MORE than 70 charities, trade unions, faith groups, health professionals and social policy experts have joined forces today to call on the SNP leadership contenders to keep child poverty a top government priority if they become First Minister.

The call, coordinated by End Child Poverty members in Scotland, comes as the ballot opens tomorrow for SNP members to start voting for their new party leader and ahead of the two more TV debates this week.

The signatories to the letter – including the General Secretary of the STUC Roz Foyer, the Unite, Unison and EIS trade unions, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health as well as front-line charities and faith groups across Scotland - urge Kate Forbes, Ash Regan and Humza Yousaf to commit to build on what they describe as the “hugely positive progress” made under the current First Minister.

In the open letter they say they are pleased to hear the candidates all agree on the need for further increases to the Scottish child payment - made during the STV debate last Tuesday - as the job of ending child poverty is far from being achieved.

They point to official statistics showing one in four children are still living in poverty and say rising costs are outstripping additional Scottish government supports.

The 2017 Child Poverty (Scotland) Act introduced by the Scottish Government and backed by all the Holyrood parties requires ministers to meet statutory targets, including to ensure fewer than 18 per cent of children are living in poverty by 2023/24 and less than 10 per cent by 2030.

"We were very pleased to hear you all agree on the need for further increases to the Scottish Child Payment in the first televised leadership debate. But we know the job is very far from being achieved and we now ask you to commit to keep ending child poverty at the very top of the Scottish Government’s priorities, if you become the new leader of the SNP, and subsequently the next First Minister," the letter said.

"One in four children are still officially recognized as living in poverty and recent analysis from Loughborough University shows a harsh reality of rising costs outstripping additional Scottish Government supports.

"Between April and September 2022, the Trussell Trust network alone distributed almost 40,000 parcels for children in Scotland, the most ever.

"These levels of child poverty damage not just individual children and families, they also impose huge costs on local and national government budgets and place a brake on our economic future."

The letter went onto say that meeting legal targets by 2030 will require a Scottish Government that does not just sustain and secure current policy but builds on it.

It said further investment in the Scottish Child Payment would be needed along with action to tackle women’s poverty, increase family friendly employment opportunities and improve access to funded high quality childcare.

"We therefore ask you to set out the additional polices you would bring forward to address these barriers to further progress and commit to ensuring the statutory targets set out in the 2017 Child Poverty (Scotland) Act are met," the letter added.

"There is nothing inevitable about child poverty. With political will, sustained and deep commitment, and the right policies in place it can be eradicated. We now look forward to hearing your views on how you will build on the progress already made and help turn the vision of a Scotland free of child poverty into a reality."

Speaking on behalf of members of the End Child Poverty coalition, John Dickie, Director of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in Scotland said: "Huge progress has been made by the Scottish Government to put in place the building blocks needed to end child poverty.

"Investment in the Scottish child payment has relieved pressure on hard pressed families and brought legally binding child poverty targets within reach.

"But far too many children are still locked in hardship, and it is now vital that those vying to be next First Minister commit to not just sustain current policies but build on them.

"We want to hear the candidates spell out what action they will take on social security, employment, childcare, housing and family support to ensure no child in Scotland is left in poverty.”

Tackling child poverty is currently described by the Scottish Government as a "national mission" and one of its top three strategic priorities.

A recent Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis found that as a result of Scottish tax and benefit policies “amongst the poorest 30 per cent of households, those with children will see their incomes boosted by around a sizeable £2,000 a year on average” compared with the system in England and Wales.

Members of End Child Poverty in Scotland include Aberlour Child Care Trust, Action for Children, Barnardo’s Scotland, Children 1st, Children in Scotland, Close the Gap, Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in Scotland, Home-Start UK, includem, One Parent Families Scotland (OPFS), Oxfam Scotland, Parenting Across Scotland, Poverty Alliance, Save the Children, The Trussell Trust.

Ms Forbes, the finance secretary, has throughout the SNP leadership campaign made combating child poverty in Scotland a key commitment linking it with the need to grow the economy and create jobs.

On Friday she said that tackling the issue will be her “overriding mission” if she is elected First Minister.

She made the remarks during a visit to Raploch in Stirling, where she met with parish minister Reverend Barry Hughes as well as other local community groups.

She said it was not enough to “deal with the symptoms” but instead that the “root causes” of poverty had to be tackled head on.

“Eradicating poverty in Scotland is my overriding mission as a politician. I think it’s disgraceful that one in four children live in poverty - going to bed hungry, cold or lonely every night," she said.

“The SNP has made great strides through the Scottish Child Payment, but we urgently need to do more. I believe we need to completely transform the way we beat poverty, through fair, secure employment, investing more in frontline services and charities and making child poverty a national mission.

“This can only be done if we make the Scottish economy more prosperous because that creates more, better jobs and raises more funding to reinvest in front line services. We cannot just deal with the symptoms of poverty, we need to tackle the root causes.”

The electronic ballot opens for SNP members to vote in the leadership election and continues until March 27 at midday.

Votes are then counted with the winner expected to be announced later that day.

The winner then becomes the SNP's nominee for First Minister with MSPs then voting in parliament on whether to approve the nomination.