The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-06475, in the name of Hugh Henry, on childcare. I remind all members that this debate and the next debate are quite heavily subscribed. Therefore, time is tight and we will keep members strictly to their time.
I call Hugh Henry to speak to and move the motion.
Affordable, good-quality and flexible childcare has become an absolute necessity for the economic wellbeing of many hard-working Scottish families. For some families, the absence of such childcare means that they are unable to take up employment. Even worse, some families have had to give up work either because they could not afford the childcare on offer or because none was available locally.
In its report “Making Work Pay—The Childcare Trap”, Save the Children said that high childcare costs are affecting parents’ ability to work, train and study in Scotland. The report said that eight out of 10 parents living in severe poverty said that cost was a barrier to accessing childcare. It also said that parents in severe poverty have cut back on essentials such as food and other household bills simply to pay for childcare and that the high cost of childcare means that work is not paying for the poorest families. I am sure that I am not alone in saying that childcare costs are higher than housing costs for some parents.
The Daycare Trust’s childcare costs survey in 2012 painted a sombre picture, reporting 44,000 fewer families receiving help with childcare costs since the tax credit cut in April of that year. The survey also reported that in many parts of Britain the average cost of childcare now exceeds £100 for a part-time place—that is for 25 hours—with the average yearly expenditure for a child under two standing at £5,103.
Good-quality, affordable childcare is essential not only for families’ personal wellbeing, but for our country’s economic wellbeing. There is no doubt that the introduction of the universal entitlement to free nursery education by the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition transformed the lives of many families; it also marked a revolution in the way that we educate our younger children. In 2007, both Labour and the Scottish National Party promised to extend the number of available hours, and the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill will finally deliver on that seven years later.
This debate is not about that bill, but I will make a few comments in passing. The extension of hours will, no doubt, be warmly welcomed by families across Scotland, as will the introduction of flexibility. However, we should not confuse education with childcare nor suggest that childcare is a substitute for education. For very young children, early childhood education and childcare are inseparable but they are not indivisible. When we educate a young child, we have also to care for that child. In seeking to meet parents’ legitimate childcare demands, we should not abandon the progress that we have made in early years education. To do so would risk widening the educational attainment gap and setting Scottish education back 40 years or more.
The member makes the point that childcare and education are not indivisible. That is why we have taken on board his point and made a commitment to increase to 600 hours the provision of early learning and childcare.
Perhaps the minister has failed to understand what I am saying. Because childcare and education are not indivisible, we should not substitute one for the other. The welcome extension to 600 hours should be an extension of education, not necessarily of childcare—but we can have that debate at another time.
Early education is planned as any teacher would plan it. It must be focused on the progressive development of the child and it cannot be ad hoc. The staff involved must have an advanced knowledge of child development. On the other hand, childcare can be the physical and social care of the child. It can even be about leisure activities for the child. That is the case in many excellent out-of-school care projects, which certainly care for the child but do not necessarily educate the child.
It is disappointing that the Scottish Government’s amendment tries to suggest that the bill is the answer to the childcare problems faced by families throughout Scotland. That carries the danger of diminishing early years educational input and substituting it with childcare. We also need to remember that the focus of the bill is on three and four-year-olds. It will do little, if anything, for children under three and nothing at all for those aged five and upwards.
The childcare needs of Scottish families start when the child is born and continue up to the age of 14, but the amendment is strangely silent on that. Even the reference to the work of the early years task force is only about the early years. It is disappointing that the amendment has nothing to say about the wider childcare needs of Scottish families. Families need help at the end of the school day, and sometimes they need it before the school day begins. They need help during in-service days and school holidays.
Given the demands on the many women who work in retail, families may need help into the evening, too. I spoke recently to a number of Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers shop stewards who reported pressures on women being asked to change shift patterns or to work extended hours temporarily, which can sometimes cause a childcare crisis.
Not every family has two parents to share the load, whereas in others both parents have to work. Not everyone has an available and willing extended family to take on some of the pressures of childcare. Therefore, when we talk about a comprehensive childcare strategy, we need one that looks at childcare from birth to 14 and does not just talk about the early years. We need a strategy that is not only flexible enough to meet families’ needs, but affordable. Above all, any extended childcare provision must be underpinned by quality and high standards and be subject to rigorous scrutiny and rules. We cannot afford to gamble with our children’s wellbeing just to save money.
The minister again fails to understand. She does not even understand the words “early learning and childcare for all” that she uses. I am saying that childcare goes up to the age of 14; we are not talking just about early years.
I realise that the delivery of such a service will present financial and physical capacity challenges. If there was an easy solution, it would have been presented long before now. That is why Scottish Labour is proposing a Scottish childcare commission, which I hope will have all-party support. For something that is so essential for hard-working families, we need to set aside our political differences and come up with a sustainable proposal that will make a real difference to them. I accept that politicians need to engage experts in early childhood education, but they also need to engage those who have expertise in the delivery of childcare and knowledge and understanding of working with children. We also need to engage those who have responsibility for delivery. We should not be too big to admit that, individually, we do not have all the answers, or that there are others who might know better. We must engage those who know what they are talking about. Above all, we need to work out how much such a service would cost and where the money would come from.
That is why Johann Lamont has offered to work with the First Minister, but that work should not be restricted only to the Scottish National Party and Scottish Labour. There are practical things that we can do now, if there is the will across the political spectrum—we need not wait until 2014 or 2016. If we are to make a long-term difference, we need to start working together and not delay while Scottish families struggle.
I do not mean any disrespect to the Council of Economic Advisers when I say that it is not best placed to come up with a practical model of comprehensive childcare delivery. Its members may be noted economic experts—I accept that financial underpinning is essential for the service—but we need the expertise of those who educate and work with children.
I agree with one thing in the Scottish Government amendment: we need to look at the best models of delivery and funding for Scotland. That is why, even at this late stage, I appeal to the Scottish Government not to move its amendment. Let us work together and put our differences aside. Let us agree to share the knowledge and expertise in not only the political spectrum, but the professional spectrum. Let us agree, for once, to put party-political differences aside and work together to come up with the affordable, flexible and quality childcare that families in Scotland want and need. Let us put families first.
That the Parliament agrees that good quality, affordable childcare is essential to support hard-working families; welcomes the proposed extension of fully-funded early years provision to 600 hours and believes that it is essential that this has a clear educational underpinning; notes the financial and logistical challenges of extending childcare across Scotland and believes that all parties should work to reach a consensus on delivery, availability, affordability and financing of a comprehensive childcare strategy, and believes that a Scottish childcare commission with all-party support should be established to investigate and make recommendations on the expansion of affordable quality childcare across Scotland.
I start by welcoming the fact that the Labour motion welcomes our plans in the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill to increase the funded entitlement to early learning and childcare to a minimum of 600 hours per year. I also welcome Labour’s desire to work across party lines on the further extension of childcare, and I recognise that Johann Lamont is to meet the First Minister in the near future to discuss childcare.
We all recognise that high-quality early learning and childcare has a vital role to play for social, emotional and cognitive development and for parents who seek to balance their childcare responsibilities with work, education or training. The issue has profound implications for Scotland’s economy now and in the future.
Our provisions in the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill to increase free early learning and childcare for three and four-year-olds, as well as the most vulnerable two-year-olds, to a minimum of 600 hours per year represent a significant step towards our longer-term aim of achieving a transformational shift in childcare to build a high-quality, universal system of early learning and childcare that meets the needs of all children, their parents and their families. Our commitment to legislate for 600 hours of provision represents significant progress since we took office in 2007. That progress is an important component of our committed efforts to maximise household budgets through a social wage to benefit and improve the economic and social wellbeing of Scottish citizens.
Our efforts will benefit around 121,000 children and their families, who, since 2007, have made savings equivalent to around £700 in childcare bills. We will add 188 hours of free early learning and childcare and—crucially—will increase flexibility to ensure that high-quality early learning and childcare is delivered in response to local needs and choices for parents. That will improve consistency and lead to better outcomes for children, and it will better meet the needs of parents, particularly those mothers who want to go back to work or into education or training.
We are also on a journey of improving the provision of help and support for the most vulnerable in our society. That is exemplified by the extension of the childcare entitlement to two-year-olds who are looked after and those who are under a kinship care order whom we can prevent from becoming or remaining looked after.
We recognise that looked-after children have some of the poorest outcomes in society and believe that it is essential that we focus our efforts where we can make a real and positive difference. Much has been said in the chamber about the benefits of extending the funded entitlement to a wider group of disadvantaged two-year-olds, and I know that the Opposition has cited the United Kingdom Government’s commitment to extend entitlement to the most vulnerable 40 per cent of two-year-olds. My reply is that this Government is absolutely committed to building a high-quality universal system of early learning and childcare for all children to benefit the most vulnerable in our society.
However, we must do that in a manageable and sustainable way, and must be guided by the getting it right for every child approach, which has been designed to secure better outcomes for every child in our land. Failure to move forward on manageable and sustainable terms would compromise the quality of provision for our youngest children. Quite frankly, it is not acceptable to this Government to run the risk of there being adverse impacts on our youngest children.
It is becoming clear that, in England, many experts have serious doubts about the affordability, practicality and effectiveness of expanding the funded entitlement so far and so fast. Only yesterday, the BBC reported that there was a potential shortage of 55,000 places for disadvantaged two-year-olds. Naomi Eisenstadt, who is a respected academic and former director of the sure start unit in England, is visiting Scotland tomorrow, and I hope to meet her. Professor Cathy Nutbrown, who is the academic who carried out the review that informed the UK Government’s “More great childcare” strategy, has now criticised that strategy. She was recently quoted as saying that
“Trading staff-to-child ratios for higher-qualified staff is nonsense. Watering down ratios will threaten quality. Childcare may be cheaper, but children will be footing the bill.”
This Government will not compromise on quality. We must get things absolutely right. To that end, the First Minister has asked the Council of Economic Advisers to look at the best models of delivery and funding for a system of childcare in an independent Scotland and, in doing so, to be informed by what other countries are doing. As I am sure that all members are aware, a range of models of provision and funding exist, but our concern at all times must be what is right for Scotland and our people.
Therefore, I am delighted to announce our early learning and childcare strategic funding partnerships with the National Day Nurseries Association and the Care and Learning Alliance. We have allocated £155,000 in addition to the £1.5 million that has already been allocated by the Big Lottery Fund to early learning and childcare third sector partners through the third sector early intervention fund.
The minister has spoken at some length about early learning and childcare and although I welcome any additional resources in that respect does she accept that a debate about childcare is not just about the early years? The crisis facing Scottish families is often about out-of-school care and, sometimes, care in the mornings. Does she accept that we need to work together to come up with something, or does she intend to ignore that completely?
I said at the outset that I am happy to work with any party or member with an interest in childcare. I mentioned the additional money that has come through the third sector early intervention fund. One of the recipients of that funding is the Scottish Out of School Care Network, which provides childcare to children beyond the early years, so we recognise that we are asking those groups to take forward important work. They are doing so in a strategic manner through that funding. I am sorry that Mr Henry has missed that.
Since the publication of the early years framework in 2008, this Government has shown a strong commitment to the early years. To step up the pace of change, we established in 2011 the early years task force, which brings together professionals, practitioners and politicians from across the political spectrum to inform the strategic direction of early years policy and establish a consensus on how to drive the transformational change that is needed in early years. The task force’s expertise is guiding us and ensuring that the actions that we take in early years policy and childcare are right and based on sound and strong evidence. Research that we have commissioned on other European models will be put to the Council of Economic Advisers so that its members can study the context and their applicability to Scotland’s labour market.
We should not wait for the establishment of another commission to work together. We are already doing a lot of work and have made a lot of progress. I have made clear this Government’s commitment to building a high-quality, universal system that meets the needs of all children, not just those in the early years, and absolutely considers the childcare needs of families across the country. I look forward to working constructively with all parties as the Parliament debates the bill that we are bringing forward and to ensuring that we all work together on creating a bill that the Parliament can be proud of and which will benefit children of all ages across the land.
I move amendment S4M-06475.1, to leave out from third “and believes” to end and insert:
“; also notes the work of the Early Years Taskforce, which brings together practitioners, professionals and politicians from different parties to inform the strategic development of early years policy, including early learning and childcare; further notes the Scottish Government’s commitment to legislate via the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill to introduce flexibility into childcare provision and the help that this will provide in matching childcare to the circumstances of individual families, and further welcomes the forthcoming work by the Council of Economic Advisers to look at the best models of delivery and funding for Scotland and the associated economic and social impact of moving to the levels of support for childcare that is commonplace in other European countries.
The Scottish Conservatives are very happy to support the Labour motion. I thank Hugh Henry for spelling out in a little bit more detail just what he envisages in his call for the creation of a childcare commission. He certainly made a very good point about older year groups.
Notwithstanding that, time after time, there has been proof of consensus in the chamber around the fact that a child’s earliest years have the most profound effect on their life chances. The logic, therefore, is that policy must focus on the earliest years—which incidentally is a point increasingly being made in the policy calls from the college and university sectors—and that greater attention must be paid to improving outcomes at that stage.
It makes sense that one important means of doing just that is to improve the provision of pre-school care for our youngest children. I use the word “improve” advisedly, because there is an important debate to be had about the qualitative aspects of care as well as its availability. It is not good enough just to increase the numbers of children receiving that care; we must ensure that certain standards are upheld, which is why I think that there are benefits to having a childcare commission that can draw on many professionals’ expertise.
There has also been consensus in the Parliament that, in recent years, parents have often struggled to get access to sufficiently flexible and affordable childcare, with Scottish families paying some of the highest costs in the country. Indeed, the price of childcare has soared by an average of £600 since 2005. I think that we are all aware of significant disparities across the country, with some local authorities in Scotland charging twice as much as others for care.
It is also quite clear that many parents feel that the current system of childcare provision is too inflexible and often fails to take into consideration parents’ busy work schedules. Of course, that point applies in particular to older children, but I stress that we must be very careful indeed to balance that with the child’s social and educational interests. We must ensure that an extended system is able to combine both interests without compromising either.
For example, although allowing them to take up their entitlement during times outwith those presently on offer might be convenient for working parents, it might be less beneficial to the child’s educational and social development. That is a significant problem for families throughout Scotland.
A report from Children in Scotland entitled “The Scottish Childcare Lottery” showed that a fifth of local authorities say that they do not have enough childcare available for working parents and that only one in 10 councils has enough provision for those who work outside normal hours. We need to balance that with listening to teachers’ concerns about how best to plan the curriculum for the youngest children if we are truly to ensure that childcare gives the positive benefit that we know that it can bring. It is not enough merely to have more of the same; we must have significant reform of how it is structured and delivered.
Perhaps the member will be interested to know that the work of the task force draws on the expertise that she says is so important and that one element of the work is about ensuring that there is national guidance on quality. I hope that that gives reassurance that the task force is very much drawing on the expertise that it already out there in relation to the issue of quality.
I accept that up to a point, but the qualitative focus has to entail a more structured focus on childcare, because that is one of the most significant concerns. I do not think that they are mutually exclusive. That is why we are intent on supporting Labour’s motion.
The benefits of affordable and flexible childcare are measurable far beyond those for the children who receive it. Assuming that we can reform childcare in line with the best interests of the child, childcare is also essential in helping to regenerate the economy and getting more people back into work.
Claire Telfer from Save the Children has said:
“Lack of affordable, suitable childcare is a significant issue that determines parents’, particularly mothers’, ability to participate in the labour market”.
For too long, parents have been in the unenviable position of having to choose between entering the workforce and looking after their children—and those from more disadvantaged backgrounds are much more acutely affected by that.
We welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to increase the number of childcare hours to 600 a year by 2014, but we look rather enviously at what is happening south of the border, from where there are lessons to be learned, particularly about making the provision of childcare much more widespread and trying to change the focus of policy. We are particularly interested in childcare perhaps being available more on the basis of a hourly system rather than just in the traditional blocks.
We are very happy to support Labour’s motion.
I welcome the debate and thank Hugh Henry for bringing it to the chamber.
I can agree with much of the motion, but I cannot agree with all of it. For that reason, I will not be able to support it at 5 o’clock. I am not convinced that calling for a commission would move the agenda on any quicker than it is being moved on. As we have already heard—this is noted in the minister’s amendment—cross-party work via the early years task force is already taking place. It is not only politicians who are involved in that; practitioners and professionals are involved in it, too.
I have just started, and I have only four minutes. I will try to let the member in later.
The Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill is going through the parliamentary process. The big challenge for all of us in the Parliament is to scrutinise it and amend it where possible. I lay down that challenge to every member. I do not understand what a commission would do other than stall the process that is under way.
I have only four minutes, but I will try to let the member in.
Surely creating a commission and stalling the current workstream goes against the sense of urgency that Johann Lamont indicated in her recent conference speech.
I welcome the Government’s proposals to increase to a minimum of 600 the hours of free and flexible learning and childcare available to all three-year-olds, four-year-olds and looked-after two-year-olds. I know that that will be welcomed by parents in the west of Scotland and throughout Scotland. Around 120,000 children in Scotland will benefit, and families will save around £700 per child per year. That will help families throughout the country.
I welcomed Johann Lamont’s comments when she highlighted the progress on childcare that Labour had made at Westminster. She raised that issue in her speech during Labour’s conference, when she made the point that child tax credits, paternity leave and extended paternity leave were Labour achievements. Labour was right to bring in those policies. However, as we know, such policies are reserved and the Scottish Parliament cannot improve them. The Scottish Government and Parliament have limited ability in that regard.
Obviously, I disagree with many in the anti-independence campaign regarding the Scottish Parliament’s powers, but in Labour’s recent publication on a devolution commission there are no plans to devolve welfare if there is a no vote in the referendum next year. Surely welfare reform is central to the agenda of aiming to provide a holistic strategy for education.
We all know that education is one way out of poverty, but given the Westminster cuts to Scotland of 8 per cent and the welfare reform that is taking place, I gently ask the Labour Party to reconsider its position on working with the Tories and to consider working with the Scottish National Party to ensure that the Scottish Parliament has the real ability to progress education and improve childcare provision in Scotland.
I am proud to support the Labour motion, and I fully back the calls for the creation of a Scottish childcare commission to investigate and deliver the best childcare possible to families across Scotland. I am disappointed that the Government has omitted reference to a commission from its amendment. The delay in introducing the 600-hour early years provision is having a damaging impact on families now. Despite the rhetoric, the SNP must be deemed a failure for waiting more than six years to bring in a key manifesto commitment for Scottish families.
The Equal Opportunities Committee is continuing its inquiry into women and work, in which childcare has been a key focus. It is clear from the evidence received so far that women’s entry into the workplace can be highly dependent on access to a range of affordable and quality childcare places for children and young people up to the age of 15. The Scottish Childminding Association’s written submission states that there was a rise in available child-minding services in 2011 and a rise in attendance of children aged 0 to 15 that equated to 3.2 per cent of the population. However, it is very revealing that there were more childminding services per head of population in remote small towns in comparison with large urban areas and that childminding services were less abundant and slightly smaller in the most deprived areas in comparison with more affluent areas. In addition, a parent survey commissioned by the Daycare Trust and Children in Scotland showed that some childcare costs are higher in Scotland than in England. That signals that more needs to be done to improve access to childcare and demonstrates the need for a Scottish childcare commission.
At last week’s Equal Opportunities Committee meeting, the important issue of access to childcare for disabled children was raised. On average, it costs three times as much to raise a disabled child as it does to raise children with no disabilities. With Scotland having some of the highest charges for childcare in Britain, affordability remains a key issue for many families and a major barrier to employment for many women. Average weekly childcare costs equate to more than half the gross average part-time weekly earnings, and there is a strong link between inconsistent supply and varied and high costs.
The First Minister announced in March that, post independence, there will be a transformational change in childcare in Scotland, with a European-style system. The need for affordable and quality childcare exists now, and this Parliament has the powers to improve childcare now, so long as the Government shows political will—
I am sorry but I have only four minutes—I am very tight for time.
The Government must show political will if there is to be cross-party work on the issue and work with organisations and people already involved in childcare. Scandinavian levels of public services but American levels of taxation will not guarantee any improvement. I look forward to the Government addressing that point.
At the women’s employment summit last September, the Deputy First Minister said that childcare should be viewed in terms of infrastructure. I could not agree more with Ms Sturgeon. Children in Scotland clearly agrees with her, too. In its submission to the Equal Opportunities Committee, it said:
“considerable investment is required”,
and went on to say:
“Children in Scotland has encouraged the Scottish Government to explore the possibility of using European Structural Funds to invest in the infrastructure of childcare.”
As reforms to the welfare state and increased living costs make the lives of and conditions facing families more and more difficult, we need all-party work to help working families now and to help mothers and fathers back into work.
As we heard, the Equal Opportunities Committee is holding an inquiry into women and work. I commend to any member who is interested in childcare the Official Report of our meeting last Thursday, in which we explored many issues, one of which I want to examine in my speech.
Jackie Brock, from Children in Scotland, said that a total of £8 billion is being allocated to UK early years funding and questioned whether putting the bulk of that support through tax credits—the system that we have inherited—is the right approach, as opposed to a more rights-based system. After all, the current system is clearly failing an unacceptable number of families, who still face unaffordable childcare.
There was consensus on the need for a different approach, which I found surprising. Clare Simpson, from Parenting across Scotland, agreed and highlighted a change of heart on the part of Beverley Hughes, the former Minister of State for Children, Young People and Families in the Labour Government, who has taken such a view since leaving office. The view was backed by Claire Telfer, from Save the Children, who looked forward positively to the work that the Council of Economic Advisers will do to consider the economic and financial case for a different approach.
The Denmark model has often been cited in evidence to the committee, during the current inquiry and during our inquiry into the budget. In Denmark there is no spending on tax credits, but if we compare the proportion of overall early years spend that goes on the direct provision of day care with the situation in the UK, we find that in Denmark twice as much goes on direct provision. Private provision in Denmark is growing but accounts for only 5 per cent of the market, and competition is allowed and encouraged between state providers in municipalities, which work at a much more local level than happens here.
The crucial point is that whereas in the UK financial support is capped, in Denmark it is the sum that people are charged that is capped. Although Denmark has higher tax rates overall, the difference between its spend on childcare and early education and the UK’s spend in the area—1.3 per cent of gross domestic product and 1.1 per cent of GDP, respectively—is small. Let me put that in perspective: the gap is only a sixth of the gap in relation to defence spending as a proportion of GDP, which of course leans in the opposite direction.
We are where we are, and no one is calling for child tax credits to be removed. Indeed, on Thursday, Satwat Rehman, from One Parent Families Scotland, told the Equal Opportunities Committee that the UK Government’s reduction in support from 80 to 70 per cent of childcare costs means that in many cases work no longer pays and childcare is unaffordable. Maggie Simpson, of the Scottish Childminding Association, said that the bills of the people whom she represents are increasingly being left unpaid. Save the Children reminded us that this reform is one of many welfare reforms that will increase child poverty.
There was a clear feeling that if we were starting over we would not choose the current system. Liam Byrne has said almost as much and has looked thoughtfully and positively at the example of Denmark. If we were starting over, we would develop a system of greater direct provision.
That brings me to the Scottish Government’s commitment to 600 hours of provision. The commitment was welcomed by One Parent Families and Save the Children, partly for what it is and partly because it shows a desire to move towards a universal system of provision. It is a welcome incremental improvement.
I agree with members who said that transformational improvement is beyond the Parliament’s current constitutional powers. However, the case for transformational improvement is becoming more and more unanswerable, as members will realise if they read the evidence that has been and will be provided to the Equal Opportunities Committee’s inquiry. I hope that all members are listening.
I welcome Hugh Henry’s constructive approach to this afternoon’s debate and the tone of his motion, which very much reflects the approach in the Save the Children briefing that we received ahead of the debate. Although there is also much in the Government’s amendment with which I whole-heartedly agree, the undertone there is that we should not worry our pretty little heads about anything because everything that needs to be done is somehow being done.
Mr Henry quite rightly spent some time focusing on the needs of older children and their parents, but I will focus, if I may, on the needs of two-year-olds—particularly those from more disadvantaged backgrounds—which is an issue on which the Scottish Liberal Democrats have been pretty consistent over the past couple of years. As part of the budget process, we produced costed proposals, which for his own reasons John Swinney rejected, but the mechanism that Hugh Henry has identified perhaps presents an opportunity to revisit the issue.
As every speaker has acknowledged, all the evidence shows that interventions in the very earliest years of a child’s life, even those that are made prior to birth, shape and determine the child’s development into adulthood. Let me be clear that I whole-heartedly welcome the planned extension to 600 hours of early education and childcare for three and four-year-olds. Urging the Scottish ministers to be more ambitious is not the same as condemning the action that they are taking. The Scottish Liberal Democrats have consistently argued that the proposals in the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill fail to recognise that, by the age of three, any intervention is often too late.
I know that the First Minister is keen on his Nobel laureates—the more he can shake a stick at, the better—so I urge him and the Minister for Children and Young People to heed the advice of Professor James Heckman, who suggests that the highest rate of return in education is to be derived from investment in the pre-birth to three age group. That is particularly the case for children from poorer backgrounds who, by the age of three, often lag a full year behind their better-off peer group in terms of cognitive development, social skills and readiness for school. I think that the minister acknowledged that point.
The Government has pledged to extend additional support to looked-after two-year-olds and those in foster care, but as Bronwen Cohen of Children in Scotland pointed out:
“Valuable as this may be ... it is markedly less generous than what is being offered in England and Wales. England is investing in 260,000 childcare places for 40 per cent of two-year-olds from the most disadvantaged backgrounds”.
Aileen Campbell rose—
Whatever the minister says—sorry, I cannot take an intervention in a four-minute speech—that dwarfs what is planned in Scotland.
Family nurse partnerships are indeed helpful and welcome, but this is not a case of either/or. Such partnerships are also being delivered south of the border and can work very well and effectively alongside free nursery provision.
Obviously, the Scottish Government has already pushed through its budget, but I urge it to accept the need to look again at the issue and consider the mechanism that Mr Henry has identified. As others have mentioned, Mr Salmond’s willingness to meet other party leaders to discuss the issue may be a cause for optimism, but the proposed commission may be another way of delivering the cross-party working on childcare that Save the Children has advocated. The commission would also afford us the opportunity to look at the affordability, availability and flexibility of provision across Scotland—as Liz Smith, Mary Fee and others have pointed out—and reflect some of the concerns that emerged in the report, “Counting the Costs of Childcare”.
We all acknowledge that improving childcare provision is essential to improving outcomes for children, particularly for those living in poverty. There is also a direct impact on our attempts to build a strong diverse economy, which will benefit from parents being able to return to or remain in work; that point was made very well by Claire Telfer. I urge the minister to support the call for a cross-party approach and to use that consensus to deliver further essential progress in this vital area.
There can be absolutely no doubt that this Government has demonstrated its commitment to childcare and early years. The 20 per cent increase in free nursery provision since the SNP came to power in 2007 is a real achievement, particularly as the Scottish Government has faced the biggest financial squeeze experienced by any Government in this Parliament since the beginning of devolution.
The Scottish Government is building on that record and demonstrating its ambition with the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill, which will result in a 45 per cent increase in free childcare since 2007. That will benefit around 120,000 children and save families around £700 per child per year. By increasing to a minimum of 600 hours the amount of funded hours that three and four-year-old children, as well as vulnerable two-year-olds, are entitled to, the bill will mean that Scotland has the best provision in the UK.
Childcare must be viewed in its broadest sense, and the bill does that. We need to help families to get out of poverty by enabling women to work and to retain more of their earnings, but we also need to provide the best-quality childcare.
Childcare is about providing the best quality of education and developmental care, as well as helping people out of poverty. In the past, we have had too strict a dividing line between early years childcare and early years education. Parents often have to choose between flexible private childcare and free nursery education. Flexible private childcare is often expensive and is perhaps not always the best quality educationally, but it provides parents with the opportunity to drop off their kids before 9, say, and collect them after 5, whereas early years education such as that provided by many local authority nurseries is of a high standard, but is not provided in a way that suits working parents. It is important that we break down the barriers between those two types of early years provision. I think that the minister is committed to doing that and that the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill will deliver it.
In the past, opponents of the Government have suggested that the Government did not need to legislate for additional hours, but I am pleased that more of a consensus seems to be emerging on that point. Of the respondees to the consultation exercise on the bill, the vast majority, about three quarters, agreed that the number of hours should be increased and even more, about 83 per cent, agreed that flexibility should be improved. However, many respondents also identified operational, resourcing and other practical issues that they felt need to be resolved to enable the proposals to be enacted. Those include funding, the implications for workforce planning, such as staffing arrangements during longer opening hours and holiday periods, and staff training.
The strong message from those who responded to the consultation was that we need to maintain the quality of provision. In particular, local authorities pointed out the difficulties of delivering a more flexible service, because that is always more difficult and expensive to manage. Although I have sympathy with the local authorities in meeting those challenges, meet them they must. Parents have waited for far too long for more flexible provision that is of a high quality. That is why the bill is needed and why I welcome the minister’s remarks.
I am delighted that the First Minister has said that a transformational shift in childcare should be one of the first tasks of an independent Scotland. The “Government Expenditure and Revenue in Scotland” statistics show that Scotland pays more than it gets back from London, amounting to more than £800 a head for every man, woman and child in the country. I cannot imagine a better way of spending a portion of that £800 than spending it on our youngest children. However, the only way that we will achieve that is through voting for independence next year.
I am pleased that the debate has not been excessively party political—at least not compared to the next one, I am sure—and that there is much that we can agree on and work together on. Actually, the most important thing that we can agree on is that childcare is a massive issue. In the history of politics in Scotland and the UK, that has not often been the case.
I was lucky, because before I was elected as a member of Parliament in 1992, I met a group of women in Pilton in my constituency who were in a childcare action group. They had a massive effect on my thinking at the time. In fact, because of that, childcare was the main subject of my maiden speech in 1992, when I said that it was important as an anti-poverty strategy, crucial for gender equality and a key part of economic policy. All that is still true today, although I was remiss not to mention that childcare is also absolutely essential for child development. I am glad that Liam McArthur mentioned James Heckman, who has done a lot of work on the issue and shown how investment in the early years pays many times over in future years.
A lot of progress has been made in the past 20 or so years. The Labour Government’s actions on nursery education for three and four-year-olds and the development of childcare tax credits have been acknowledged. Marco Biagi made an interesting point about tax credits. There is a choice between demand-side subsidies and supply-side subsidies, and I have a lot of sympathy with those who would prefer to have supply-side subsidies, but we should acknowledge that the Labour Government’s childcare tax credits benefited a large number of parents. It is regrettable that the current Government has reduced that support from 80 to 70 per cent, which has made the problem worse. When I talk to parents now about childcare, the big issues are affordability—which is key—and, of course, availability. Parents talk to me about childcare just as much as they did all those years ago.
We can all agree that we are making progress. I certainly welcome the 600 hours provision and the commitment to more flexibility. Everybody will acknowledge that that is an important step forward. When I talk to people in my area of Edinburgh who are involved, I see a lot of interesting developments, such as different models of flexibility in early years and expansion in the number of nursery schools—though the latter may be a particular issue in Edinburgh. I said to someone last week that I would ask the minister why we have to consult when we open a new nursery school. I understand why we consult when we close one, but not why we consult when we open one. That is happening soon in my constituency. That is one important aspect.
Clearly, after-school care is crucial, too; for working parents, that is mentioned to me probably more often than anything else. I welcome the grant of more money for out-of-school care. Edinburgh is doing quite a lot on that. The Labour manifesto—if I may be partisan for a moment—had an idea about childcare co-operatives. The main thrust of childcare co-ops will be to help and support the development of after-school care, and I applaud the City of Edinburgh Council for doing that. The development of after-school care, together with support from the supply side, is a crucial area that we must put more emphasis on. That will be necessary, because tax credits do not cover care for everyone.
Another area concerns provision for two-year-olds—there is a whole debate about the best way on that, and again the Scottish Government has taken an important step. Should further targeting be developed so that it includes more people, or should we perhaps offer a small number of hours to everyone? That is another important debate.
The Scottish Government is taking important steps, particularly in relation to the 600 hours provision. However, I am sure that we can all agree that there are many more steps to take.
Let me begin by declaring an interest as a father of two pre-school age children. I know how difficult it can be to secure decent, reliable and affordable childcare. My wife and I have been very fortunate to be able to arrange such care for our own children. I very much believe that an aspiration to secure further improvements in the provision of childcare across Scotland is something that we should all welcome and work towards.
However, we should put this debate into context by looking at the situation in Scotland today. As Joan McAlpine set out, there has been an increase in free nursery provision by some 20 per cent since 2007. The Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill will legislate for a 45 per cent increase over the same period of time, with some 120,000 children in Scotland benefiting by the provisions of that bill.
I have already recognised the concerns about the cost of childcare. Save the Children has done a lot of work on that. I have been very happy to work with that organisation in the past and shall be happy to work with it again. We should recognise that costs are stabilising in Scotland but increasing elsewhere. The Daycare Trust published a report in March, which indicated that there has been no increase in Scotland in childcare costs for the under-fives compared with increases across the rest of the UK of 4.2 per cent for the under-twos and 6.6 per cent for two-year-olds and over. It is important to provide that context.
The move to the childcare provision of 600 hours is hugely welcome and compares favourably with the position elsewhere. Some people have made much of extending childcare further, to two-year-olds; Liam McArthur espoused that position. The UK Government’s position is often given as an example of what to do, but we should look at the reality behind the proposals. The proposed ratios of staff to children for childcare in England will increase to 1:4 for under-ones and 1:6 for two-year-olds; the ratio for three and four-year-olds could be 1:13. The Scottish ratios are much better. That has led to criticism from Professor Cathy Nutbrown, the chief executive of the Daycare Trust, Anand Shukla, and the founder of Mumsnet, no less, who has suggested that the UK Government needs to rethink its plans.
Does Jamie Hepburn accept that the ratios south of the border have been far better than those north of the border over many years? Yes, the issue is quality, but the safeguards that are put in place in terms of additional qualifications can help us to achieve quality.
I do not accept that the ratios were much better for many years. They were roughly similar and the issue is that they will be dramatically worse in England if the proposals go ahead.
On the proposal for a childcare commission, it was interesting to see that, in her conference speech, Johann Lamont said
“We don’t need the Council of Economic Advisers to tell us what a difference investing in education and childcare can make”,
but, apparently, we need a commission. That ignores the fact that work to dramatically improve access to childcare is continuing. We have spoken about the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill. We are aware of the early years task force. We are also aware of the work of the Council of Economic Advisers.
Let us not pretend that that work is not happening; it is under way. The proposition seems to be that we should create another commission and wait for its conclusions before we make further improvements. That is a nonsensical position.
I commend the Scottish Government for its work and support its amendment.
Hugh Henry is to be commended for bringing the debate to the chamber. I am clear that, among the many issues that legitimately demand the attention of politicians in the Parliament, childcare should be at the centre of our focus and in the forefront of our discussions. I say that not because I have been in the Parliament for nearly 14 years and not because, in that time, I have heard numerous suggestions from all parties—whether in government or opposition—about how we should deal with childcare, but because I start from first principles.
Some parents decide that their family will have a non-working mother or father and can afford to make that decision. That is fine but, for the majority of parents, it is not an option. The reality of modern life is that both parents work—possibly out of choice, probably out of necessity. In working, they bring much-needed skills to the economy, bring stability to their workplace environment and generate welcome spend in the economy. That can only be regarded as positive but, for some parents who cannot access childcare, that opportunity does not exist, and that is wrong.
For those reasons, I regard the provision of childcare to be as essential as the provision of healthcare or schooling or as maintaining our public transport system. To avoid confusion, I clarify that I am not advocating a new publicly funded universal benefit. I am saying that we can do an awful lot more to match the needs and responsibilities of parents with reasonable and more effective support from Government.
The other important consequence of childcare is a direct benefit to the child. That may range from learning new personal skills and nurturing positive relationships with other children to embarking on the process of learning. Hugh Henry rightly referred to that.
On how the Parliament has fared on that front over nearly 14 years, the answer has to be patchily. Things are certainly better than when we started, but recent progress has been more glacial than swift. On the positive front, the statutory provision of 475 hours per annum for three and four-year-olds, which was introduced in 2007 to improve on the previous 415 hours, was helpful. The proposed increase to 600 hours by 2014 is welcome. It is overdue progress—it has, after all, taken seven years to accomplish.
Where does Scotland sit in relation to childcare? The statutory provision is not as good as that in England. England’s childcare entitlement is being extended to two-year-olds from 40 per cent of the most disadvantaged families from 2014. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, is in discussion with childcare providers to persuade them to price services on an hourly rate rather than in blocks. That would make childcare more affordable, as parents would not have to pay for care when they did not need it.
I am sorry, but there is not sufficient time. I ask the minister’s forgiveness.
In a country the size of Scotland, why can we not have similar national clarity? If the Scottish Government is serious about recognising the needs of parents for flexibility in the hours of childcare, as Joan McAlpine said, why can it not be available from 7 o’clock in the morning to 7 o’clock at night and spread across two days instead of three? That would transform employment opportunity for many parents, as would extending support to parents who work less than 16 hours per week.
Where are those options? Who is investigating their provision? A commission of qualified people with a focused remit, as proposed by Mr Henry, sounds to me a better bet than a general Council of Economic Advisers. Good things are happening—I do not deny it—but better things are happening in England. With imagination and innovation, we can make better things happen in Scotland, within the existing constitutional settlement and without even having to wait for a referendum.
Mr Henry’s motion is sensible and reasonable, and I support it.
I want to stress what unites us in the debate, as Malcolm Chisholm has very effectively done, rather than what divides us. However, I hope that members will forgive me if I say something before that, in the light of the speech that we have just heard.
Annabel Goldie’s use of the word “glacial” was fascinating. The reality is that the actions of the Tory and Liberal Government south of the border, just through the changes in child tax credits and working tax credits, are taking away from working families £700 a year—a figure which equates almost exactly to the sum of money that we are trying to put into the pockets of hard-pressed parents. If we want ice analogies, perhaps the best thing that we could do would be to thaw the icy heart of Iain Duncan Smith on those anti-family actions.
No, I will not. I am sorry, but I want to make some progress.
I turn now to a more positive theme. I want to stress those things that Malcolm Chisholm was absolutely right to stress—the things that should unite us across the chamber. First, there is the indivisibility of childcare and education. There is no dubiety about that whatever, and we must ensure that that link is maintained. Secondly, there should be no weakening, throughout the chamber, on the standards of childcare. Thirdly, there should be no weakening on the commitment to continued progress.
I wish to correct those Labour members who seemed to indicate that nothing happened after 2007.
In 2007, we moved from 412.5 hours, which was enough for Labour—a Labour member shouts “not enough”, but it was enough for Labour—to 475 hours, and we will now move to 600 hours. There is no weakening on that; indeed, there is unanimity across the chamber that we should continue to make progress.
There is also no weakening on the cross-party approach. There is absolutely no weakening on bringing the experts to bear, although Annabel Goldie seemed to imply that that was not happening. There is the early years task force, whose remit is wider than early years, in particular with regard to its subject group on early childhood learning and care, where the remit covers the ages of zero to 14. That group involves not just the politicians who Hugh Henry and, apparently, Annabel Goldie, want to gather round a table, but all the organisations—the real experts.
Mary Fee said that there should be a cross-party activity. She should have looked to her right, because next to her is a member of that early years task force—Malcolm Chisholm. The task force indeed involves other members. If members have the expertise that Malcolm Chisholm has displayed in the debate, I will be very happy for them to be involved in the task force. There is no weakening at all on the desire for a cross-party, informed contribution to the debate.
I turn to where I think the problem lies. Malcolm Chisholm brought three good ideas to the table, and we will take them away and look at them. We did not hear a single idea in Hugh Henry’s speech, which is regrettable. I want people to come forward with ideas, along with suggestions for how they can be funded; they will then be considered. I give an absolute commitment that the early years task force and the existing structures, which include the real experts, will consider any idea that comes forward. We will do so openly; we are quite happy to consider those ideas openly and to have a public debate.
We should know—and we should not be afraid to acknowledge—that there is a better long-term solution. I pay credit to Johann Lamont who, in her conference speech on 21 April, said:
“Labour in government had a childcare strategy within months of coming into office ... We introduced child tax credits to supplement child benefit. We introduced paternity and extended maternity leave.”
That recognised another indivisibility: that of tax, benefits and labour market regulation.
The real long-term benefit that can come is from having the powers in this Parliament. Those facts are absolutely indisputable. That is the way to make progress.
I am, however, entirely willing to accept that we should do as much as we can within our existing powers. That is why we have made the progress that we have made. That is why we want to go on doing so, and why I would welcome the ideas that might come from Hugh Henry and his colleagues. We would look at them very closely. I am also saying that to the Tories and Liberal Democrats: they should bring forward their ideas about how we will fund early years provision and we will look at them very closely indeed.
When we have the normal powers of a normal nation, we will be able to do even more. Furthermore—this takes me back to the point with which I started—we will be able to do more than simply mitigate the harm that is being done elsewhere. The figure that I mentioned at the start of my contribution is a stark one: one set of changes in benefit regulations that have been imposed from south of the border is taking away the benefit that will come from the increase in fully-funded early years provision to 600 hours. That is the reality, and doing something about it has to be a key priority in changing childcare.
Just in case any Labour members thought that they could be comfortable about this issue, we still have to take action where it is needed. Of course, the alternative Labour Queen’s speech contained no commitment to remove the bedroom tax, for example. While Westminster is still involved in Scotland, we want to see some action, not just the usual words.
It is customary for the member who closes a debate to remark on how it has gone, and I think that this has genuinely been a good debate and a number of important points have been raised.
Have we improved childcare this afternoon? No, of course we have not, but we could take a step towards improving childcare by establishing a cross-party commission on the issue.
I think that we would all accept that it is not enough just to talk about childcare across the chamber for a couple of hours every now and then. We need to get around the table on a cross-party basis, talk through problems, identify solutions and deliver the support that our families need. As Hugh Henry said, we need a comprehensive childcare strategy and a childcare commission to make that a reality.
That is why Johann Lamont offered to work with the First Minister and other party leaders on childcare. The reason for that and the purpose of Labour bringing this debate to the chamber is to support Scottish families from Paisley to Peebles, in Ayr and Aberdeen; families in every part of Scotland face childcare problems.
We welcome the Scottish Government’s proposals in the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill to extend pre-school care hours to 600 for three-year-olds and four-year-olds, and we recognised that in our motion. That will build on the progress that was made by Labour in Government on pre-school education and our family-friendly policies such as child tax credits, and paternity and maternity pay, which Michael Russell and Stuart McMillan mentioned.
However, let us be honest: if we are to represent the views of the families whom we were elected to represent, every party must accept that not enough is being done on childcare to support families. The view that the childcare problems of 2013 will not be solved by the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill is not a political view. It is the reality of what we hear from families in our communities.
Three things are as evident now as when Hugh Henry mentioned them at the start of this debate. Childcare provision does not meet the current needs of the children and families of Scotland; childcare is expensive; and the educational underpinning of early years provision should be paramount. A number of members highlighted those issues. I say to the SNP members who have questioned the need for a cross-party commission that some issues need to be addressed now and some will have to be looked at for the longer term. That is why we need a cross-party commission.
Is the member completely discounting the work of the early years task force, which is looking at a number of the issues that have been raised today? It is bringing on board expert practitioners from around the country so that they can formulate a way forward based on their knowledge. Is he completely discounting that work?
No, I am not completely discounting that work at all. If the minister had listened to what Hugh Henry and others have said, she would understand that we need to take a rounded view of childcare provision in Scotland from birth to the age of 14. That is the point that the minister is missing.
Issues that have been mentioned include pre-school childcare, out-of-school care, and childcare provision at work. Neil Findlay mentioned childcare at St John’s hospital, and there are issues to consider in relation to childcare for disabled children, as Mary Fee mentioned.
Mary Fee and Marco Biagi mentioned the Equal Opportunities Committee. The impression that SNP members gave about the reaction to 600 hours is questionable as at an Equal Opportunities Committee meeting—in an answer to Marco Biagi—Jackie Brock of Children in Scotland said:
“Our members have a rather lukewarm view on the 600 hours and the contribution that it will make to that long-term vision.”—[Official Report, Equal Opportunities Committee, 2 May 2013; c 1259.]
Hugh Henry mentioned childcare costs at the start of the debate. SNP members have said that the extension of hours will save families £700 a year. There has been a seven-year delay in that policy, so the SNP delay in extending that policy has cost families £700 a year. We know that childcare costs are high. We know from a recent Save the Children report that, on average, childcare payments take 33 per cent of household income. We know that many families believe that that cost is a barrier to work and that too many have had to cut down on food and payment of household bills to pay for childcare.
Age segregation and the geographical dislocation of services can also create difficulties for parents. In the area that I represent, Save the Children recently took evidence and I was shocked to find that, in some cases, parents are having to pick up their children from three different establishments because no one service deals with children aged one year, three years and six years old—that is if parents can find childcare at all.
Those are just some of the challenges that families whom we are elected to represent are facing. We need to develop a Scottish system of childcare that is affordable, high quality, accessible and flexible and which meets the needs of families. It is therefore disappointing that the SNP minister in her judgment does not appear to think that establishing a cross-party commission is a good idea.
The SNP amendment talks about the early years task force. The task force is doing important work, but as I have said before we need to look at how we support families with children from birth to the age of 14. We need to look at pre-school education and care for two-year-olds, where we could be doing more. As Liam McArthur and other Lib Dems have said, we are massively behind the rest of the UK. That is why we want to work with parties across the chamber to look at how we can improve childcare for two-year-olds.
We also need a renewed focus on supporting out-of-school care—a focus on how we support the retention and expansion of breakfast clubs, after-school clubs and holiday clubs. Such services for school-aged children are crucial for working parents. They allow parents to work and to provide for their children.
The Scottish Out of School Care Network reports that most services are managed and administered by parents themselves, who form charities or co-operatives, employ staff themselves and pay dearly for the service. I pay tribute to those parents but we also need to look at how we can support parents who want to retain or set up community or co-operative childcare services, as some are doing with the City of Edinburgh Council—as Malcolm Chisholm mentioned.
As Hugh Henry said at the start of the debate, it is time for us to work together across the Parliament and to do so with some humility. We appear to have a consensus in the chamber for a commission—with the exception of the SNP. I am pleased that, out of the chamber, organisations such as Children in Scotland support the idea and organisations such as Save the Children want us to work on a cross-party basis. I plead with the minister to change her mind.
None of us here has all the answers to the early years and childcare questions. As a Parliament, we know that we need to do more, but we realise that that will come with a cost. We know that families across Scotland want real solutions to their problems. We need to take advice and come to an agreement on the way forward. That is why we are asking for all parties to support the establishment of a Scottish childcare commission to establish how best to expand affordable, accessible, good-quality childcare and early years provision across Scotland. Our children and families deserve no less.