By BRUCE ADAMSON, Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland
’Tis the season to be jolly…but if you’re one of the 240,000 children living in poverty in Scotland, there is little to be cheerful about.
Winter, especially the Christmas holidays, is always tough for families in poverty, but it’s even worse in 2020.
Children tell us that the heart-warming adverts on TV bear little resemblance to their reality. There will be no fire to gather around, few presents under the tree (if they have a tree and decorations at all), and no turkey to look forward to. Many will be spending Christmas in cold and damp conditions, with parents and carers under terrible pressure as they choose between heating and eating. The sub-standard housing will be affecting their health. Perhaps the main source of food will be from strangers’ generosity through a foodbank. Children and families tell us the sense of shame, isolation, and hopelessness can be overwhelming.
Teachers tell us of the anxiety which precedes the holidays for some children, and the impact a hard Christmas has on their mental and physical health when they return to classes.
To think of one child having a miserable Christmas is heart-breaking. To think of one child in four in Scotland coping with this is nothing short of disgraceful.
Child poverty is a human rights issue
Child poverty is a human rights issue. It can severely affect a child’s development and have a negative impact on their health, education, family relationships and aspirations. Children have the right to have their family supported, and to benefit from social security. They have a right to an adequate standard of living, including nutritious food and a safe warm home. They have rights to the highest attainable standard of health, to extra support if they are a young carer, or disabled, or care experienced – groups we know who are disproportionately impacted by poverty. The state has an obligation to use available resources to the maximum extent possible to fulfil children’s rights – and it is failing.
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated an already grim situation, but the government can’t say it wasn’t warned. Every five years, this office reports to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child with the other UK Children’s Commissioners on how well the government is upholding children’s rights. In 2016, we were failing. Five years later, we are still failing. We simply have not made the improvements that we should have, and children are suffering.
Last year, we were given another stark warning. When we took the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Professor Philip Alston, to meet children in Glasgow he said that “poverty is a result of political decisions”. He was highly critical of the UK Government and its failure to take a rights-based approach to address child poverty, and urged the Scottish Government to do much more to eradicate it. Unfortunately, things are getting worse, not better in Scotland. This brings shame on our country.
Incorporating the UNCRC will bring about radical change
However, radical change is coming. There is cross-party support for incorporating the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law. This will significantly change the way that government at all levels must approach child poverty. It will no longer be good enough to simply pay lip service to children’s rights; they will be fundamental when it comes to policies, legislation and budgets. The UNCRC demands children are treated as human beings, not simply as passive objects of care and charity.
Article 4 of the UNCRC says that governments must use all available resources to the maximum extent possible to ensure the implementation of economic, social and cultural rights. It isn’t about suddenly finding extra money, it is about using what we have more effectively, and recognising the economic arguments for a rights-based approach to budgeting. This will lead to better education, health, and justice outcomes which will have huge economic benefit.
Article 3 says that governments must act in the best interests of the child. This is crucial. Policies that inflict more misery on children living in poverty will no longer be tolerated.
Something else that won’t be tolerated – thanks to Article 12 – is ignoring children. We aren’t protecting children by excluding their voices and experiences. Children living in poverty know that they’re living in poverty. They see their parents trying to eke out a meal yet they are still hungry. They know no one is coming to fix the damp in their flat. They know they are falling behind at school because their parents can’t afford the necessary technology.
We must include children and young people in these discussions. They want to be part of the solution. A young person told me: “I’d say to the government to make sure all children have the same amount of food no matter what their backgrounds are.” Another said: “Our rights shouldn’t be ignored when decisions affecting us are being made.”
Children have the rights to have their family supported (Article 18) and to benefit from social security (Article 26). Article 27 talks about having an adequate standard of living. It’s hard to believe that children in modern Scotland are living in unsafe, cold, damp, and dangerous conditions, but they are. The state has an obligation to support families, but policies during austerity simply ignored this. One of the best ways to break the cycle of poverty is to fully and properly support parents. We know how devastating it is for parents who are struggling – all they want is the best for their children.
When it comes to tackling poverty, it’s vital to know who is most vulnerable to it and pay special attention to their rights. Families with a disabled child or disabled parent, young carers, children of prisoners or who are care-experienced, and children in single-parent families are most at risk. We know the majority of single parents are women. If we can lift women out of poverty, we will lift their children too.
As we bring in the bells, are we willing to ultimately accept poverty as a fact of life? Do we accept explanations from those in power that they are doing all they can? Young human rights defenders across the country have given their answer as a resounding NO. I join them in believing that this country can do much more. Let’s make the political choice to eradicate child poverty – and maybe by next Christmas, 240,000 more children will have something to smile about.