I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. Although I am not a member of the Finance Committee, I welcome the publication of its report on the draft budget and the opportunity to scrutinise the Scottish Government’s spending priorities. I add my thanks to the committee members, SPICe and the clerks for producing the report.
As I said last week in the Scottish Conservatives’ finance debate, politics is about priorities and choices. Both the UK Government and the Scottish Government have their own decisions to make. The chancellor set out his choices in the autumn statement, but with a budget of £35 billion, the Scottish Government also has big decisions and big choices to make in the coming months.
I do not intend to talk this afternoon about all the various budget streams; I will concentrate on how the Scottish Government could, and should, use the £300 million of Barnett consequentials that it will receive over the next two years to take action now to support families by providing extra childcare.
Last Wednesday, my Labour colleagues and I called on the Scottish Government to invest the Barnett consequentials following the autumn statement in childcare for two-year-olds, as Malcolm Chisholm said. I rise again today to make the same demand of the finance secretary and the SNP Government.
We talk all the time about the importance of the early years in children’s learning and development. The committee has rightly scrutinised the effectiveness of the preventative spend agenda and issues around the early years change fund. We also talk consistently about the need to help people with the cost of living and about the importance of childcare to the economy. Families across Scotland want us to not just talk about it but take action. That is why we are proposing that the money from the Barnett consequentials be used to give childcare to half of Scotland’s two-year-olds now.
I lodged amendments to the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill to that effect, which could save 30,000 families more than £2,000 a year on childcare costs. The proposal is very similar to the promise on childcare for two-year-olds made in the white paper. I know that the Liberal Democrats have been pushing for action on this, as Willie Rennie said again today, and I hope that the proposal will receive support from SNP and Conservative members as well.
I do not criticise the Scottish Government’s aspirations in the white paper for more childcare. In actual fact, I am proposing that it deliver its pledge on two-year-olds now. However, I do criticise the Government for not even providing full costings for its proposals. The fact that it has not provided a full price tag raises the question how serious it is about improving childcare now.
The fact is that, despite all the hype about childcare, it has in reality done very little to help families with childcare over the past six years. As we know, childcare is already fully devolved to the Scottish Parliament and, therefore, the SNP Government. The SNP Government’s childcare record is simple: families have yet to see any significant benefit from its childcare policies since 2007. No doubt, the Government will point to a small increase in hours for three and four-year-olds and the proposals in the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill. However, we in the Labour Party have said consistently that we will not solve the childcare problems of 2013 with a policy that is six years old.
Members will know that last week I compared the SNP’s record to Labour’s record in office. Labour’s record included a childcare strategy within months of coming to power; the introduction of universal early years education for three and four-year-olds; provision for vulnerable two-year-olds; the raising of standards; child tax credits; and much, much more.
Labour is clear: families need help with childcare now. As I have said time and again in this chamber, it is regrettable that the SNP Government has yet to deliver its promise of 600 hours for three and four-year-olds, despite that promise being made way back in 2007. It is also regrettable that the Scottish Government cut back nursery programmes for vulnerable two-year-olds when it first came to power and that the SNP Government and SNP MSPs voted against Labour’s proposal for a childcare commission back in May.
There are lots of ways in which families need support for childcare, and those could have been looked at by a cross-party commission. The reality is that families do not care who delivers the support as long as action is taken to address their needs. However, the SNP now has the opportunity, as it has had in every year since 2007, to put more money into childcare and help families with the cost of living.
I was encouraged during last week’s debate when Mr Swinney said that he would consider Labour’s proposals. I welcome that. He said that it would be up to the Cabinet to decide. The Cabinet will probably have met since last week so I ask the cabinet secretary whether that has been discussed. Will the Scottish Government support that proposal? Are the members of the Cabinet raising concerns about this? As we said in May when we proposed a childcare commission, we are happy to work on a cross-party basis and urge Mr Swinney to act on that as soon as possible.
Labour wants extra childcare to help families with the cost of living now and to help give children the best start in life. Affordable, quality and flexible childcare has always been a priority for the Labour Party. It was a big priority for the SNP three weeks ago; I hope that it still is. There was a lot of mention of testing ambitions earlier. I think that this is a key test of ambition. It is time that we helped families with the cost of living. It is time that the Scottish Government made up its mind and backed Labour’s call. The SNP Government has the powers and the resources. The only thing that it does not have is excuses.