Concern in the islands as child poverty figures have risen

Child poverty rates in the Western Isles could be nearly 20 per-cent, a recent interim report produced by NHS Western Isles and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, has concluded.

Tuesday, 16th February 2021, 5:16 pm
The report details that parents who have lost jobs or been furloughed has created cost of living pressures

With factors such as increases in the cost of living and with earnings locally remaining below the Scottish average, child poverty in the islands has increased by more than two per cent over the last five years, according to the reports authors, with the cost of housing highlighted as a significant factor, increasing child poverty rates locally by just under one-third.

Data in the report concludes that 847 children were experiencing poverty in 2020, an increase from 768 in 2015.

The figures are revealed in an interim update to the Local Child Poverty Action Report for 2019-2020,

Children who normally get free school meals have received some help.

The report was due to be published last June, but due to the ‘significant demands’ the Covid-19 pandemic placed on the NHS and the local authority, publication was delayed with the interim update being published toward the end of January 2021.

The interim report also focuses on the impact of Covid-19 on the economy of the Western Isles and the resultant effect on child poverty.

The report states that at the onset of the global pandemic early in 2020 the Comhairle, NHS and other partners to the report, ‘focused their child poverty efforts wholly on mitigating against the many new challenges and restrictions that the virus brought’, and this meant that ‘other priorities included in the report were delayed or superseded’.

'There is no doubt that Covid-19 has significantly impacted the economy of the Western Isles and has had a resultant effect on child poverty’ the report adds, and, 'whist much is being done to mitigate against the initial challenges, it will be well into 2021 before we will be able to fully appreciate the effect on the economy, employment and support services in the community'.

In terms of child poverty, according to the report, examples of the work undertaken by the partnership during the pandemic, includes ensuring the most vulnerable children were supported through ‘prompt access’ to emergency childcare and free school meals or payments, the introduction of ‘new mechanisms’ to deliver food to the most vulnerable families and those most affected by lock-down and shielding requirements, and by providing families with energy, money and welfare rights advice, access to crisis grants, replacement essential home appliances such as fridges, cookers and support to sustain tenancies.

In terms of income from employment, the report states that while national data suggests an increase in gross weekly income in the Western Isles, this data pre-dates the pandemic and, the report concludes, ‘it is clear that there has been a significant negative impact on employment, through loss of work, reduced hours and restrictions on workplace operations’.

Whilst this has been ‘partially off-set’ by the Government’s job retention and self-employment support schemes, the report's authors comment, data indicates that 24 per cent - approximately 3100 employees - were furloughed by August 2020, and an additional 700 made claims for self-employment support.

Whilst this financial support, equivalent to an estimated £1.7m, ‘has sustained families locally’, the report adds, ‘it is too early to measure the true cost of employment changes on child poverty locally yet’.

In the period covered by the report , applications for Universal Credit more than doubled in the Western Isles, from 350 up to 870.

Cost of living pressures also increased during the pandemic, according to the report, which highlights factors such as the ‘high demand for some goods and restricted mobility and access to services’, and its authors predict that family debt will increase ‘as savings have been used up during the lock-down and bills have been deferred’.

Amongst the priorities set out in the report for the work of its partners in tackling child poverty in 2021 is a drive to gather more evidence of the local ‘lived experience’ of child poverty, improving ‘identification and reach to target groups’, address factors relating to fuel poverty, and to work in ‘food access, food sustainability and healthy eating’.

Western Isles MSP, Dr Alasdair Allan said: “It comes, sadly, as little surprise to hear that the global pandemic has impacted on child poverty in the islands, just as it has done across the UK.

“In the islands, sectors like tourism, transport and construction have all been hit at various points in the pandemic, and the necessary step of closing schools always presents difficulties for the families struggling most. The Scottish Government has worked hard to mitigate the impact of all this where it can, though it is obvious that many people continue to suffer.

“The pandemic, of course, came at a time when child poverty rates were already being pushed up by some very unwelcome changes to the benefits system made by the UK Government. The implementation of universal credit has, in my view, as much to do with this as the pandemic does.

“Child poverty remains a scourge. It is as well to reflect that in some other small northern European countries the kind of child poverty seen in the UK is virtually unknown. We all need to ensure that, when we build back after the pandemic, we do so in a way that does not leave struggling families behind.”

NHSWI were approached for comment but no response had been received