Skip to main content

10/04/18 09:50

First Minister's speech with UNICEF on child poverty

Beijing, China

Tuesday 10 April 2018

Thank you, Vice President Hu.

It is a real pleasure to be here with you today. I’m delighted to speak once again at the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC).

I am very grateful for everything this organisation does to strengthen the ties between our Scottish Affairs Office in Beijing, and the Chinese Government’s State Council – and I’m aware that that’s just one example of the good work you do to forge friendships with countries around the world.

I’m also delighted that this event is being hosted today by Unicef. I know how important Unicef’s work is here in China. And I hugely appreciate the work of Unicef’s Scotland office – for example your programme for rights respecting schools, helps Scottish schoolchildren to accept and appreciate difference and diversity. In fact, the Scottish Government and Unicef are currently exploring some very exciting ideas about how we can work together even more closely in the future.

Today, I’ve been asked to speak specifically about children’s rights and equity. Both of these issues are I know of deep interest to CPAFFC and Unicef. For example last year you jointly held a consultation on cognitive capital. That’s the term given to the set of skills and abilities, such as communication and creativity, that allow people - especially young people - to interact with others, to contribute to the world, and to enjoy happy and fulfilling lives.

And I think that right – the right to enjoy a happy and fulfilling life – is a right that we owe to every single child, everywhere in the world. Among other things, the consultation highlighted the importance of supporting development early in childhood – as you found, doing that helps to improve brain development, increase future life chances and enhance children’s rights.

And I think the summary of that event, right at the start, makes a hugely important point. It says that investing in children “fulfils a moral imperative” and is also “one of the highest return investments a country can make”.

These two ideas will underpin much of what I say this morning. For China, for Scotland, and indeed for all nations, promoting children’s rights, and tackling child poverty, is both a moral obligation and an economic necessity.

Now, in some respects, this is a particularly appropriate year to examine the issue of children’s rights.

In December, we will mark the 70th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. That declaration - as well as upholding the inherent dignity and equal rights of all individuals – also recognised that children are entitled to special care and assistance.

The Declaration was of course followed in 1959 by the Declaration of the Rights of Children, and in 1989 by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

As well as being the 70th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights, 2018 is also, for Scotland, our Year of Young People – a year in which we seek to celebrate the contribution that young people make to our society.

As part of our Year of Young People, the Scottish Government is considering how best we can strengthen children’s rights. For example we are supporting efforts to give children the same levels of protection as adults when it comes to physical assault. We are also considering how the principles of the UN Convention can best be reflected in domestic laws and policies.

And we are committed to a three-year programme to raise awareness of children’s rights, including amongst children and young people themselves.

In doing all of that we are of course aware that children are dependent on their families, carers and on wider society for their development. So how people’s rights are respected in that wider society also has a big impact on the rights of children.

And we also know that children don’t simply have a right to protection from harm – vital though that is. Countries which sign up to the UN Convention also promise to provide positive support for children; they pledge specifically to encourage “the development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential.”   They have a duty to support and cherish every child.

For China, that imperative is reflected in your National Programme of Action for Children. It recognises the importance of young people’s rights, health and welfare.

And it has led to some hugely significant achievements. For example, since 2011, China has built 60,000 nurseries or kindergartens; in fact, early education is being provided to 10 million more young children, than was the case seven years ago.

In addition, President Xi has pledged to eliminate absolute poverty by 2020. That work on poverty reduction, and addressing regional imbalances, will make a big difference to children and families. And at last year’s 19th National Party Congress, President Xi also gave strong indications that children will be a priority area for China after 2020.

In fact, in his address to the congress, President Xi said that “A nation will only prosper when its young people thrive.”

His comments recognise that if children don’t have a fair chance to flourish, it doesn’t just blight their individual life chances – although that in itself is a good enough reason to take action – they are less likely to contribute their effort, talent and ideas to society. In other words, child poverty doesn’t just impoverish children, it impoverishes all of us.

That’s one of the reasons why - as Unicef and CPAFFC pointed out last year - support for young children will be vital for China in the years ahead. As your population ages, and as economic growth moves more and more towards a knowledge-based economy, it becomes ever more important to ensure that everyone can fulfil their potential.  

Of course Scotland is starting from a different position from China, and we are dealing with a vastly smaller population. But we can still recognise many of the issues you face.

We also have an ageing population – although of course I think it’s important to say that the fact that people are living for longer is welcome and positive, it is a good development. We are also moving more and more to a knowledge-based economy. Making the most of everyone’s talents is an even greater imperative now than in the past. And we recognise our overwhelming moral obligation to ensure that every child has a fair chance to flourish.

So we are providing additional targeted support to those who need it most and doing more to tackle child poverty. A comment as being made already this morning, it is important to measure child poverty – you can’t fix something if you don’t know and understand the scale of it.

And in Scotland we are determined to make sure we understand the scale of the problem in order that we are accountable for the steps we take to address that problem. And right now in Scotland, around a quarter of children grow up in poverty. That number has increased in recent years, as welfare cuts imposed by the UK Government have frozen, reduced or withdrawn the support available to families with children. And estimates suggest that if we do nothing about that trend, the problem will grow further. By 2030, more than a third of children in Scotland could be growing up in poverty.

The Scottish Government’s view of that is simple: that is not acceptable and we are not willing to sit back and allow that to happen.

That’s why last year the Scottish Parliament passed a new legislation, a new Child Poverty Act, which sets a number of targets to tackle child poverty. It requires us to take action so that by 2030, the number of children growing up in relative poverty isn’t one in three; it will be reduced to just one in ten. It’s important to say that one in ten is still of course way too many, but it will be a significant reduction compared to the current scale of the problem we face.

Just two weeks ago, the Scottish Government published our first delivery plan for tackling child poverty, based on advice from our independent Poverty and Inequality Commission.

The delivery plan sets out more than 50 wide-ranging actions we will take over the next 4 years to help children and families– from financial support for costs such as food, heating and school uniforms, to helping parents improve their employment and career prospects so they can earn more to support their families.

I know that my Scottish colleagues with us today will be keen to share more with you about our 50 actions, during the roundtable discussion later.

Those new actions go alongside other work. There is strong evidence that children who have experienced a number of adverse childhood experiences, as they are sometimes called – for example physical abuse, or the divorce of their parents, or poverty – they are more likely to do badly at school, or to struggle to find employment. So we are making it a priority to provide better help and support for them and to do so much earlier in the life of children.

We are also reviewing our care system. The government owes a duty to children who for whatever reason cannot be looked after by their parents – in fact, it’s one of the most important responsibilities a government can have. Those children need the best possible support – perhaps most fundamentally of all, they need to know that they are cared for and loved.

During the course of the review, we are making sure that we hear from young people themselves. I have promised to meet personally with as many young people who have experienced care system as possible.

It’s one of the ways in which we are ensuring that children themselves have a say in decisions which will affect them. In fact, the importance of children having a voice runs through all of our work – six weeks ago, for example, the Scottish Cabinet held a joint meeting with members of Scotland’s youth parliament and members of Scotland’s children’s parliament.  We know that children can’t simply be passive recipients of rights. They need and deserve a voice and a role in the decisions which affect them during childhood and which will affect them throughout their lives.

In all of our work to improve support for children, Scotland - and again, this is an issue which I know is relevant in China -  is striking a balance between targeted support, and high quality universal provision.  We believe that the improvements we are making to universal services will benefit all children, but will particularly benefit children from deprived or disadvantaged backgrounds. 

During this morning’s discussion you’ll hear about our efforts to double the amount of free childcare available to all 3 and 4 year olds, and you’ll also hear about our major drive to raise attainment in our schools and close the gap between schools in the most affluent and the most deprived communities.

And let me share with you another example of universal provision, of which I am personally very proud.

 Since last August, parents of all new born babies in Scotland have received what we call a ‘baby box’.  The baby box arrives two weeks before your child is born and it includes a range of essential items that every parent need for their babies - such as clothes, thermometers, a range of basic items that all parents need and find useful but which in some cases parents themselves might not be able to buy.

In addition, the boxes encourage early contact between families and healthcare workers. And these boxes also have a symbolic value. Because baby boxes are provided to all babies, regardless of their background, they send out a very important message that in Scotland, we value each child equally – and we will do everything we can to support and encourage their potential.

It’s a further way in which we are striving to live up to the spirit, as well as the letter, of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. And we are recognising the inherent truth set out 70 years ago in the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”.

It’s also worth pointing out that the baby box is not a unique Scottish idea – it’s an idea we borrowed from Finland. So it provides an example of something which I think it’s very important - in everything we do, we are determined to share our own experience, but we are also determined to learn from –other countries across the world. And this is the spirit in which we are looking forward to today’s event.

China and Scotland will inevitably sometimes have different perspectives and different starting points – but we have a strong friendship and partnership, as I have seen throughout my visit here, and we also share common interests and common challenges. For example, how we implement and live up to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

We also both recognise that nothing is more fundamental to our future success, than the support and care we provide for our young people. We know that by tackling poverty and promoting equity; by supporting education and childcare; and by recognising and strengthening children’s rights; we can meet our moral obligations while laying the foundations for future prosperity and wellbeing.

If today’s event can play even a small part, in helping us to do that more effectively, it will bring great benefits certainly for Scotland, for China, and ultimately for the wider world.

That’s why I am delighted to be here this morning. And it’s why I’m glad to see so many of you here. I wish all of you, all the best, for a very productive morning of discussions.

Thank you all very much indeed