
It is not as easy as it should be to access sure start maternity grants and many eligible families do not claim their awards. At the moment a midwife or other professional has to sign a form when the mother is 11 weeks or more pregnant. The mother then has to complete the long, sign it and post it to the DWP. CPAG believe simplifying the process of claiming the benefit could help a lot of families. In fact, ideally, the process of accessing maternity grants would be automated – either through IT systems which generate payments automatically or through the development of working procedures which minimise the need for action on the part of the mother. This could get rid of some of the pitfalls that mean so many mums lose out.
In one case received by CPAG, due to complicated personal circumstances, a client’s sure start maternity grant form was signed 3 days before the time limit for applying expired. The form was handed into the local job centre plus within the 3 month time limit, however they refused to accept the form and provided an envelope for it to be sent to Wolverhampton, where it was received out with the time limit. The form clearly states that it can be handed into the local jobcentre plus.
Consistency and fairness
In 2011, the UK Government decided that sure start maternity grants should only be paid in respect of a mother’s first child. This means many low income families have no additional support to cover the costs of a new child. This is particularly hard for families who have a gap of more than two or three years between their children, and may not have ‘hand me downs’ available to pass on to a new baby. To make sure all children get the best start in life, the Scottish Government should restore entitled to all babies.
A grandmother has kinship care for her daughter’s 4 & 7 year old and will get care of daughter’s baby when it is born. Grandmother did will not be entitled to SSMG for the baby because there are other children under 16 living in the house, even though she did not get a SSMG them.
Applying these basic principles to all new powers and ensuring resources are available to give them meaningful effect will ensure a brighter future for Scotland’ children.