THE Scottish Government is failing to tackle child poverty adequately, the country’s spending watchdog has warned, with ministers neglecting to set clear milestones.

In a new briefing paper, Audit Scotland said the Government needed far better long-term planning to address the problem, including preventing more children from falling into poverty in the first place instead of focusing efforts on lifting them out of it.

In 2017, MSPs set a target of reducing relative child poverty to 18 per cent by 2023/24 and then to 10% of children by 2030/31.

The Government's issued an initial plan covering 2018 to 2022, but it failed to spell out what its expected impact would be.

Nor did it set out an anticipated trajectory towards hitting the later targets, despite its own Poverty and Inequality Commission repeatedly advising it to link actions to targets.

The briefing said: “Because of this it is not possible to make a proper evaluation of whether the first delivery plans delivered its aims."

Child poverty has risen since the plan was published.

In 2019/20, before the pandemic, some 260,000 or 26% of Scots children were in relative poverty, defined as being in a household below 60% of median income, and that the cost-of-living crisis risked making their plight worse. Over the period 2017-20 it was estimated at 24%.

Children in poverty are more likely to have health problems, including mental health issues, have  fewer qualifications, and suffer stigma and bullying at school. 

The briefing said that with the devolved Scottish Child Payment rising from £10 to £25 per qualifying child per week, child poverty should be below the 18% target in 2023/24, but only on one of the four measures used by ministers.

It also said a second four-year plan covering 2022-26 was better than the first, but more cooperation between Government and councils needed to hit the 2030/31 target.

Auditor General for Scotland Stephen Boyle said: “Poverty affects every aspect of a child’s wellbeing and life chances and has wider implications for society.

“The Scottish Government needs to work with its partners to quickly set out the details of how the second child poverty plan will be delivered, monitored and evaluated.

“Government policy takes time to have an impact on child poverty and so it is essential ministers also act now to set out options for reaching their long-term targets in 2030.”

William Moyes, chair of the Accounts Commission, said: “Councils have a key role to play in tackling child poverty through measures such as housing, education, childcare and employability. But there is limited information available across councils about what they are doing and its impact.

“Better collection and sharing of information about councils’ child poverty work will help support learning and improvement across Scotland.”

Tory MSP Miles Briggs said: “Audit Scotland have delivered a damning, but fully justified, criticism of the SNP Government’s dismal record on child poverty.

“They point out that levels of child poverty have risen since SNP ministers set targets in 2017, and highlight the lack of long-term measures to prevent it and the need for more joint planning between the Scottish Government and local councils.

“One of the most telling indicators of the SNP’s failure is the huge educational attainment gap between youngsters from the most and least deprived backgrounds, which Nicola Sturgeon vowed to – but has comprehensively failed to – eliminate.

“If the SNP’s latest child poverty plan is to have any chance of success, they must reverse years of local government funding cuts and give Scotland’s councils the resources required to tackle this issue.”

Labour MSP Pam Duncan-Glancy said: “The number of children living in poverty in Scotland is nothing short of a national scandal, and it is essential that we meet our legal and moral duty to tackle this. 

“Every single child in poverty is a child too many, and every single day spent in poverty is a day too many.

“Mitigating the negative impacts of poverty is not the same as eradicating it, but this report makes clear that there is much more the Government need to be doing to prevent poverty in the first place.

“The SNP-Green government must listen to this stark warning and start using every lever they have to drive down rates of child poverty and make sure every child in Scotland gets a fair start.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat Willie Rennie said: “The Scottish Government never set out what impact its first child poverty plan was supposed to have. That makes it easy for them to declare success even as poverty rates rise.

"No child should ever have to live in poverty.  

"Knowing that the Government has not done enough to help families, young parents and children is heart-breaking.

“By the age of two, children from the most deprived backgrounds are significantly more likely to have a cause for concern about their development compared to children from the most affluent backgrounds.

“Detecting issues at an early age is so important. Without early intervention the gaps in development, health and attainment only get wider when children reach school."

John Dickie, Director of the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland said: "Audit Scotland is absolutely right to highlight the terrible damage poverty does to children’s wellbeing and life chances, and the need for government to plan ahead to ensure all statutory child poverty targets are met by 2030.

"That must mean supporting families through the cost of living crisis by delivering more immediate cash support and ensuring above-inflation increases so that Scottish benefits at least hold their real terms value next year.  

"Social security needs to play a key role in preventing as well as alleviating child poverty, particularly where parents are unable to work, or work enough hours, due to ill health, disability or caring responsibilities.  

"But as this report makes absolutely clear, to achieve the 2030 child poverty targets a longer term plan needs to be being developed now, especially on how more parents will be able to access decently paid, family friendly jobs.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Tackling child poverty is a national mission.

“We invested an estimated £8.5 billion in supporting low income households between 2018-22, of which £3.3 billion directly benefited children.

“Our second tackling child poverty delivery plan, ‘Best Start, Bright Futures’, sets out our actions to tackle child poverty still further, including our focus on long-term parental employment support, increased social security, and measures to reduce household costs.

“This includes increasing the Scottish Child Payment to £25 per eligible child per week from 14 November, a 150% increase within 8 months, with the ‘game-changing’ anti-poverty benefit also opening to applications for eligible under-16s from that date.

“We welcome the Audit Scotland briefing paper and, together with our partners, will give it careful consideration.”

The Scottish Government said its latest progress report showed it had delivered on all 68 of its committed actions, including introducing the Scottish Child Payment.