The Time is Right for a Children’s Wellbeing Budget

March 23, 2021

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By Jackie Brock, Chief Executive, Children in Scotland, Sophie Flemig, Chief Executive, Cattanach and Jennifer Wallace, Head of Policy, Carnegie UK Trust

In so many ways, Scotland is a wonderful place to grow up. In a global context we have free education and health care, access to an environment noted around the world for its beauty, and a society that largely supports young girls to achieve their potential. It would be wrong not to acknowledge these truths. But we also know that we have to do much better. Too many children are left behind, their lives already a struggle before they reach school. The inequalities in our society – be they poverty, gender, violence, hopelessness, racism, disablism and so many more – land at their feet and affect their lives before they can walk.

Last week, our organisations (CUKT, Children in Scotland and Cattanach) jointly published Being Bold: Building Budgets for Children’s Wellbeing. The central premise of this project is that we cannot begin to improve wellbeing across society (the stated aim of the Scottish Government) unless we begin with our youngest children and create the conditions for them to flourish from the outset.

To do this, we need to change how we think about ‘investment’: as processes that allow us to assess the impact of government spend on all aspects of our collective wellbeing. This is complicated work, made more so by a lack of transparency in government approaches to budget setting. We cannot make best use of the expertise we have (both lived and professional) if we do not open the process up to greater involvement, scrutiny, and debate. We do not consider ourselves to be experts in the budget process. We have been learning as we go, guided by Dr Trebeck and supported by Amy Baker, to try to unpick a system that often appears to be a black box to those on the outside trying to understand what happens and why.

Dr Trebeck’s report outlines seven principles for a children’s wellbeing budget:

  • Holistic and human: focus on the relationships that support children. This whole-system approach encompasses support across the suite of factors that shape families’ scope to thrive. This means targeting risk factors that society is responsible for, rather than simply targeting individuals.
  • Outcomes-orientated: focus on and accountability for end results (often at a societal scale) rather than services or spending.
  • Rights-based: the goals of a budget should be to uphold and realise human rights, including those of women and children, and to do so in an accountable, transparent and participatory manner.
  • Long-term and upstream: policymakers should take decisions ‘as if they mean to stay’, rather than confining themselves to projects within one parliamentary term.
  • Preventative: preventing harm by offering support as early as possible and working towards long-term solutions. Prevention (and indeed a multidimensional wellbeing approach) is also about considering present and future generations of children around the world. The fiscal budget needs to operate within a science-based carbon budget that limits overconsumption of the earth’s resources.
  • Precautionary: the evidence base for supporting children in their earliest years and the extent to which this generates long-term benefits is sufficiently sound to be acted upon, even if the evidence is not specific enough to precisely attribute these benefits to a single action.
  • Participatory: children and their families need to be involved across the entire budget process via a creative, inclusive mix of methods that welcomes the experiences and ideas of children and families. Particular effort needs to be made to elevate the voices of those who are often marginalised.

Our first conversations on this project began long before COVID-19, but the events of the last year have convinced us that this work is required more than ever. Over the course of the next few years, as we emerge from the emergency and into the recovery, governments will have to make difficult choices between policies and programmes. Our hope is that these decisions will be guided by the principles that Dr Trebeck has identified and by the immutable logic of human progress: that we wish to leave our children with a world a little better than we found it.