Fri 31 Mar, 2017

Alison Johnstone

This year, some parents leaving hospital with newborn babies in their arms have also been taking home a baby box.  Providing a bundle of essentials like clothes, books and blankets can help to take some of the stress out of preparing for a new arrival. This is welcome, but we need to keep in mind that many new families need much more than a baby box to give their newborn the best start in life.

Over 200,000 children in Scotland are growing up in poverty, which can have a life-long impact on their health and education.  Pregnant women and families with young children are especially vulnerable to poverty because a new arrival brings huge changes to every parent’s life, and puts a strain on most families’ finances.  Unfortunately, many new parents don’t realise they could be entitled to benefits, tax credits or other financial assistance, and those who think they do need help may not know where to turn.

Across Greater Glasgow and Clyde, an initiative called Healthier, Wealthier Children has changed this, and in September I convinced the health secretary to roll the programme out across Scotland.  Healthier, Wealthier Children has raised over £13 million for families in the areas over the last seven years.  That’s £13 million going directly into the pockets of parents at risk of poverty.  The programme is so successful because trusted frontline NHS staff like midwives and health visitors help all pregnant women and new families to discuss their financial circumstances.  They can then refer people who might be in difficulty to high-quality, local money advice services.  Experienced advisors can check their eligibility for support and help them apply for benefits.

Navigating our complex benefits system is difficult enough at the best of times, without trying to do it all in between bath times and nappy changes.   So it’s essential to give all parents the opportunity to get expert financial help.  Many money advice services who worked with the programme said they had little experience of advising pregnant women and families with young children.  This shows that setting up a trusted pathway for families is vital.  Money advice workers also developed better ways to support busy parents, offering advice on the phone and home visits too. 

One in five of the families Healthier, Wealthier Children helped received a disability living allowance payment.  It’s terrible to think that those families might have struggled on without the income they need to care for a disabled child.  Incredibly, some families gained over £3000.  That makes a real difference to a family’s weekly food shop, helps to pay energy bills, and meet all the other costs that pile up week in week out.  There are similar programmes to help boost families’ incomes in other NHS boards too.  I know NHS Lothian and NHS Highland are leading excellent work to improve families’ finances.  But we need them to reach every parent and child in Scotland.  That’s why the Scottish Greens have been campaigning for this approach to be adopted everywhere, and I’m pleased the health secretary has listened.

By using our role in opposition constructively, the Scottish Greens are achieving real change for families -  making Scotland a fairer, healthier place to grow up.  We must make tackling child poverty a real priority now because, sadly, it’s predicted to rise.  Welfare reforms are hitting families hard.  The UK Government’s decision to scrap targets to reduce child poverty was a disgrace, and I’m glad to see the Scottish Government put forward the Child Poverty Bill, bringing commitments to reduce child poverty back into law. 

But setting targets is not enough, we need bold action to tackle child poverty.   Successful income maximisation programmes like Healthier, Wealthier Children are leading the way.  On Monday the Scottish Parliament’s social security committee met in Glasgow to listen to expert evidence on the Child Poverty Bill.  We heard that Healthier, Wealthier Children has been a vital way of boosting families’ incomes.  We also heard that the group most affected by welfare reform are working age lone parents, who are losing an average of around £2500 a year.  Unfortunately, many people in work have no idea they’re eligible for financial help.  In fact, over 100 000 people in Scotland could be losing out on tax credits – a combined total of £428 million goes unclaimed every year.  We must change this.

The Government’s review of maternity care calls for every pregnant woman to have a lead midwife responsible for their antenatal care.  This gives midwifes a real chance to get to know mothers and families, taking individual circumstances into account.  It’s the ideal opportunity to provide good financial advice to every growing family in Scotland.   This will help financially vulnerable families to gain at least £2.3 million every year.  Scottish Greens in Parliament and in your council will fight for them to get that help fast.

This article first appeared in The National.

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