Tackling child poverty is a key priority for the Scottish Government

The need to take action has come into even sharper focus this year, as we respond to the COVID-19 virus, doing everything we can to keep people safe from its effects.

Even though there is now hope on the horizon in the form of vaccines, for many families and children this year has been a challenge – and the coming months will be tough.

Families across Scotland have been hit hard by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Indeed, there’s not a community or person untouched by its effects whether that be through illness, loss of work or earnings or missing precious time with family and friends.

As a government we remain fully committed to tackling poverty, particularly child poverty, which we know has been increasing in recent years due to the impact of UK Government welfare cuts.

This is a long term, determined and unceasing effort, which will continue long after this pandemic emergency is over – which is why we have put in place a series of actions to create a fairer and more equal Scotland.

We started this parliamentary term with the ground breaking Child Poverty (Scotland) Act, with targets to reduce and eradicate child poverty, as well as an ambitious Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan with a range of actions to tackle the causes of deep seated generational poverty.

And last year we invested nearly £2 billion to support low income households, including over £672 million targeted at children in low income families.

We also announced a ground breaking major new benefit to tackle child poverty head on – the Scottish Child Payment.

The Scottish Child Payment is one of the most ambitious, and potentially transformational, policies introduced since the Scottish Parliament was established.

It will make a direct and significant impact to the incomes of thousands of low income families.

Scotland is the only part of the UK where this additional payment will be available. We think it will change the lives of children, and their families, for the better.

Others have called it a game changer – we hope and believe that too.

We know that almost 60% of all children in poverty in Scotland live in a family with a child under the age of six. So we prioritised the early introduction of the payment for this group to make the biggest impact for families who need help the most. Up to 194,000 children across Scotland are eligible for this new benefit this financial year.

We have already started taking applications for this new benefit for children under six – ahead of the benefit starting on 15 February.

Many thousands of applications have already been received – and I would urge any parent who thinks they might be eligible to apply by visiting mygov.scot/benefits or calling 0800 182 2222.

Our new Scottish Child Payment not only helps raise children out of poverty, it is also designed to help prevent those just above the poverty threshold from slipping under it. And that’s why our aim is to roll out this to under 16s by the end of 2022.

Together with our other new social security benefits Best Start Grant and Best Start Foods, the Scottish Child Payment will provide over £5,200 of financial support for eligible families by the time their first child turns six, around £4,000 more than elsewhere in the UK.

Because we know that a range of actions is needed to helps families, we have invested over £37.6 million for Free School Meals over holiday periods and school closures since the start of the pandemic, continuing this support up to and including the 2021 Easter holidays.

Our Parental Employability Support Fund will provide personalised help for those in low-paid work, and those who are looking for a job.

We’ve boosted the Fund this year by £2.35 million to make a total of £7.35 million available. It will give parents tailored support, while linking in with the opportunities that our increase in free early learning and childcare hours brings.

There is a new £100 million package to support people looking for work or those at risk of redundancy – including £60 million for a Young Person’s Guarantee to make sure everyone aged between 16 and 24 has the opportunity of work, education or training.

We have also increased support for those in fuel poverty during the pandemic, supporting over 100 organisations helping those struggling with their energy costs.

We recently committed an additional £55 million over the next five years to help boost energy efficiency schemes – this will help to make homes warmer and cheaper to heat.

We know the value of a home this year more than ever, which is why we are committed to ending homelessness and continuing our significant investment in affordable housing which is shown to reduce child poverty and support jobs, and I am proud we have delivered nearly 96,000 affordable homes since 2007.

We also know homes need to be warm – which is why by 2021 we will have invested over a billion over the past decade in energy efficiency schemes and tackling fuel poverty, making homes warmer and cheaper to heat.

And later this month, the first of our new disability benefits will start with the new Child Winter Heating Assistance which will ensure an extra £200 will go to families of the most seriously disabled children to help with their heating costs.

The impact of the pandemic is severe and profound and we know that to get through it we need kindness, tolerance and to support one another.

That is why since March, we have provided more than £350 million to support communities, enabling councils, charities and community groups to react quickly to help people affected by the pandemic.

This included an increase in our Scottish welfare funds to help people with their bills, housing support, food support and also help for charities, some of which saw their own finances badly affected, so they could continue to help those worst affected.

We also introduced at pace the new £500 Self-Isolation Support Grant to people on low incomes who would face a loss of income if they are asked to self-isolate.

These kinds of measures are vital, but they are no means the end of our actions to reduce poverty and inequality.

As a government, we are constantly looking at new ideas, and learning lessons from the experience of others so we can put new methods into practice.

To this end, we have established a Social Renewal Advisory Board, which includes experts in housing, homelessness, disability and poverty, and we’re listening to those with lived experience of poverty and inequalities as part of that process.

However, while we have and will continue to take a range of action to tackle child poverty, many of the key policy levers in welfare and economic policy remain reserved to the UK Government – Scotland could do even more had we the powers to do so.

We must continue to protect the people of Scotland, and particularly the most vulnerable, from the impact of this virus as far as we can.

But even in the midst of our concerted response to the pandemic – and the hardship and sorrow it has brought – we must do all we can to tackle the poverty and inequality that still exist in 21st century Scotland.

That is why we are working hard to ensure that, after this terrible and testing time has passed, we are a fairer and more equal country.

This article originally appeared in the Daily Record.