SCOTLAND’S social work chiefs have raised significant concerns about the impact of welfare cuts on the country’s most vulnerable children.

They believe the changes championed by Iain Duncan Smith when Work and Pensions Secretary will increase the number of youngsters living in poverty, placing them at a higher risk of abuse, poor health and low educational attainment.

They also said the reforms may lead to more children and young people ending up homeless, turning to drugs and getting involved in anti-social behaviour and crime.

The intervention comes as the debate over austerity and the Coalition Government’s welfare reforms continues to be a key issue in the lead-up to General Election on May 7.

The stark warning was made in a written submission by Social Work Scotland, formerly the Association of the Directors of Social Work, to a Holyrood committee.

“Scotland has achieved a decrease in child poverty rates in recent years. It is anticipated that welfare reform will undermine this progress,” it said.

“Research consistently shows that children who grow up in poverty are vulnerable to certain types of maltreatment – particularly neglect and physical abuse.

“Children in poverty have an increased risk of adverse experiences or negative outcomes – both long- and short-term. These include poor health (physical and mental), death from illness or accident, educational disadvantage and disaffection, unemployment, poverty during adulthood, criminalisation from anti-social behaviour or offending and are more likely to be victims of crime.”

It added: “Poverty is linked to violence, criminal damage and drug use more than other types of offending.”

Among the sweeping reforms introduced by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition at Westminster were a tightening of eligibility for sickness and housing benefits and a reduction in help with childcare for working parents through changes to tax credits.

The reforms also included a stepping up of sanctions on jobseekers breaching rules as well as the introduction of the the so-called “bedroom tax”, which reduces housing benefit to claimants assessed as having a spare bedroom in their home. The SNP have said they are scrapping the tax in Scotland.

The Social Work Scotland submission to Holyrood’s Welfare Reform Committee raised particular fears about the impact of Universal Credit – a new “super-benefit” replacing six existing benefits including Jobseeker’s Allowance, tax credits, Income Support and housing benefit.

It will mean households will have to pay their rents to a landlord rather than the rent being paid directly to the landlord by the state. The social work bosses fear households on tight budgets may end up not paying their rents and being evicted.

Their submission said: “Basically, children who experience homelessness are more likely to group up with respiratory illness, poor mental health and are twice as likely to leave school without basic qualifications.

“Increased homelessness is widely anticipated as a result of Universal Credit being paid directly to individuals.”

They also believe the reforms will increase pressure on frontline local authority services tasked with supporting the vulnerable, and that councils may lose revenue as households on tight budgets find it difficult to pay rent.

During the General Election campaign SNP and Labour have been battling over which party has the better alternative policies to welfare reforms, while the Conservatives insist the programme was necessary as a means of getting more people into work while strengthening the economy and cutting the budget deficit.

The Tories have also pledged to step up the reforms if re-elected, reducing the welfare budget by a further £12 billion a year by 2017-18 and reducing the benefits cap to £23,000 per household a year.

Last month Professor Steve Fothergill, of the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University, said welfare reforms would cost Scots £1.5bn a year by 2018, and households with young children would be hit by about two-thirds of the benefit losses.

The most recent statistics found more than half a million Scots were trapped in “severe or extreme poverty”, with the numbers rising by 100,000 a year.

The Scottish Government report found 510,000 people in Scotland living in “severe or extreme poverty” in 2012-13 – a sharp rise from 410,000 during the previous year. Severe poverty is defined as living with an income lower than £11,500, or 50 per cent of UK median income, while extreme poverty is defined as lower than £9,200, or 40 per cent of UK median income.

Alistair Gaw, vice-president of Social Work Scotland, is among the experts due to give evidence tomorrow to members of the welfare reform committee on the impact of welfare reform on vulnerable children and children’s social work services.