Yesterday, the First Minister’s poverty adviser said that 56 per cent of children in poverty live in working households. Those are children whose mums and dads go out to work but still struggle to make ends meet. Naomi Eisenstadt says in her report that investment in quality, affordable early learning and childcare is crucial.
The First Minister claims that all three and four-year-olds have access to 16 hours of free early learning and childcare a week. That sounds good, but parents know that it is not true. Time and again, I meet mums who tell me that they cannot get for their child the place that they are told is their right. Last year, the First Minister said in the chamber that she was working with councils to deliver on her pledge, so will she tell us whether council funding to deliver the 16 hours of free early learning and childcare has gone up or down in the draft budget for next year?
I welcome the report that the poverty adviser published yesterday. It is a solid report that makes a number of recommendations that the Government will consider very seriously. I note that she says that the policy decisions taken by the Scottish Government
“have been important in protecting people from poverty”.
As Kezia Dugdale is well aware, the Government currently funds 16 hours of childcare a week for three and four-year-olds and for vulnerable two-year-olds. I have said in the past and it remains the case that, as well as funding that provision in a global sense, we are working with councils to improve flexibility so that provision better fits in with parents’ working patterns. As was reflected in the poverty adviser’s report, we are also determined to double the provision of childcare over the life of the next parliamentary session, should the people of Scotland re-elect us in May. That is important to parents who are listening to the debate.
The poverty adviser said yesterday that, as well as quantity, quality is important. That is why, yesterday, I announced £1 million to pilot different ways of delivering that expanded childcare.
That is our policy on childcare. We will be judged in just a couple of months on our record on that and many other things. I am still waiting to hear what Labour’s policy is.
In all of that, there was not even an attempt to answer the question that I asked. The honest answer is that the Government’s budget is cutting council childcare funding. The First Minister’s poverty adviser rightly tells her that affordable and flexible childcare is key to helping people who are in work to get out of poverty, but the Scottish National Party Government’s solution is to cut the childcare budget and slash funding for local services.
We know that the First Minister’s promises on childcare are not being delivered, so what about her latest pledge to almost double the number of free childcare hours by 2020? A few months ago, she was asked in the chamber about how those plans would be delivered. She said:
“We are working with local authorities to determine the expansion of capacity that will be required. That will be a mixture of new build and extension of current local authority capacity.”—[Official Report, 19 November 2015; c 13.]
Two months on, will she tell us how many extra nurseries need to be built to deliver on that promise?
Let me take Kezia Dugdale’s points in order. Under our current policy, we are funding the expansion of childcare to which we committed in the Parliament. I remind people who may be listening that, in 2007, three and four-year-olds were entitled to 412.5 hours of free childcare a year. We have extended that by 45 per cent to 600 hours for three and four-year-olds and taken the additional step of extending the policy to vulnerable two-year-olds. That is the measure of the commitment.
The policy that Kezia Dugdale refers to is for the next session. I am delighted that she clearly thinks that after the election I will be in the position of delivering that commitment; I take that as a welcome endorsement of the SNP’s election campaign at this early stage. As I have previously said in the chamber—I think, on that occasion, in response to Ruth Davidson—we are doing detailed work with local authorities to plan now for that expansion, which will take place over the next session.
There will be a mix; we do not yet know exactly what that mix will be, because we are still planning for the expansion, but it will involve a mix of new build—which is why I have described this as the biggest or the most important capital investment of the next session—and existing buildings that local authorities already use. As I have said, it will also involve childminders, and one of the proposals that Naomi Eisenstadt made yesterday related to what is called blended childcare.
We are taking forward the proposals seriously, carefully and robustly. I repeat that Kezia Dugdale has still to set out Labour’s childcare policy. I know what my policy is, and I know the work that we are doing to deliver it, but we seem to have a vacuum coming from the Labour benches.
The First Minister does not know how many nurseries she needs, but campaigning mums do. The campaigning group fair funding for our kids estimates that the equivalent of 650 new nurseries would have to be built to accommodate the extra places that would be needed because of the First Minister’s latest pledge. She has described this as the biggest capital investment of the next session, but John Swinney’s budget cuts council capital funding for nurseries by 56 per cent. By the First Minister’s admission, delivering on her new pledge would cost £880 million in running costs alone, but at the same time, she is taking half a billion pounds out of council budgets.
Let us get this absolutely clear. The First Minister needs 650 new nurseries, but she has cut the capital budget to build them, and she needs £880 million to expand childcare services, but she has slashed council budgets by £500 million. Only in the world of the SNP will that deliver a childcare revolution.
The First Minister’s childcare policy is a mess. Is she hoping that parents are just too busy to notice?
In her flurry of statistics, Kezia Dugdale has forgotten some of the key points. First, she mentioned capital funding for local authorities. She will be aware—or, if she is not aware, she certainly should be, because John Swinney has outlined it—that the capital budget for local authorities has been reprofiled. [Interruption.]
Money will be reallocated for local authorities in future years.
As for the overall council budgets, as I said last week and I think the week before, we are looking at a 2 per cent reduction in the overall revenue expenditure of local authorities, and that is before we take account of additional resources for social care, additional resources through the attainment fund and of course the additional investment that we plan over the life of the next session to transform the provision of childcare.
I say again that those are our plans. We have set them out, and we will set out the budgets that support them. If Kezia Dugdale really wants to give people in this country a choice in just a few months’ time, she has to do more than whine from the Opposition benches. She has to give an alternative, and so far, there ain’t no alternative from the Labour Party whatsoever.
There we go. It is not a 56 per cent cut—it has just been reprofiled.
Almost a year ago, the First Minister told me that she had looked campaigning mums “in the eye” and told them that she would fix Scotland’s childcare problems. However, after meetings with Nicola Sturgeon and her education secretary, the more parents hear, the less they believe.
The First Minister says, “Judge me on my record.” Here it is: promises not delivered, budgets cut and parents let down. Is it not the case that, instead of delivering what families really need, the SNP’s childcare plan is just one great big con?
Kezia Dugdale knows that we have, and John Swinney has, guaranteed local government a maintained share of the overall Scottish Government capital budget. That is the reality. It might not suit the Labour Party’s increasingly desperate narrative, but nevertheless those are the facts.
To come back to the central issue, I can point to the Government’s achievements in childcare over the life of this session and of the previous session: three and four-year-olds are entitled to 45 per cent more childcare now than when Labour was in office, and two-year-olds are entitled to childcare that they were not entitled to when Labour was in office. Not only that, but I can point to clear plans for how we will transform childcare over the next session. As the poverty adviser says, not only are we allowing more parents and in particular mothers to get into work, but we are supporting young people to have the best start in life.
Those are our achievements and plans, and the people of Scotland will judge them. When they are making that judgment, they will also look at what the alternative is. I say again that Kezia Dugdale has said zero about what the Labour Party will do for childcare. That is why the people of Scotland are casting their judgment on Labour, and their judgment is to keep Labour firmly in opposition.