Scotland's poverty crisis means children now “face a daily war to survive”, according to one of the nation’s most influential charity leaders.

Mary Glasgow, chief executive of Children 1st - the charity formerly known as the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children - spoke out about the damage poverty is doing to the nation’s most vulnerable children in an emotional interview in today’s Herald on Sunday.

She says that the brutalising effects of poverty mean that childhood itself is becoming shorter and shorter in Scotland as young people are forced to face adult fears much earlier than previous generations.

“We don’t let children be children for any real length of time. We aren’t protecting childhood, never mind children. This will absolutely come back to bite us.” 

Glasgow says the crisis facing children is “enormous. Families are just completely overwhelmed by how difficult things are, and there’s no respite”.

The charity leader added: “Honestly, I’m overwhelmed by the enormous levels of poverty we see.”

An estimated 10,000 Scottish children are homeless today and living in temporary accommodation, like cheap B&Bs, sometimes for up to two years. One-in-four Scottish children live in poverty, though Glasgow believes that statistic is an underestimation. “It’s horrific,” she says.

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One of Glasgow's staff was on the verge of tears recently as he described a mother “surviving on toast” so her children could eat. “There are children who are having childhoods that are absolutely heartbreaking.”

She described Dickensian conditions with “children living in cold houses where there’s not enough food. Today, we have to make sure children have beds to sleep in, that they’ve school clothes and shoes to wear and that their most basic needs are met. But it’s 2024.

“Children are living in circumstances they haven’t created or have any control over. It’s cruelty”.

Parents are struggling “to even keep children warm and fed”. The Scottish government isn’t “spending money in the right places,” Glasgow says. “I get furious about what’s happening. We must find a way out of this”.

Children 1st has “seen huge increases in the number of families where poverty is the main issue”. Previously, Children 1st dealt mostly with child neglect. Today, it’s poverty.

The Herald: Child poverty

“The majority of children we support now live in families where poverty is having a huge impact on their lives. They simply don’t have money to cover the basics.”

When Glasgow asks her 300 staff about the main issue they’re dealing with, “quick as that they say ‘poverty’. If I’d asked a few years ago, poverty wouldn’t have been first. 

“We’re not a poverty charity. We’re about keeping children safe. Five years ago, the biggest issue would have been addiction or domestic abuse.

“Now our staff say ‘how can we even talk to parents about creating safe environments at home when they’re absolutely terrified about how they’re going to pay their bills or get food on the table’.

“People are carrying a level of anxiety that I don’t think we’ve seen before and it’s not getting any better.”

Poverty is “having the most dreadful, catastrophic impact on children’s development, health and wellbeing,” Glasgow says.

Glasgow believes “there’s real risk we’re slipping back to a Victorian-style gap between rich and poor. The level of inequality between those who have enough and those who don’t will have devastating longterm consequences for Scotland if we don’t take urgent action to change things.

“We must make different choices about where we spend money and I can’t think of anything more important than the health, safety and wellbeing of our country’s children”.

She added: “What are we doing to protect childhood? Childhood should be a safe phase. That’s being taken away from many children far too quickly.”

Poverty is just getting “deeper,” Glasgow says. “Previously, when we talked about children in poverty, we didn’t think of parents who worked coming to organisations like us for support”. That’s changed.

Glasgow is deeply troubled by “the uncomfortable tolerance that’s growing” towards child poverty. “People often deny children’s pain, they don’t want to look at it. There’s the temptation to turn away. That’s happening now in our country. Children face a daily war to survive. We can’t turn away from that.”

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There’s also “Victorian judgement and unkindness” in society now towards poverty. Children and families “shouldn’t be stigmatised because they’re struggling to manage on meagre amounts of money”.

Glasgow added: “Children feel that shame. It’s not their shame, it should be ours. But they carry the burden of guilt about poverty.

“Again, that erodes the notion of a carefree childhood in which to grow and develop without the worries of the adult world. These worries start very young for too many children.”

Mental health is a “ticking time-bomb” for children. Meanwhile, “investment in children’s mental health services is shrinking”.

In terms of Scottish government policy, “the ideas and rhetoric around children are very good, but when it comes to real action and investment, that’s when it falls down”.

She called on politicians to quit blaming each other and work together to solve child poverty. “What comes first for them is the interest of their party or the government, when actually we’re in a crisis right now that we’ve never known before.

“It’s time this tribal nonsense was gone. This generation of children need leaders to act right now”.

“We’re failing to recognise children’s needs, we’re failing to look after them the way we should,” Glasgow said. “It’s as a society, as governments, that we’re certainly not giving children the attention, care, love, and investment they require.”

She added: “A decent childhood should be at the centre of everything government does … The very notion of how long childhood lasts is getting shorter and shorter before the adult world and its fears come crashing in.

“We’ve got to protect childhood. But government money is always diverted to other places, and it’s always the most vulnerable who end up paying the price: our children.”