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No time for complacency in battling child poverty

There is good news in the report on child poverty published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, but there is danger in it too.

The good news is the proportion of children living in poverty in Scotland appears to have dropped by 10% in the 10 years to 2011/12 - compared to 6% in England. The danger is that policy-makers allow these figures to lull them into a false sense that the future is looking better for Scotland's poorest families when quite the opposite is the case.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation itself is well aware of this danger. As the report says, child poverty in Scotland has fallen by almost twice the level in England but Jim McCormick, the Foundation's advisor in Scotland, says progress on reducing child poverty has stalled. The Coalition Government may be committed to a so-called legally binding target of reducing relative child poverty to 10% by 2020 - around half what it is now - but the proportion of children living in poverty in the UK is still higher than it was 30 years ago.

And, whatever the new figures from Joseph Rowntree might suggest, Scotland has no reason to feel complacent. For example, we still lag behind England in the provision of child-care and early years services to disadvantaged families. Scotland also has the worst record in the UK on helping poor students reach university (one of the surest ways out of poverty).

As for the precise reasons Scotland appears to have made more progress on child poverty than England in recent years, they are hard to discern. It may be that parents in Scotland are in a better position to access jobs, making it more likely both parents are in work. It may also be that some of the Scottish Government's policies - such as offering compensation to some families affected by the bedroom tax - have had an effect.

However, as Joseph Rowntree points out, there is a limit to what the Scottish Government can do at a time when the UK Government is pursuing an all-out attack on benefits. Whatever Scotland does, as the knife cuts deeper into welfare more children will be driven into poverty and the advances made since 2001 will be reversed. John Dickie, head of the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, believes the benefit reforms could lead to what he calls an explosion in child poverty.

Only a profound change in policy can prevent this and Alan Milburn, who leads the Child Poverty Commission, has already identified some of the areas where improvement could be made. The first is those two areas where Scotland lags behind England: early-years care and university education. It is vital the Scottish Government remains firm in pushing universities to award more places to people from deprived backgrounds.

The issue of poverty in work also requires urgent attention. Most children in poverty live in households where at least one parent works, but a benefits crackdown will only make matters worse. A focus on raising low wages, on the other hand, could genuinely transform the prospects for Scotland's poorest families. Despite the good news in the Joseph Rowntree report, such a transformation is still a long way off.

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