This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

It's not easy as a reporter to admit but some speeches by politicians have brought me close to tears.

First Minister Humza Yousaf's statement this week on the Middle East and the unfolding humanitarian tragedy in Gaza was one, particularly when he spoke about the children caught up in the horrors.

A wave of sadness hit me when a few years back Nicola Sturgeon described the plight of the little Syrian boy Alan Kurdi whose three-year-old body was washed up on a beach after his family tried to flee the war in their country.

And rather unexpectedly a similar sucker punch caught me at the Liverpool exhibition centre at one point during Sir Keir Starmer's speech to his party conference earlier this month. (Yes really).

The moment was when the Labour leader told of a chance encounter with a single mother of two young children struggling to make ends meet.

He used the episode to reflect on the long-term psychological effects of poverty and inequality on an individual, and alluded to his own imposter syndrome glitches, before dwelling on the wasted potential that poverty creates for society as a whole.

"She said to me: 'It's survival mode. I can't think 'oh let's do something nice'", Starmer told the hall as he related the conversation. "I could see the hurt in her eyes as she told me. That's what the cost of living crisis does. It intrudes on the little things we love. Whittles away at our joy."

He went on: "At some point in your life, many people will have heard a nagging voice inside, saying no this isn't for you. You don't belong here. You can't do that. Working class people certainly hear that voice, trust me. In some ways, it's the hardest class ceiling of all... Imagine if a whole country said we back your potential... then look at what we could build."

Starmer's words came back to me again when the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a report on poverty this week which warned the number of children in the most extreme poverty had more than doubled since 2017 across the UK.

It was hardly cause to celebrate, but the report did note that Scotland had seen "by far the lowest rise".

The charity found that across the UK, there were an estimated 3.8 million people suffering from destitution – including more than one million children. Rates of destitution – where people are not able to afford to meet their basic needs to stay warm, dry, clean and fed – were highest in the London borough of Newham.

The Herald: The Joseph Rowntree Foundation warned that children in extreme poverty had more than doubled since 2017The Joseph Rowntree Foundation warned that children in extreme poverty had more than doubled since 2017 (Image: Newsquest)
It found that destitution was increasing much more slowly in Scotland than in the rest of the UK due to the impact of the Scottish Child Payment – a benefit worth £25 per week per child for each eligible family – as well as other welfare spending. However, it stated that Glasgow remained one of the council areas with the highest levels of destitution, placing 26th in the UK.

Standing back from the stark figures to reflect on Starmer's words, it's hard not to think of the personal impact of poverty on so many people – almost 4 million. That's a huge amount of suffering, blighted lives and wasted talents.

Pessimistically, it can almost look like an intractable problem. But, John Dickie, director of the Child Poverty Action Group, told The Herald, it is not.

"There is nothing inevitable about these levels of poverty in a rich country. The evidence is clear that government action can prevent and reduce poverty – as well as increase it."

"Eyewatering UK government cuts to social security have been the key driver of rising child poverty across the UK over the last decade. These cuts have left people brutally exposed to the impact of Covid, the cost-of-living crisis and an all too often precarious labour market – resulting in the shocking levels of destitution uncovered in this week’s report from the JRF. 

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"We need to see all the UK party leaders commit to restoring the social security system – including raising child benefit and the child element of universal credit – as part of a wider strategy to tackle poverty."

Dickie praised the Scottish Government for introducing the Scottish Child Payment, however, with the Scottish Budget looming in December, he warned "the harsh reality is that the actual costs families face are still outstripping additional Holyrood supports".

He argued while the "First Minster’s commitments on tackling poverty are welcome" they have not "been backed up by the kind of substantive additional action now needed".

He said: "All eyes must now be on his first budget. At the very, very least we need to see him deliver an increase to the child payment to the £30 a week he pledged in his leadership campaign.

"At the same time it is vital that schools and wider public services are funded adequately so that children from the lowest income families can access all the sports, arts and learning opportunities their better off peers take for granted."

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In the coming weeks Mr Yousaf will face the challenge of how to prioritise government spending, who to support and where to make the inevitable cuts.

Politicians are far from being the most popular members of society, but one thing's for sure, looking at the world about us today and the country we're in, they are in the best position to bring about change – good or bad – and reduce or add to the toll of suffering.