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Taskforce tackling child poverty in Orkney

Taskforce tackling child poverty in Orkney
26 May 2021

Orkney fares better than 22 of the 32 local authority areas across Scotland – when it comes to rising levels of child poverty – but there is no room for complacency.

Often cited as the best place to live and grow up in the UK, Orkney has much to be proud of, but is also a community with a hidden layer of poverty.

Latest research by the Loughborough University on behalf of the End Child Poverty coalition, shows that 22.7 per cent of children in Orkney are living in poverty – a percentage increase of 2.4 per cent in the past five years. Glasgow tops the table at 32.2 per cent and the national average is 24 per cent.

An Orkney Partnership Child Poverty Taskforce was established to drive forward a holistic approach to tackling child poverty and their work sets out a multi-agency approach on how to tackle what is a growing national issue, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Taskforce is made up of the Council and NSH Orkney, Voluntary Action Orkney, Relationships Scotland, Education Scotland, Northern Alliance, Orkney Charitable Trust and THAW.

Jim Lyon, Interim Chief Social Work Officer, Head of Children, Families and Criminal Justice Orkney Health and Care said:

“There is a perception Orkney is an idyllic place to live and bring up children and for many it is. However, we cannot shy away from an undercurrent of poverty which may be less visible than in many other areas, it exists and is rising according to the research.

“The lack of visible poverty makes it difficult to evaluate the true nature of the challenges affecting children and families in Orkney and impacts on the effectiveness of the policy and practice necessary to address them. There are unique challenges in the islands, rural households face an increased cost of living of between 10% to 30% more than children and families living in urban Scotland and this premium is even higher in the smaller isles.

“The Taskforce has undertaken a huge amount of work to identify the best means of supporting children and families experiencing or at risk of poverty.

“Alongside the general work to support children and families in poverty, partner organisations in the Orkney Partnership have been focused on responding to additional need due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The Taskforce has also been developing a Child Poverty Strategy for 2021-23. The strategy, and an accompanying action plan, will set out the context, purpose and aims of our collective work to combat child poverty in Orkney. The Child Poverty Strategy will complement the Children’s Services Plan 2021-23 and build on its strategic priority ‘Overcoming Disadvantage’.”

Mr Lyon explained that the cost of living is higher in rural and island areas due to housing and fuel costs and debt, combined with lower than average wages and the perceived stigma among people in smaller communities to claim the benefits to which they are entitled.

The Taskforce have been working on several areas to:

  • Mitigate the barriers created by the additional cost of living.
  • Ensure that travel opportunities meet the needs of the whole community.
  • Work towards the expansion of Early Years childcare from 600 to 1140 hours.
  • Work in partnership with the community to reduce the perceived stigma of poverty.
  • Increase community participation and involvement of children and young people.

They have also identified the priority groups – lone parents, families where a member of the household is disabled, families with three or more children, minority ethnic families, families where the youngest child is under 1, mothers aged under 25, families and children with experience of the care system and families with children residing on the isles.

Mr Lyon said the situation has been worsened by the pandemic.

“The essential measures taken to mitigate the risk of Covid-19 mean that families, children and young people at times in Orkney have not been as visible as usual to the people and services who would normally have a role in supporting them.

“Many families have experienced and continue to experience extensive challenges. These may include a loss of employment and financial insecurity or less support and protection regarding pre-existing vulnerabilities such as domestic abuse, drug, and alcohol use or physical or mental health difficulties. This has undoubtedly placed additional strains on the families affected.

“We know that these challenges will have a long-term impact on families in Orkney. There have, of course, been some short-term policy initiatives, such as financial support given to families to overcome food and fuel poverty as an immediate measure during the pandemic.

“Although some businesses were eligible for emergency grant support, many businesses (27%) furloughed staff or ceased trading. Orkney's high proportion of micro-businesses, with many individuals working part-time in several occupations, meant some people received no government support.

“As the pandemic continued, more families experienced hardship for the first time and needed information and help to access support networks and services.

“Orkney's economy is dependent on tourism, so the closure of accommodation, food and recreation businesses hit particularly hard, with greater impacts on self-employed and seasonal workers. People whose income relies on summer tourism continue to be badly affected.

“All agencies and partners had to adapt, scale up and enhance services as far as possible to offer more support to families who are struggling with pressures exacerbated by the pandemic and associated economic and social issues. New ways of working were adopted to engage with families and children to deliver services safely, for example, switching from face-to-face meetings to telephone and online interactions. Staff also needed training, support and equipment to work remotely,” Mr Lyon continued.

With a multi-agency approach, families will continue to be supported to maximise their income.

“It is the nature of Orkney’s high level of micro-businesses, fishing and farming that household income can be uneven and unpredictable, making it more difficult for families to claim the benefits to which they might be entitled. Our Housing and Homelessness Teams at OIC work in tandem with the Citizens Advice Bureau continue to offer an advisory service on how to maximise income.

“The stigma of claiming must be tackled as illustrated with the take up rate of free school meals in Orkney. These are things of which people are entitled to, so their children do not have to live in poverty.”

OIC Leader James Stockan said this is a country-wide challenge for the UK and Scottish Governments with additional resources required to help tackle the problem.

“Rural child poverty is very difficult to identify and the ways we do that, without exposing people, are a challenge. We are determined to support the most challenged and vulnerable in our communities. The poverty metric here does not include some of the other factors particularly prevalent in Orkney and those are fuel, transport and digital poverty – which we continue to make representation to the Governments on.

“The Taskforce will continue to co-ordinate and monitor the work being undertaken to combat child poverty in Orkney.”

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Orkney Islands Council: BOREAS DOMUS MARE AMICUS