There is no more precious resource in this country than our children, but for many families, making ends meet remains an everyday hardship.
Although child poverty has been endemic in Scotland for decades, household incomes have been dramatically squeezed by Tory austerity cuts. To make matters worse, the disastrous Brexit vote has seen the value of the pound collapse by a fifth in just a few months, causing food and fuel prices to rise. It must surely break the heart of everyone in Scotland that 200,000 children across the country are now officially described as living in poverty – that's about one in five. As many of our poorest families are increasingly reliant on food banks, the SNP Government continues to mitigate such hardship through every means at its disposal. No child should have to grow up in poverty in a country as wealthy as Scotland; to believe otherwise is an affront to our nation's dignity.
After dragging its feet for five years, the UK Government announced in 2015 that it would tackle child poverty, through its Welfare Reform and Work Act. Incredibly, this did not consider household income; it instead chose to categorise poverty as a lifestyle choice rather than addressing the social and economic factors that force people into poverty. The SNP Government so fundamentally disagreed with this approach that it fought for an exemption from the new act, which was granted. In July 2016 the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that the SNP Government would instead bring forward our own Child Poverty Bill, not just to tackle child poverty, but ultimately to eliminate it altogether. On 09 February, the Bill was presented to the Scottish Parliament.
The challenge is enormous, but will be overcome through policy initiatives implemented nationally by the SNP Government in partnership with local authorities and health boards, measured on an annual basis.
Under the new Bill the SNP Government will reduce the number of children living in 'relative poverty' from 22% to less than 10% by 2030, i.e. children living in a household where the combined income is below 60% of median UK household income. Within the same period we will reduce the number living in 'absolute poverty' to less than 5% and work to cut 'combined low income and material deprivation' and 'persistent poverty' to below 5% in the same period.
The Child Poverty Bill is just the latest step towards boosting the life chances of the next generation and follows on from a range of other measures we are now implementing following our re-election in 2016. The provision of the new Scottish Baby Box has been welcomed as an effective way to help those with limited means give their child a good start in life. By 2020, free early learning and childcare provision will be almost doubled for all 3 and 4 year olds, as well as vulnerable 2 year olds. For older children, an additional £120 million in funding was announced in the budget to help close the educational attainment gap and will be paid directly to head teachers. This is on top of the existing £750 million Attainment Scotland Fund.
Of course, ensuring the availability of secure and well paid jobs is always the best route out of poverty and growing the economy must go hand in hand with reducing inequality or the resources to deliver that objective will simply not be there.
Poverty must never be considered inevitable, and as a government with a conscience the SNP will continue to do everything in our power to eradicate it. The future for the next generation and our society demands nothing less.