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Poverty the number one reason Scotland’s children’s health is among the worse in Europe

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Charities reiterate call for child benefit to be topped up £5 per week by Scottish Government

Child health in Scotland is among the poorest in Europe, a major new study has found.

More than 210,000 children live in poverty in Scotland, a quarter of all children are overweight or obese and a significant number of the country's 400 annual infant or child deaths are potentially avoidable experts say.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health’s (RCPCH) State of Child Health Scotland study used 25 different health rates such as asthma, diabetes and epilepsy, as well as obesity, breastfeeding and mortality, to provide a snapshot of health and wellbeing.

The report’s findings have led to renewed calls from charities for child benefit to be topped up by £5 per week to reduce child poverty – a significant reason for poor child health according to researchers.

Despite finding that Scotland leads the way in areas such as vaccinations and reducing suicide rates among young people, the report’s authors made 12 recommendations including calling for targets to be set on reducing the number of children living in poverty and the proportion who are obese.

They also called for work to be done to improve breastfeeding rates and banning smoking in more public places.

Without interventions to close the gap between rich and poor, and targeted support for those most in need, Scotland will "continue to fail its children" when it comes to their health they said.

“Child health in Scotland is amongst the poorest in Western Europe,” Dr Steve Turner, RCPCH officer for Scotland, said.

“Scottish Government has repeatedly said that children are a priority, and its focus on strong early years provision is heartening. But there are significant gaps and the problem of health inequalities is continuing to grow.

“It is startling that over 29% of pregnant women in the most deprived areas are smokers, compared to just 4.5% in the least deprived, putting babies at risk of complications during pregnancy and birth and increasing the likelihood of cot death or still birth.

“Before a child is even born they are set on a path to ill health. This simply cannot be allowed to continue.”

Reacting to the report both the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) Scotland and Children in Scotland called for child benefit to be topped up by £5 per week.

John Dickie, director CPAG Scotland, said the report was a “stark reminder” that being born into poverty is hugely damaging to children’s health, and it proved once again that poverty remains the biggest cause of poor health amongst Scotland’s children.

“If poverty is the biggest cause then the biggest priority needs to be ending that poverty,” Dickie said.

“The Scottish Government needs to use its new social security powers to boost family incomes. Proposed Best Start grants when children are born, start nursery and start school are hugely welcome but more is needed to make a serious dent in child poverty.

“The power top up child benefit should be used - even a £5 a week top up would reduce child poverty by 14% - meaning 30000 fewer children in poverty and thousand fewer children facing the threat to their health this report highlights.”

Amy Woodhouse, head of policy at Children in Scotland, backed Dickie’s call for the £5 top-up saying her organisation had urged the Scottish Government to be bold and implement it, in its response to the Consultation on Social Security in Scotland last November.

She added that while all of the issues in the report are hugely complex, the inextricable link between child poverty and poor health is indisputable throughout.

“Such inequality is devastating, unacceptable and must be tackled,” Woodhouse told TFN.

“The Scottish Government’s programme this year includes policies and legislation that demonstrate a commitment to reducing inequality and tackling specific issues head on, such as the child poverty bill and the new 10-year mental health strategy. However, it is action on the ground that really touches individual lives and makes a tangible difference.

“Measures to reduce child poverty, such as setting ambitious targets and raising the incomes of those families who are most in need, are vital. But this alone is not enough. It must be matched by investment in the local services and communities that provide essential networks of support – our midwives, health visitors, early years practitioners, teachers, additional support staff and others.”

Speaking on BBC's Good Morning Scotland, public health minister Aileen Campbell defended the government's record, pointing to an increase in early years childcare provision, tackling smoking and its plans to take forward a child poverty bill.

The minister added that Scotland has had success in reducing smoking numbers and is refreshing its strategy on obesity.

On the call for child benefit to be topped up, she said: “We are wanting to do what we can around the new powers that we're getting around welfare reform.

"We're already mitigating the impacts of the bedroom tax, we're already doing a number of things to soften the blow of welfare reforms in the UK.

"What we need to do with the new powers is make sure that those powers can maximise household budgets, can maximise the opportunities that our young people have in life and make sure we have a steely focus on ensuring that young people get their fair chance to flourish, and make improvements on the statistics that we see today."