Addressing Child Poverty Through Parental Employment

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 14 March 2024.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-12468, in the name of Collette Stevenson, on behalf of the Social Justice and Social Security Committee, on addressing child poverty through parental employment. I invite members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons. I call Bob Doris to speak to and move the motion on behalf of the Social Justice and Social Security Committee.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

More astute members will have noticed that I am not Collette Stevenson. Collette sends her apologies; she wishes that she could lead the debate, but I am afraid that members will have to put up with me instead.

I am delighted to speak on behalf of the Social Justice and Social Security Committee on its inquiry into addressing child poverty through parental employment. A central aim of the Scottish Government’s best start, bright futures delivery plan is to support up to 12,000 parents to access and sustain employment and up to 3,000 in-work parents to increase their earnings by 2026. The overall objective of our inquiry is to ensure delivery of that ambition in that timescale. The committee does not, however, underestimate the task at hand, as we will hear today.

Increasing parental employment and securing better-paid employment is a multifaceted issue that intersects with many policy areas across different portfolios and requires a partnership approach to delivery. Those complexities can be illustrated through the myriad of employability programmes, skills, training and education qualifications that are being delivered to better equip the workforce for a variety of employment sectors.

Our inquiry sought to bring together all those strands with the fundamental support that is needed to help parents, particularly those on low incomes, to transition into and to sustain employment. For example, the committee highlighted the need for changes to social security rules to support parents who are undertaking education, who can be financially penalised by the system when trying to improve their work opportunities, and it set out that parents who want to work are being prevented from accessing work because of inaccessible and unaffordable childcare or transport.

We wanted parents to help to shape our inquiry, so we took our inquiry first to Rutherglen. We heard loud and clear that parents want good-quality flexible work as a route out of poverty. To further inform our understanding of the issues that are of most concern, we also travelled to the Western Isles and North Ayrshire to pick up on the rural aspects of entrenched unemployment. In Uist, parents told the committee that there are jobs available and that nobody needs to be unemployed, but that there are barriers to taking those jobs in the first place, particularly in relation to childcare, transport and housing. In Irvine, a mother of seven who was supported by an employability service to develop skills and get back into work said:

“doing this is frightening but with support it’s manageable”.

We heard that no single piece of the puzzle can be prioritised over another—that is the challenge—and that it all needs to be given sufficient focus in order to deliver for parents. Dumfries and Galloway Council described the complexities of the puzzle. It said:

“improved access to transport without access to childcare will not work, similarly increasing higher paid roles without support for upskilling and reskilling will still exclude some people from opportunities. The approach must be considered as a whole system approach not separate policies or interventions.”

I put on record the committee’s thanks to those individuals who shared their experiences with us and the organisations that provided their knowledge of supporting parents to navigate the barriers to employment.

Given the enormousness of the task and the short time that is available to accomplish it, the committee welcomes the creation of the tackling child poverty programme board and the cross-portfolio ministerial oversight group on child poverty. Both of those will be crucial, and we expect their oversight to provide a valuable accountability mechanism. The committee will monitor whether that ensures the effectiveness of cross-portfolio co-operation at the national level and, crucially, whether it drives forward partnership delivery at a local level to achieve increased parental employment.

The Scottish Government has already made substantial progress in its fight against child poverty. It has put money into the pockets of families who are desperately trying to provide for their children. Nonetheless, the clock is still ticking. Further progress needs to be made on the delivery plan by the end of this session. More needs to be done, and at pace, so that parents who want to work can access fair and family-friendly employment and give their children the best possible life chances. I do not doubt the scale of that challenge. That includes affordable transport in rural and urban areas to support the types of trips that are regularly made by parents. It also includes appropriate education provision to widen access to parents.

However, the overarching infrastructure barrier that is raised with us is childcare. Parents attending Cothrom, a community organisation in South Uist, painted a bleak picture of the situation in rural areas. There is only one childminder in Uist. The council provision is over capacity and offers only set hours. One parent told members that she was offered a three-hour nursery care placement a one-hour drive away—of no use to her. Another struggled because there was no after-school care at all available in Benbecula.

The Poverty Alliance reinforced to the committee:

“Childcare is critical to enabling parents to enter and progress within paid employment. This is particularly true for mothers and single parents, over 90% of whom are women.”

The provision of affordable and flexible childcare often determines whether women have a job, what hours they can work and what their earnings will be. The high cost of childcare means that paid work is simply unviable for many parents, particularly single mothers. Childcare provision should be affordable. That should happen in funded places—full or subsidised—at nurseries, breakfast clubs and after-school clubs. Childcare provision should be flexible to support parents who work irregular work patterns. It should be available in the evenings and at weekends, as well as, crucially, during school holidays.

Childcare provision should be accessible. The lack of specialised childcare for children with additional support needs was of great concern to the committee. Carers Scotland explained that

“nearly a third ... of parents of disabled children are not working, with 40% having been out of work for more than five years.”

The committee welcomes the Government’s recent commitment to increase the availability of funded childcare hours and the investment in early learning and childcare. We also acknowledge the promising initiatives and pilot schemes, such as the development of school-age childcare and increasing the childminding workforce, with a target of another 1,000 childminding workers.

However, many gaps in services remain and will need to be filled if all families in Scotland are to benefit from genuinely accessible, affordable and equitable provision. That is why the committee has recommended that the Scottish Government undertake a detailed assessment of the current childcare workforce availability across the sector. That should include workforce skills in caring for children with additional support needs and the levels of provision that are required to allow children from different cultural backgrounds to access the service, and in remote and rural areas to facilitate employment for parents who are experiencing multiple inequalities. Prompt action is needed to support the development of a sustainable workforce to provide affordable, flexible and accessible childcare across ages, settings and regions.

The committee acknowledges the immensely challenging economic and governance circumstances that we face in tackling child poverty through increasing parental employment. There have been positive policy choices made by the Government, such as the Scottish child payment. Nevertheless, for the commitments that are set out in the best start, bright futures delivery plan to have a meaningful and collective impact, policies must offer a seamless package of support to families and be executed at an increased pace, with clear delivery and spending plans set against them.

Decisive actions to deliver outcomes are imperative. The Scottish Government must, without delay, “supercharge”—we chose that word—its efforts across policy areas. I appreciate that that is easier said than done, cabinet secretary, but that is the challenge. Only then can the cycle of child poverty be broken and parents provide a truly bright future for their families.

I move,

That the Parliament notes the conclusions and recommendations contained in the Social Justice and Social Security Committee’s 11th Report, 2023 (Session 6),

Addressing Child Poverty Through Parental Employment

(SP Paper 476).

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I advise members that we have some time in hand for interventions.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

I thank the committee members for leading the inquiry and all those who participated in it, particularly those whom Bob Doris has mentioned around Scotland, both near and far.

I welcome today’s debate on this important issue. Tackling child poverty is a central mission for the Government, and we are committed to doing everything within the scope of our limited powers and resources to meet our statutory child poverty targets. Modelling that was published last month makes clear the continued substantial impact that Scottish Government policies are having on child poverty levels in Scotland. It is estimated that 100,000 children will be kept out of relative poverty in 2024-25 by our policies, with relative poverty levels 10 percentage points lower than they would otherwise have been. That includes keeping an estimated 60,000 children out of relative poverty through investment in our game-changing—not the Scottish Government’s words, but those used independently by others—Scottish child payment.

Although we are focused on tackling child poverty, we cannot escape the fact that Scotland has been badly let down by the United Kingdom Government, with the spring budget marking another failure to deliver the funding that Scotland needs, following more than a decade of UK Government underinvestment. Despite that significant challenge, the 2024-25 Scottish budget unapologetically directs our resources to those who are in greatest need and commits us to investing in key measures to tackle child poverty now and in the future. It should be noted that a significant amount of our budget is deployed to mitigate the effects of UK welfare policies that, without our interventions, would increase poverty and put up more barriers to work for parents.

Although employment can offer a sustainable route out of poverty for many people, too many families are trapped in in-work poverty and many more are still locked out of the labour market. That is why we are taking action right across Government.

Photo of Meghan Gallacher Meghan Gallacher Conservative

Does the minister agree that the cost of childcare is also contributing to that? Will she give an update on where the Government is with its expansion of free childcare?

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

I will come on to speak about childcare later in my speech, but I note that Scotland has the best childcare offer. It is about how childcare is deployed at local authority level, because the picture is different depending on where you go in Scotland. My constituency is in Aberdeenshire, and we recently had an announcement from the Tory-led Aberdeenshire Council that it is taking away wraparound care at school level.

We in the Government can say what our high-level policies are and give the funding for councils to commit to them, but councils can make decisions that put up more barriers for parents. I am not just talking about my response to that as a constituency MSP; there is also the response of organisations such as Pregnant Then Screwed, and I suggest that Meghan Gallacher has a look at what it said about Conservative-led Aberdeenshire Council and the issues that she has just raised.

We are taking action right across Government with the powers that we have to ensure that, when work is the right choice for parents, they are supported to get into work that is well paid. We take every step that we can to improve the quality of the jobs that are available.

Our employment stats are quite encouraging at the moment. We now have 79,000 more people in payrolled employment compared with January 2020, and there are 3,400 living-wage-accredited employers in Scotland, with 64,000 workers having had a pay rise as a result of that particular intervention. Access to the right education and training was mentioned by the deputy convener, and tailored and holistic employment support services are essential in helping parents to enter, progress in and sustain work.

In contrast to the UK Government’s conditionality regime, our employability services are voluntary. That means that people are not mandated to access support, are not penalised if they do not take up an offer of support and are not pushed into poor-quality work as quickly as possible simply to meet short-term job start targets, which can increase in-work poverty.

In the coming year, we will invest up to £90 million in devolved employability services, and we will continue to focus on ensuring that specific support that is aimed at increasing parental income from employment is in place up and down the country. To ensure that services continue to develop and strengthen, the Scottish budget sets out our commitment to providing multiyear funding in the future that will provide much-needed certainty to the sector and for the people who access our services. That has been asked for, and the Deputy First Minister has committed to doing it.

To better support students, building on our continued commitment to free tuition, we will increase the higher education student support package by £2,400 in 2024-25. In addition, our programme for government sets out our commitment to outlining plans for implementing reform of our education and skills bodies, which will involve putting the voices of children, young people and adult learners at their core. We will continue to focus on improving help and support to unlock the labour market for more parents and to increase the earnings of those who are already in work.

I point members to a couple of reports that have come out recently. In its report, “Working wonders: The role of employability in tackling poverty”, which was published this morning, the Institute for Public Policy Research recommends strongly that employment law and everything that is associated with employability should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament so that we can make even more key interventions in that area. That follows on from a report by the Jimmy Reid Foundation that was published in February that said exactly the same thing. If we had those levers, we could do an awful lot more, especially around fair work.

We know that fair and flexible employment can make a real difference. Even though powers over employment remain reserved to the UK Government, we will continue to drive meaningful change through our fair work policy and engagement with businesses.

In 2015, the Scottish Government became the first Government in the UK to become an accredited living wage employer, and, since 2019, our fair work principles have been applied to more than £4 billion of public funds. We have made it a requirement for recipients of public sector grants awarded on or after 1 July 2023 to pay at least the real living wage and to provide appropriate and effective channels for workers’ voices. That comes back to the idea that it is not just a case of getting people into work, but of getting people into well-paid and living wage employment. In addition, the new deal for business group is developing a high-quality functioning relationship between Government and business, in recognition of the fact that that is key to building an economy that is fair, green and growing.

The impact of our actions is clear. We remain the best performing of all four UK countries, with the highest proportion of employees who are paid the real living wage or more. The gender pay gap for all employees is lower in Scotland than it is for the rest of the UK as a whole.

Although the picture is positive, we are not complacent. I am determined to work with partners to see how we can get real movement particularly on closing the disability employment gap, because everyone should have the right to fair work. Importantly—Bob Doris mentioned this—without access to high-quality, affordable and accessible childcare and transport, employment will remain out of reach for many parents. Scotland remains the only part of the UK—

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The minister has just made reference to the importance of childcare and transport issues being addressed. Does she accept—and is it the Government’s position—that integrated and cohesive support needs to be available to individuals to enable them to access employment? It is not simply a case of solving one issue, such as childcare, or another issue, such as transport. We need to put together combined solutions that address the circumstances of individuals and enable them to gain access to employment.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

I absolutely agree with Mr Swinney on that point. As a rural MSP, he will know that that is a particular challenge in rural settings. Bob Doris mentioned an offer of childcare that was made to someone in Uist that would have required them to travel for an hour. All those things must be integrated. If we solve one problem without solving the others, we will not address the barriers that are there for parents, especially in rural areas.

Scotland is the only part of the UK that offers 1,140 hours a year of early learning and childcare to all three and four-year-olds and eligible two-year-olds, regardless of their parents’ working status. Our offer would cost families around £5,000 per eligible child if they were to pay for it themselves. I certainly remember what that was like for my two children.

In 2024-25, we will continue to invest around £1 billion in high-quality funded early learning and childcare, and we will continue to expand access to funded school-age childcare for families who need it.

We cannot overestimate how crucial childcare expansion is as a lever for tackling barriers to employment and economic activity and, as a consequence, for reducing child poverty. However, as I said in response to Meghan Gallacher’s intervention, it is crucial that that is done at the local level, in the way that John Swinney has suggested. It should be deployed by councils in a way that works for parents.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

I will just get to the end of my point.

It should not be a one-size-fits-all situation in which, if someone cannot access childcare, they have to pay for it themselves. It has to involve working with parents and their particular circumstances.

Photo of Meghan Gallacher Meghan Gallacher Conservative

Through its childcare expansion programme, the Government has created a system in which, when it comes to setting the rates, councils are both banker and competitor. Private, voluntary and independent nurseries are closing their doors. How on earth can the minister talk about the expansion of childcare and the importance of childcare when the Government does not have the right policy for it?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Minister, when responding, please also bring your remarks to a close.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

I will have to wind up, but I ask Meghan Gallacher to look at how the childcare offer down in England works in comparison with the Scottish offer, which has been very successful. [



Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

On tackling travel, I mention the investment of £370 million to provide free bus travel for more than 2 million people. It is about transport services as well. Our fair fares review will ensure that our public transport system is accessible, available and affordable for people across Scotland and that it will help to connect parents to the opportunities and essential services that are needed.

I will close, Presiding Officer. I welcome today’s debate and members’ reflections on how we can further strengthen our approach within the limits of our powers and resources. Maybe it would be nice to get closer to a consensus on the devolution of the additional powers that would allow us to unlock the capacity to do so much more.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

I thank the organisations that have provided helpful briefings ahead of today’s debate, and I thank our committee clerks for the amount of work that they did on what has been quite a long committee inquiry. I was keen for the Social Justice and Social Security Committee to undertake the inquiry, and I very much welcome the evidence that has been given on what needs to improve to help parents to get back into employment and how we can work collectively to tackle child poverty. The two visits that I undertook—in Glasgow and in the Western Isles—provided, at the heart, that lived-experience evidence, which the committee report has managed to capture.

The report makes a number of key asks of the Scottish Government, and we Conservatives welcome those. The committee has called on the Scottish Government to share

“the annual and quarterly progress reports produced by the Tackling Child Poverty Programme Board” and I believe that those reports, as well as better data on outcomes, are needed in order to understand how policies impact and what is needed to address child poverty across Scotland. As we heard from the committee’s deputy convener, it has also called for greater

“scrutiny of the effectiveness of cross-portfolio cooperation on tackling child poverty” in Scotland.

However, as we will hear today, what is perhaps the biggest challenge remains, which is the issue of childcare not being available. All MSPs will know that acutely. Bob Doris outlined the seamless package of support that parents are looking for. I am sure that, as a former education secretary, the cabinet secretary will be acutely aware of that.

I will not rehearse the problems that have been widely reported—and documented by Meghan Gallacher—in relation to the limited flexibility that the 1,140 hours childcare policy currently offers to parents who seek work or opportunities for study. As the Poverty Alliance briefing states, there is a real need now for

“greater flexibility” at the heart of the delivery of 1,140 hours,

“to ensure the policy meets the stated aims, with a focus on increased flexibility” for the provision of childcare for families.

Councils across the country face the difficult task of delivering that, and I have a huge amount of sympathy for Aberdeenshire Council in the difficult decisions that it has had to take. Per head of population, it is the council that is second-lowest funded by the Scottish National Party-Green Government—the lowest being my own, the City of Edinburgh Council.

The minister has to recognise that there is a critical need for more childcare provision outwith the times that it is traditionally provided. That is at the heart of what the report is calling for.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I am interested in the substance of the point that Mr Briggs and Meghan Gallacher are advancing in the debate. They are, in essence, saying that the design of the delivery of 1,140 hours around the country is inflexible because of the provision that is made on the ground.

I represent an area that, until 2022, had a Conservative-led council. That Conservative-led council introduced the childcare arrangements that are in place, which I am sure that Roz McCall is disassociating herself from, despite the fact that she was part of the administration that set them up.

Does Miles Briggs not accept that the flexibility that he seeks is contained in the powers of local authorities to design the childcare provision in their locality and that, if they choose to design it in the fashion in which it has been designed in my locality, where there is very little provision outwith the local authority, it is councils that take those decisions? Would the Conservatives take that power away from councils to effect the solution that Meghan Gallacher has her head in her hands about just now?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I will give you your time back, Miles Briggs.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

The point that the former education secretary and Deputy First Minister also needs to understand is that the Scottish Government has created this model in which Scottish Government-funded early years units and nurseries are providing free hours for pre-school, which has had an impact on where people are working in the sector. We know that the number of individual childminders in Scotland, for example, has fallen considerably. Having the flexibility to decide, as a parent, what childcare you want has been impacted. I do not think that the Scottish Government understands—

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

I do not think that I will be able to get six minutes back.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

There is time in hand if the member wishes to take an intervention.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I am interested in advancing the debate, because we have to flush out the rhetoric from the Conservatives on this question.

Mr Briggs is, I think, arguing for taking away from local authorities the power to design the 1,140 hours at local level. Roz McCall and Meghan Gallacher are shaking their heads and gesticulating, as they have done throughout the debate. Is that the Conservative position? I cannot see how they can effect the propositions that they are putting to Parliament, and criticising the Government over, without being open about that very point.

Photo of Meghan Gallacher Meghan Gallacher Conservative

The problem is that the legislation that was created in this Parliament by this SNP Scottish Government is not watertight. There are 32 councils doing 32 different things across all local authorities. [


.] We have a system in which councils are the competitor and the banker. The buck stops with the SNP and its legislation, which is not watertight.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

I agree with

Meghan Gallacher on that point.

That is at the heart of what the report captured. The committee has asked the Scottish Government to reassess the scope and to accelerate its work in childcare provision. It has noted that the exact timings, hours of provision, eligibility and income thresholds for child provision have still not been announced by Scottish Government ministers. We do not, in fact, know what the Scottish Government is expecting councils to achieve.

The committee has also called on the Government to provide detailed spending plans in relation to childcare provisions. The latest programme for government does not set out any new funding that will be available to meet the new childcare commitments. The committee—cross-party, I should say—has therefore called on ministers to set out detailed spending plans that show what they aim to achieve and where spending will be provided for that.

The committee has also called on ministers to undertake an

“assessment of the current childcare workforce availability across the sector”, which should include

“skills for children with additional support needs, and the levels of provision required to allow children from different cultural backgrounds to access the services, as well as the provision needed in remote and rural areas for parents to start or return to work.”

When we were in the Western Isles, we saw how different models are being provided by employers, the third sector and councils. That flexibility for parents in rural and remote areas, who sometimes have two or three jobs, needs to be considered. It is in relation to that flexibility that I do not think that the Government has got this policy right, to return to that point. I hope that this debate can be an opportunity for it to pause and think about that.

Perhaps most pressing, though, is the need for the Scottish Government to do more for parents who are returning to education. The committee called on the Scottish Government to

“evaluate successful initiatives” and

“scale up work and ensure there is national provision for adults seeking to return to education.”

It also recommended that the Government provide

“part-time courses with flexibility built in”.

We heard important evidence about that when we were in Glasgow and met parents who were returning to college.

It is also important to consider the briefing that Inclusion Scotland provided to members ahead of the debate.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

To be fair, the member has been very generous already.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

The Deputy Presiding Officer has been most courteous on the matter of time.

Inclusion Scotland’s briefing states that the proposed changes would disproportionately affect households in receipt of benefits. There have been a number of really positive suggestions on further increasing the funded childcare entitlement to the equivalent of 50 hours a week for low-income families. There has also been significant input from lone-parent families asking about the child payment. There has been investment in targeted employability support to deliver fair work and to consider the particular needs of priority family groups. All that was at the heart of the evidence that we took. We also need to see delivery of employability commitments and the best start, bright futures policy.

John Swinney touched on several points in his argument for a holistic approach to helping families. That is why I hope that he will join Scottish Conservatives in championing a policy that we want to see piloted, which is on family hubs that would aim to support the integration of health, social care and education, providing a one-stop shop for families who seek support. We could expand on that at a further date, but I think that such a measure could help families.

There is cross-party consensus that the best way to tackle child poverty is to ensure that parents and guardians are able to access employment opportunities and fair work. However, the report makes it clear that parents across Scotland still face significant barriers to employment and training opportunities. That is why I hope that its contents will lead to Scottish National Party and Green ministers focusing again on establishing innovative policies and on the committee’s suggestions for expanding childcare provision and flexibility and creating additional support schemes for parents who seek to re-enter the workplace or gain educational opportunities.

The committee’s report is a useful one. Looking beyond the ministers’ comments that we have heard in the debate, I hope that they will genuinely consider acting on the report’s recommendations.

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

It is a pleasure to open the debate on behalf of Scottish Labour. I welcome the chance to highlight the report to Parliament and to highlight the important role that improved parental employability has to play in our fight against child poverty.

Tackling poverty, and in particular child poverty, is a mission that is broadly shared across the Parliament. Indeed, in many instances we have worked across the chamber to act in that area, not least by setting ambitious targets for the reduction of child poverty by 2030 and on the introduction of the Scottish child payment, which Labour had long called for and backed. It is no secret—we have already heard it said—that our actions need to go further and faster if we are to tackle child poverty and meet those ambitious 2030 targets. We need to recognise that there are concerns that we might fall short of those targets and of the interim targets that the Government has set.

Supporting parental employment as a mechanism to tackle poverty, which the report highlights, is just one of the areas in which we can go further and faster. I became a member of the Parliament’s Social Justice and Social Security Committee halfway through the inquiry.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Does Mr O’Kane believe that the Scottish Government would be able to go further and faster on tackling child poverty—its efforts on which I whole-heartedly endorse—if it had followed the Scottish Labour Party’s tax advice in the recent budget debate, which would have resulted in there being a reduction of about £500 million in the resources available to the Government?

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

The arguments on the budget and on the required growth of the economy were well made. I did not detect a focus on economic growth or employability in the Scottish Government’s budget, nor did I detect one on improving access to work for people across Scotland, including parents, especially those of young children. We could have another debate on the council tax freeze, which has attracted a degree of commentary from across the country on what could have been paid for instead of that intervention, which was not welcomed across the piece.

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

If the cabinet secretary would let me make just a little progress, I will come back to her.

I joined the Social Justice and Social Security Committee as it was progressing through its inquiry, and I was not able to go on the committee visits, but I heard evidence from representatives of a number of leading organisations, who spoke about the work that needs to be done to support people back into work, in order to develop a strong economy. A lot of concern was raised about budgetary decisions that have been made, and we have to consider the promised £53 million in funding for employability schemes and the complete scrapping of the parental transition fund. That was seriously concerning, and it was raised by a number of the organisations that gave evidence during the inquiry.

We should also look to the research by One Parent Families Scotland, which has put on record the difficulties that families have experience in not being able to afford essentials.

IPPR spoke about

“a massive chasm between the overall number of people being reached by current employability programmes and those who are supported into work.”—[

Official Report


Social Justice and Social Security Committee

, 15 June 2023; c 25.]

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has highlighted that one in 10 Scots is in persistent low pay. As we know, women are particularly impacted by that, as they are more likely to be single parents.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

I have heard many times from Labour members over the years that I have been here that they support the devolution of employment law to the Scottish Parliament. Is that the current position?

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

The minister knows full well that we had a number of debates in this place prior to Christmas on the devolution of employment law, and we have stated clearly that we need to have a UK floor for the standards that are expected. Our new deal for working people, which I am about to come on to talk about, has to represent the floor in terms of what we will deliver for people across the UK, with a view to the second phase, which will be on exploring what we can devolve further. We need to ensure that the standards are embedded across the UK.

What are those standards? They are a real living wage paid to workers, rights from day 1, the end of zero-hours contracts and the end of fire and rehire. Those should be the standards; that should be the floor—and that is supported by both the Trades Union Congress and the Scottish Trades Union Congress. That new deal for working people could represent a huge moment under a Labour Government, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, putting money back into the pockets of working people and supporting people in work. The point that I was making prior to the minister’s intervention was about that persistent low pay, which impacts on families across Scotland and hinders people from accessing all the support that they need in order to afford the essentials.

I will refer to some of the excellent work that has been done across Scotland, which I think would attract a degree of consensus in the chamber on where we can learn and do more. Fife Gingerbread is an excellent organisation, from which we heard during our inquiry. It has excellent advice and support services for lone parents and families in need. It co-ordinates with local employers to parent proof vacancies, establishing an action plan to help parents through training, education and going into employment, backed up by financial advice and all the holistic services that we would expect to be offered in supporting people on their journey back into work. I met representatives of Fife Gingerbread, and they commented to me that their whole approach is not just about the individual and the person seeking work; it has to be about the employer and the flexibility that we can expect from employers—which is not always forthcoming. I encourage the Government to continue to work in that space, to meet Fife Gingerbread again and to do further work.

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

If the minister is going to support that, I will certainly give way to her.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

Does Paul O’Kane not admit that, when it comes to compelling employers to do anything around workplace conditions, employment law needs to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament?

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

As I have said already, I think that we need a floor of rights for workers and expectations on employers, and I think that we can do that at UK level with our new deal for working people. I am being expected to take a lecture on employment rights from a Scottish Government that does not pay £15 an hour to social care workers, despite the demands of the trade unions, that sold off £700 million of renewables licences without a single condition for workers and that itself used zero-hours contracts to deliver leaflets for the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election, so I do not think I will take any further lectures on employment rights from the Government.

Having been generous with interventions and having relied on your generosity, Deputy Presiding Officer, I am conscious of the time. I will conclude by saying that Scottish Labour remains committed to working with whoever is willing to drive forward a mission to tackle child poverty. We welcome the report and what it has done to highlight parental employment issues. We hope that we can do more to tackle childcare and transport issues, for example. However, fundamentally, we know that we must have a floor of rights across the UK and that that can come only with a Labour Government.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

I am pleased about this debate, because I was—as is my wont—gently critical of the Government in a debate in recent weeks about the child payment. It seemed that the Government regarded the payment of the child payment as the success, rather than getting more families and parents back into work and making work pay. I am pleased to see that there is a focus on employability in a way that John Swinney has rightly highlighted. It is not about one single thing; a package of measures needs to be put in place. I am therefore pleased that this debate is happening.

There has been a focus on childcare. I do not quite agree with Meghan Gallacher’s analysis of the problem, but there certainly is a problem, and that problem was built in from the beginning, when the childcare arrangements were put in place. There was an agreement between the Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities that there would be a pay differential between council workers in nurseries and workers in the PVI sector. That was built in from the start.

I understand why that was done—the sector has evolved in that way. That was fine when there was a much bigger private contribution to childcare but, as the state provision has increased, the ability for cross-subsidy has been limited. Therefore, we have ended up with the PVI sector really under the cosh. The recent review of the rates has not really helped; I think that it has maintained the gap. The result is that we are losing experienced staff from the PVI sector to council nurseries. Closing that gap will not be easy and it will take years, but it needs to be closed if we want to maintain the flexibility that is provided by—

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

Let me finish this point. I know—I am keen.

The PVI sector offers flexibility and the extra capacity that we require, but it is also important that it provides quality. I am really worried about that point. If experienced personnel leave the PVI sector—not always to council nurseries; they sometimes leave for supermarkets, in which they will be paid more—that will result in a loss of quality in the sector. We desperately need that quality.

I will take the cabinet secretary’s question first.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

I am grateful to Willie Rennie for the opportunity to point out that 93 per cent of households that receive early learning and childcare were very satisfied or fairly satisfied with its overall quality. I hope that he takes that reassurance on board.

Will Willie Rennie also welcome the £16 million-worth of funding to uplift pay in the private, voluntary and independent sector, which the First Minister announced very recently?

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

I accept that many parents are satisfied just now. The important point is that I am predicting a problem for the future, and I hope that the cabinet secretary takes what I say in that light. The PVI sector is sending out clear warning signals that it is already losing staff. Some in the sector are reducing their capacity. We cannot do with that. We need more flexibility, because councils often cannot provide the flexibility that the PVI sector provides.

I hope that the cabinet secretary will speak to her colleagues to try to close that gap. That is not necessarily anything to do with how things are structured; it is to do with the funding rates that are available. The £12 an hour helps, but it does not close the gap. The starting salary in council nurseries in Stirling, for example, is £15 or £16 an hour, whereas it is £12 an hour in private nurseries just down the road. I know where I would go and work. We need to have good people in the PVI sector for it to thrive.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I agree with a lot of Mr Rennie’s analysis. The point that I have been trying to advance with the Conservatives is that, essentially, local authorities had the ability to design the arrangements at the local level. Many have chosen to expand the capacity that is under their stewardship. There is a difficult issue there that Parliament has to confront. It is not just about pointing the finger at the Government; we have to engage local authorities about the design of the system. That cannot be ignored in the way that the Conservatives have done today.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

It is about both. There was an agreement at the beginning of the process between COSLA and the Government that the pay differential would be built into the system, so that council workers would get national terms and conditions and those in the PVI sector would get the living wage. That was built in from the start, but I completely accept Mr Swinney’s point that it has been built into the way that councils have set up the service. That will take some time to fix, but it must be fixed or we will see a depreciation of the PVI sector, which I do not think that any of us wants to see.

I have another point about early learning and childcare, which is about the take-up of places for two-year-olds. I was a strong advocate for that and remember encouraging Alex Salmond almost weekly to adopt the policy. I was really concerned to hear recently that, despite the fact that we have an agreement about access to information from the Department for Work and Pensions, the take-up for two-year-olds has dropped.

That is exactly the group of people who we are talking about. Why has that figure gone down when we know where those people are? I appreciate that some councils are on top of that and that there is a big variation between local authorities, but the fact that the number has gone down should surely be deeply alarming to us, especially when those are exactly the people who we want to get back into work.

Two after-school clubs in my area have closed recently. That is partly to do with the job market and because they cannot get people to work there. In rural areas, there are sometimes not sufficient numbers of parents. However, because of their financial constraints, councils are also pulling out of providing support in some areas. I do not know what is happening in Aberdeenshire or what involvement councillors have had in that, but there is a problem with after-school clubs across the country, and they are essential to the flexible offer that we desperately need.

Although England seem to have cocked it up, the fact that—[


.] Okay, I will withdraw that. I thought that it was quite mild. My mother will be back on the phone again.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Mr Rennie, your mother might still have concerns, further to those of last week.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

I will withdraw that offensive remark.

There have been difficulties in England with the roll-out of ELC provision for working parents of one and two-year-olds, but they at least have an ambition to do more than the pilot schemes that we have here. I hope that the Scottish Government will be able to quickly roll out the programme. A lot of parents in my constituency have been inquiring why the provision that is available in England is not available in Scotland, and I have to tell them that those are different systems. Nevertheless, those parents are looking for enhanced provision.

I do not know how much more time I have.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I can give you until just after eight minutes.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

I learned something interesting from Inclusion Scotland about work programmes for disabled people. The assessment was that the pathways to work scheme under the Labour Government, the work programme under the coalition and Conservative Governments and the fair start Scotland programme were all pretty ineffective, despite their different designs. Inclusion Scotland found that the best programmes, such as the internship programme from the Glasgow Centre for Inclusive Living, were those that were driven by disabled people’s organisations. There may be a lesson to learn about drawing on the experience of on-the-ground organisations and trusted individuals to make provision available.

That also applies to colleges. We need colleges, because they give easy access to education, sometimes offering microcredentials and short courses so that people who have been out of the workplace for some time can easily get new opportunities.

I will finish with one more thing: bus services. I know that, in John Swinney’s area, Stagecoach has stripped back an awful lot of its service. Families in small villages and rural communities desperately need good, regular and reliable bus services if they are to get to work.

That takes me back to my first point: there is no single answer; we need a comprehensive suite of measures to get people back to work.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We move to the open debate.

Photo of Marie McNair Marie McNair Scottish National Party

As a member of the Social Justice and Social Security Committee, I thank the committee clerks for their assistance with the production of our report.

We received helpful evidence from a range of expert witnesses and people with lived experience, who provided a considerable amount of information that was extremely helpful in reaching our conclusions.

Tackling child poverty, especially without the full powers to do so, is complex but essential. That is why it is a national mission for the Scottish Government and one that can be achieved only if we tackle all the drivers of poverty. Every sector and Government must be up for that mission. Currently, too many families are locked in to in-work poverty and are unable to progress in the labour market, while others are unable to access the labour market at all due to structural barriers. The committee agrees that we need to ensure that there is good-quality flexible work as a route out of poverty, while targeting support for those who are unable to work.

The Scottish Government’s “Best Start, Bright Futures: Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan 2022-2026” aims to support up to 12,000 parents to access and sustain employment and up to 3,000 in-work parents to increase their earnings. To do that, the Scottish Government proposes investments in employability support, improvements in connectivity and childcare, the promotion of fair work and investment into local and regional economies. To fully achieve that, the committee agrees that the Government must supercharge its efforts and take decisive action now.

The Scottish Government aims to make employability services contribute to reducing poverty and inequality and transform the economy. Alongside COSLA, it is jointly exploring opportunities to scale up employability support for parents. Of course, employability services need resources to deliver interventions throughout people’s journeys, so we need to know how those services will be scaled up, particularly after the funding for the support that is offered by fair start Scotland ends in April.

There are many recommendations in the committee’s report and I cannot cover them all in the time that I have available, so I will highlight a further three issues. Not being able to access childcare is a common barrier to employment, which mostly affects women. There is also a particular issue with accessing childcare for children who have additional support needs. Children’s Hospices Across Scotland—CHAS—gave the following example to the committee:

“Just the other day, I was talking to a parent who had in place a very significant package of support but was simply unable to recruit the staff that she needed to support the child, so she is giving up work in order to be the sole carer for her child.”—[

Official Report, Social Justice and Social Security Committee

, 8 June 2023; c 15.]

That is why, as a committee, we want to see a detailed assessment of the availability of the current childcare workforce across the sector, including those with skills for children who have additional support needs.

The social security system acting as a barrier to getting into or staying in employment is another significant issue. The universal credit conditionality regime does nothing to support people into work and often causes misery and hardship instead. Marion Davis of One Parent Families Scotland, when illustrating the significant impact on lone parents, told us:

“we end up having to take them to food banks because they have had their benefits cut. That has a huge impact on employability and adds to the crisis that families face, which prevents them from moving on and achieving what they want to achieve.”

Philip Whyte of the Institute for Public Policy Research Scotland, in evidence to us regarding conditionality, said:

“we have collected a lot of UK-wide evidence ... that suggests that the regime is still incredibly punitive rather than supportive. That ratchets up underemployment, because people are quite often directed to, and take, low-quality jobs.”—[

Official Report


Social Justice and Social Security Committee

, 15 June 2023; c 37.]

It is clear that that approach does not set work on a strong track to help to reduce poverty. Instead, work must pay, and it must be flexible. Providing jobs that pay a fair wage and are family friendly, with flexibility in order to meet parents’ needs, is central to tackling child poverty through employment.

In that area, we are also hindered by our lack of control over employment law. Encouragement can only secure so much. That is why, on behalf of the STUC, Andrea Bradley told us:

“From an STUC point of view, we want to see Scotland in control of the levers that will have the greatest impact on the pay, conditions and working lives of people in Scotland. For that reason, we want to see the devolution of employment law to Scotland.”—[

Official Report, Social Justice and Social Security Committee

, 22 June 2023; c 32.]

Until we secure the necessary employment powers, I welcome the approach that has been taken by the fair work first policy. We must use that approach to maximise and secure what working people deserve. To that end, I welcome the fact that we are looking at the procurement and tendering process as a way to secure decent terms and conditions.

The aim of tackling child poverty through parental employment is so important to get right. By helping parents to access secure, stable and flexible employment, we can offer a sustainable route out of poverty for many families. As we know, every child should live happy and healthy lives and be able to reach their full potential. Let us push forward on that and prioritise the policies that really tackle child poverty.

Photo of Meghan Gallacher Meghan Gallacher Conservative

I am going to start with an incredibly cheesy line. My mum and dad are my heroes. They taught me so many important life skills when I was growing up, but especially they taught me that hard work pays off. That has always stuck with me. Working hard, getting a job and getting yourself into a position where you are financially secure is what most people want in life.

Becoming a parent in 2022 gave me the most important job that I will ever have. However, with the joy of watching your children grow up comes the realisation that you will need to work to provide for them. Parents right across Scotland understand that. There is no other way.

We are living in a completely different world from what generations before me and others experienced. Traditionally, the mum would stay at home and look after the kids while the dad went out to work, but, with the global cost of living crisis, most parents do not have the option to choose that sort of lifestyle any more. That is why work has become integral to tackling child poverty.

Parents should inspire not just their children but themselves. Getting yourself a good, well-paid job with opportunities is the best way to give your child the best possible start in life. That is the ethos that my parents taught me, and that will be the ethos that I pass on to my daughter should she ever wish to start a family.

There are many areas that we could touch on in this debate, as the topic is so broad and it crosses so many portfolios. Unsurprisingly, however, given the interactions that I have already had, I will focus on childcare. I am passionate about that, not just because I am a new mum who is navigating the childcare sector, but because parents need this Government to give them the tools that they need to succeed. That is why I back the roll-out of expanded free childcare here, in Scotland, and in the rest of the UK. It is staggering how much parents pay for childcare in Scotland. At one point, I was paying well over £500 a month, but my eyes watered when I was told first hand by parents that some have to pay well over £1,000 per child per month. That is a whole whack of a parent’s salary gone.

There are then the added costs of gas, electricity, council tax, food shopping, phone and internet bills and all the other cost pressures that an average household faces. It is no wonder that some parents decide not to work or to reduce their hours to balance childcare and family income. Parents have told me that, after their first child, they might not be able to afford a second. With the number of babies that are expected to be born over the next decade in freefall, we need to make it easier for mums and dads to raise a family.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

Will the member therefore encourage the UK Government to end the two-child cap, which is a punishment for those on low incomes who have more than two children?

Photo of Meghan Gallacher Meghan Gallacher Conservative

I was hoping that the debate would not descend into politicking, but we are descending into politicking. It is a shame that the Scottish Government is doing that when we are trying to encourage parents into work so that we can try to eradicate child poverty.

Some members in the chamber this afternoon will tell me that the current childcare expansion is a huge success, that there are no problems and that parents love being able to access 1,140 hours of free childcare. However, Willie Rennie made the important point that, although parents enjoy the childcare affordability just now, there are serious problems coming down the track.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

Does the member agree that the system is simply not working for parents who work at weekends or do shift work and need childcare?

Photo of Meghan Gallacher Meghan Gallacher Conservative

Absolutely. Nurses, doctors and others who work in front-line services are all impacted by that. That is why we need to look at childcare. I want childcare to work in Scotland. I think that everybody in the chamber wants that, but, every time I and others raise the issue, we seem to be shot down as if there are no problems whatsoever.

Nurseries in the private sector are closing their doors because this Government has not supported them under the current policy, and childminders are leaving the sector entirely. That is a shame, because the private sector is the backbone of our childcare sector. As Jeremy Balfour highlighted, it is the private sector that is offering parents choice so that they can get back to work. Without that, more parents will need to reduce their working hours or leave the workforce entirely. That will mean that we go backwards.

There is then the issue of councils. I recently learned that, in my own area, North Lanarkshire Council does not offer funded childcare to parents the day after the child turns three. That goes against the principle of the 1,140 hours. I received a response from the council’s education department, which told me that it had had to revert to the statutory guidance because of the legislation to defer entry to primary 1. That highlights the financial issues that our councils are facing just now—they have to go back to statutory policies because the Scottish Government has cut their funding. That is factually true, and the Government cannot continue to bury its head in the sand on the issue.

I do not want childcare expansion to fail. I want it to be a success, and I want it to work for parents and for young people. It is far too important to let it fail. It supports parents to get back into the workforce, and it drives down child poverty. I end with another plea: get the childcare expansion back on track so that we can all, collectively, work together to support parents and their children.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this important debate. Like some other members, I joined the committee only as its report was being written, so I am afraid that I did not personally hear any of the evidence that was given.

It seems clear that there is no one magic bullet to overcome child poverty; both the committee and the Government are agreed on that point. Parental employment will not be the only answer if that employment is poorly paid, part time or precarious. For some families and some parents, paid employment will not be part of the answer at all, especially if severe disability and caring responsibilities are in play.

As the Government points out in its response to the committee, there needs to be

“wider action to tackle poverty”, including

“more affordable homes ... Free School Meals and” social security. The fact that the social security budget is rising from £5.3 billion to £6.3 billion while many other budgets are rising by very little—if at all—seems, to me, proof that this Government’s priorities are in the right place.

As many members have said, affordable and accessible childcare is a critical factor. Some would argue that any such provision should be universal and should not risk the stigma that is involved if some families pay and other families do not. There is also a risk that some parents would not apply for what they are entitled to because of a lack of understandable information or because they are struggling to complete forms and paperwork. However, given the limited resources that we have at our disposal, I think that it is right to target low-income families in the greatest need—as the Government says,

“focusing on those who will benefit most.”

I will make some comments in relation to transport, in particular. That is a problem specifically in rural areas and on islands, where there is often little integration between buses and ferries or with onward trains on the mainland. However, there can be a transport problem in cities, too, for parents who are trying to juggle work, school and childcare. Bus and rail services often go only into the city centre rather than round the city—that is certainly a problem in Glasgow—which means that two or more journeys are required to travel round the city.

The Government’s response talks about

“ensuring that everyone has accessible public transport regardless of where they live.”

But, to be frank, I wonder if that is ever really going to be possible. I suspect that some people will always need their own vehicle because of where they live, and we have a responsibility to such families as well. The Government’s response also refers to

“The bus provisions in the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019”, which

“empower local authorities ... to respond to their own transport challenges”.

That is fair enough, but empowerment is only one side of the equation. The other side is money, and no amount of empowerment automatically provides the required money. The committee heard about the ready2go scheme in and around Inverurie. Although that scheme seems to have been successful, the costs were too great for it to continue.

Again, on the affordability of transport, I note that the Government says:

“support will be for people accessing employability services, rather than a wider concession for low income parents or other groups.”

Ideally, concessionary travel would be extended to include all modes of transport, as the Poverty Alliance suggests in its briefing. However, as I said on a previous point, I think that it is inevitable, given our current financial position, that support needs to be targeted.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

Absolutely. Mr Swinney is taking over.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

On Mr Mason’s point about the expansion of the concessionary travel scheme and the scheme being targeted, does he accept the argument that, as part of an employment or path-to-employment offer, it might be possible to offer concessionary travel support for a limited period, which would then be removed once an individual was in sustainable employment?

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

That would be targeting, indeed. In many ways, I like universal benefits—for example, those of us of a certain age have our bus pass, whatever our income is. However, the member’s point is correct—we should target, and there should be imaginative ways of considering the matter.

Another imaginative way is demand-responsive transport. It was mentioned in the report particularly in relation to rural areas, but I think that it can be part of the solution in urban areas, too. In Strathclyde, we have MyBus, which is currently restricted to a very limited group of people aged—I think—over 80, which rules out most working people. At the same time, the Strathclyde Partnership for Transport subsidises a number of routes, such as the 310 route in my area—often, there are only one or two people on that bus. I gather that Transport Scotland is reviewing DRT and digital DRT services, and my instinct is that there is potential for more to happen in that space.

On the theme of transport for low-income families, the committee asked the Government to take into account child poverty and parental employment

“when allocating funding for delivering transport policies”.

In its response, the Government referred to the “national transport strategy”, with mention of the

“concessionary travel schemes ... the on-going fair fares review” and

“the ScotRail peak fares removal pilot”.

To those, I add something that we looked at on Tuesday evening at the cross-party group on sustainable transport. Although e-bikes are expensive, they are a lot cheaper than cars and can give someone an increased range for travelling to work or college. France appears to be subsidising e-bikes to a much greater extent than the UK is, and anything that we can do in that respect could be a real boost for working parents as well as offering benefits around traffic congestion and air pollution.

Just yesterday, we had an interesting Scottish Parliament information centre breakfast briefing from The Fair Work Convention, whose definition of fair work is

“work that offers ... effective voice, opportunity, security, fulfilment and respect.”

In some measures, Scotland compares well with other countries. However, I was struck by the figure, which was shown yesterday, that around 75 per cent of workers in Scotland do not have access to flexible working. That surely must be a challenge if we are trying to get children and their families out of poverty. It was encouraging, however, to hear one academic say that most employers do not set out to be bad employers but that many feel constrained by the whole system—for example, in the care sector.

I also note the point in the briefing from the Scottish Women’s Budget Group that the committee’s report is too “gender neutral” and that there is not enough emphasis on

“the link between child poverty and women’s inequality”, which is probably fair.

All in all, the subject is wide ranging, and perhaps the committee’s report could not encompass every single angle. However, I think that the inquiry and report have been worth while, and I commend them to Parliament.

Photo of Carol Mochan Carol Mochan Labour

I thank the Social Justice and Social Security Committee for putting together this timely report. I am not a member of the committee; however, tackling child poverty should be the core task of this and every Parliament, so I hope that today’s debate encourages some tangible steps towards achieving that task, rather than it being just talk. People and children really need some action.

If we want to have a constructive debate in the chamber, we have to understand what the Opposition MSPs have a responsibility to do: we have a responsibility to work together, as my colleague Paul O’Kane outlined. There are points in the report that we agree with, and we feel that the committee has worked really well together. However, we have a responsibility to hold the Government to account on the promises that it has made, and to ask questions about what it might wish to do, or be able to do, to tackle the problem.

Scottish Labour agrees whole-heartedly with the committee that parental employment is a key determinant in ending child poverty. In fact, I would say that it is a primary determinant to which Governments across the UK have paid far too little attention: they often seem to think that poverty is the result of some mysterious trend rather than a logical consequence of their having made it harder and harder for people to secure long-term and sustainable employment.

I make it be clear—I think that I have said this in the chamber previously—that I do not believe that the UK Tory Government policies of the past 14 years have helped at all. I always make that position clear. I also make it clear that my job in Parliament is to hold the Government to account for the actions that it can take.

Parental unemployment, especially for extended periods, is at the heart of increased levels of child poverty. We have agreed on that. That, combined with the increasingly hostile environment that surrounds benefits, means that we end up with a recipe for a desperate problem to which we must seek solutions.

Reduction of child poverty is a goal that is shared across Parliament—I have heard that and I believe it—but we know from the report that the Scottish Government is set to miss its target for child poverty reduction next year. If we want to reach the 2030 target of only 10 per cent of children being in relative poverty, even more work will need to be done. It will need to start now, and it will need to be work on action.

The Government’s poverty statistics show that 24 per cent of all children in Scotland were living in poverty between 2019 and 2022. That means an extra 40,000 children have been added to the ranks of the poor over the past decade. I do not think that the Government wants to end its time in power with that as a headline. I hope that the cabinet secretary will give us some feedback on what modelling the Government has done on the issue as the numbers increase, so that we can secure some good work for the future.

For those reasons, the Government should be taking more proactive measures to achieve its aims by ensuring that it efficiently utilises the powers that Parliament has. What can it do? We do not hear enough from the Government about what actions it can take. It is the job of Opposition members to push the Government. When something has happened, we have to push the Government to say what it will do in response, instead of just talking about the difficult thing that has happened. Sitting on hands and allowing significant levers to remain untouched is not good enough. It does not help the budgets of families who are struggling to get into employment.

Parental employability funds were stripped of more than £20 million in last year’s budget, and little has been done to address the shortfall. The Government promised to give support in the form of grants, not loans, so that families would not become trapped in debt. That was an aspect of the parental transition fund, but that fund has fallen by the wayside. I hope that the cabinet secretary will say what the Government thinks it might be able to do in that space to help families.

My party has set out plans to create jobs, grow the economy and tackle poverty. Scottish Labour believes—I believe that the Government also believes—that good-quality employment is a key driver in reducing poverty. We need to do more to achieve that.

We also need to consider affordable public transport, which others have mentioned, viable housing support, action on debt and measures to help families with soaring household bills. Other members have also mentioned education and childcare. It is a massively wide area, so we cannot cover all points in the debate.

We need to understand whether we have done things in a meaningful way and whether there is more that we can do. The report indicates that the Scottish Government could be doing more. Eradicating poverty in this country will come only from delivering secure long-term employment around which parents can build a family. Precarious employment and factors that drive unemployment play into the figures on child poverty, so we must address them.

Let us not suffer another lost generation of children. Let us “supercharge”, as others have said, efforts in this important area. To that end, I plead that the Scottish Government look at the promises that it has made and the reality of where we are. Being the best among other parts of the country is not enough. What actions can the Government take with the devolved powers that it has? I think that families would appreciate answers to that question. If we can get answers to people’s questions—or even questions about those questions—the Scottish Labour Party would certainly be happy to work together with the Government on them.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

One of the tasks that I performed before I left Government was to chair a group of public service ministers. The group met regularly—certainly, during the pandemic, it met intensively. The group provided ministerial supervision of the creation of the child poverty delivery plan, which is at the heart of today’s debate. That work was very rewarding, because it drew together all the various aspects of the Government’s responsibilities in order to focus on the single problem of reducing and eradicating child poverty.

The plan recognised that the solution to the problem of child poverty does not lie in one single intervention, but rests on employment support, the child payment and the provision of a range of other supports in childcare, transport, health and education.

The intervention that I made on the minister earlier was perhaps a bit of self-interest to see whether the things that I believed to be absolutely critical when I was stewarding discussions in the Government are being maintained at the heart of the Government. We have to recognise—Mr Rennie made this point, with which I completely agree—that tackling child poverty must be multifaceted. No area of Government should be left out of activity to tackle child poverty.

It is reassuring that ministers have put on the record for the committee, in relation to its report, the importance that is attached to cross-ministerial working through the tackling child poverty programme board and the ministerial group on driving down child poverty, which is absolutely fundamental to the work.

It is also important to consider the perspective of external organisations, which can provide substantial challenge to the agenda that the Government is taking forward.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

I felt that I had to intervene on John Swinney in the debate, to be quite honest. I want to ask about one of the key parts of the issue—the report touches on this—which is that employability schemes can be vulnerable and face budget cuts. I know that Mr Swinney cut employability schemes when he was finance secretary. Why are employability schemes being at the heart of decision making in Government, and the cross-party and cross-Government approach, not working?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Such schemes are integral to the work on tackling child poverty—absolutely. When I removed funding from employability support, the one thing that I checked before I did so was whether there was capacity to absorb anyone who still wished to be part of those employability programmes. Although I may have removed money because I had to deal with rising inflation and cuts to the budget from the United Kingdom Conservative Government, I made sure that there was still provision for anyone who wished to come forward for employability support to have it.

What the child poverty action plan has delivered has been formidable. The committee narrates that, in 2021-22, 23 per cent of children in Scotland were living in relative poverty; the Government estimates that the current figure is about 19 per cent. The modelling demonstrates that if the Government was not applying its policies—if it had not put the child payment and other measures in place—child poverty in Scotland might be at 28 per cent.

To Carol Mochan, who asked what the Government is doing about all this and what powers have been used, I say that the Government is making interventions that have reduced the level of child poverty from what would exist if the Scottish Government was not acting. All that is happening against the backdrop of the prevailing austerity that we have had in our public finances for 14 years, in addition to the significant challenges that we have faced from soaring inflation. When we look at performance in Scotland, we see that the direct interventions of the Scottish Government are resulting in fewer children being in poverty than would be the case if the Scottish Government was not acting as it is acting.

I absolutely loathe the word that I am about to use—destitution—but the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s estimate is that destitution is rising at a slower rate in Scotland under the climate of austerity than it is in the rest of the United Kingdom. I know that Carol Mochan does not like comparisons with the rest of the United Kingdom, and I despise the fact that, in 21st century Scotland, we are still talking about destitution, but that shows what the Government’s actions are delivering in the face of the poverty-inducing agenda that has been at the heart of Conservative policy since 2010.

Photo of Carol Mochan Carol Mochan Labour

I hope that John Swinney recognises that I do not shy away from saying that I understand that different policies across the nations result in different levels of child poverty, but does he understand that we need to talk in this Parliament about what more we can do? Sometimes it feels as though the Government will not address other things that can be done. It feels as though it spends a lot of time debating its superiority over other Governments in the UK, which can be frustrating for people who spend their whole lives saying that more can be done.

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

In conclusion, Mr Swinney.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I am all for more being done. I am all for supercharging. I am all for going further and faster. What I am pointing out to Parliament is that the actions of the Scottish Government have delivered real and substantive reductions in child poverty at a time when the prevailing climate in the United Kingdom is that poverty is increasing as a result of the austerity agenda of the Conservative Government.

When it comes to going further and faster, we have to be able to take more steps on employability. I agree with Mr Rennie’s point about the role of the third sector and securing greater involvement for such organisations. On public transport, I am going through a very agitated period in my life about public transport provision in my constituency. The more the matter is addressed in the interests of the wider public, the better.

I ask the Government to maintain, please, the focus on cross-portfolio working to ensure that every element of Government is brought together to tackle child poverty in Scotland.

Photo of Maggie Chapman Maggie Chapman Green

I thank the committee for its detailed work and report on this issue and, of course, the third sector organisations that have shared immensely important and helpful briefings.

This is another debate that, in a just and compassionate world, we would not need to have. No child should be living in poverty anywhere, and the fact that so many do, in a hugely prosperous country such as ours, is a source of deep collective shame. We sometimes speak glibly about equality, but there is no greater inequality than this: whether a child goes to bed hungry and cold primarily depends on how much money their parents have. In turn, except for a privileged few, that largely depends on what kind of work the parents do.

When we think about it objectively, that is a ridiculous and incredibly unfair situation. It is one that we can mitigate and, to some extent, with the Scottish child payment and other social security measures, we have done. I am proud of the part that the Scottish Greens have played in that regard. Important as those measures are—as we have heard, they are keeping many children away from the brink of poverty—they, alone, are not enough.

As the committee’s report demonstrates, addressing parental employment must be an important and urgent part of our response. For that response to be effective, we need some fundamental changes. We need to change some mistaken beliefs and assumptions. We need to change the way in which we view, value and deliver childcare. We need to change our economy—what it does, what it enables and who it works for.

One myth is that parents are not already working. As the Poverty Alliance has pointed out, more than two thirds of children in poverty live in a household where at least one adult is in paid work, but that work pays too little or covers too few hours to meet a family’s basic needs. That is shocking. Whether we are talking about deliberately exploitative employers, small enterprises that are, themselves, squeezed by financial pressures, or care and transport deficits that limit availability for work, that is a failing system. In other words, it is not families that are failing.

That is why it is so important that the best start, bright futures delivery plan aims not only to increase access to employment but, specifically, to increase earnings. That is why fair work really matters—work that provides an effective voice for employees, opportunities to develop and learn, job security, human fulfilment and real respect.

We know that being a parent is work in and of itself. That, too, should be valued.

Another myth is that all types of family are facing the same challenges. I share the disappointment that was expressed by Close the Gap that the committee did not choose to take a gendered approach to its investigation. It is not an eradication of the existence or importance of fathers for us to recognise that most primary care givers and the vast majority of lone parents are women, and that those women are encouraged to seek jobs in low-paid, inflexible and undervalued sectors. On the contrary, acknowledgement of those realities allows us to see and articulate the particular challenges that are faced by single and care-giving fathers, which might often be less about financial pressures and more about societal attitudes and assumptions.

Collectively, we need to change the way in which childcare is seen, valued and provided. The recent funding announcement was very welcome, but the problem is wider and deeper than childcare workers’ pay. Childcare, as we have heard, needs to be affordable, accessible and flexible, and it cannot be limited to school hours or a traditional 9-to-5 working day. With the decline in the number of childminders, family members and informal networks often come forward to fill in childcare gaps, but, for many people, those are unavailable, including when family members move for work or study.

The special challenges that student parents face were rightly highlighted in the committee’s report, and I urge all colleges and universities to follow the sensitive approach that some have pioneered.

We should recognise, too, that different children have very different needs—socially, developmentally, physically and emotionally—and that those needs change throughout their childhood and adolescence. We need to employ our imaginations as well as our intelligence and recognise the many dimensions and relationships of our own lives, and we must not expect those of families in poverty to be any less complex or nuanced.

I particularly commend the childcare vision and principles that are set out by Close the Gap and One Parent Families Scotland, and I hope to see them widely accepted and implemented.

We need fundamental changes in our wider economy. As the report wisely highlights, nothing short of a whole-system approach will be enough. Inclusion Scotland and the Poverty Alliance have both outlined some of the most critical elements: the need for accessible, safe and free public transport; 10-minute neighbourhoods; living hours provision; and flexible and home working. All those things should be made available much more widely.

A just transition is deeply needed—away from the obscenity of an £8 million pay package for BP’s chief and towards a just green economy that is, at its heart, an economy of solidarity and care. However, that is not only about renewable technologies, important though they are, but about all the work that creates, builds and grows a healthy Scotland and a peaceful world.

I close by speaking directly to the families and children who are in poverty and to the parents who struggle daily to give their children what they need and deserve: you are not invisible, you are not forgotten and this is not your fault. It is our job to sort it out.

Photo of Roz McCall Roz McCall Conservative

I, too, thank the committee clerks for their diligent work in drafting such a comprehensive report and all those who supported the inquiry.

The Scottish Conservatives believe that the best way to tackle child poverty is to ensure that parents are in paid employment and earning a decent wage. It is very concerning that more than a third of children who are in poverty live in households that cannot get work, so delivering a growing economy with employment is key to tackling child poverty.

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice—who, unfortunately, has just left the chamber—partially agrees with that approach, which was detailed in the Scottish Government’s response to the committee’s recommendations. She said that the Scottish Government

“recognises the importance of increasing family incomes from work and earnings as key component of achieving a balanced and sustainable approach to breaking the cycle of child poverty”.

I agree with the cabinet secretary’s statement in the same letter, in which she reaffirmed the Scottish Government’s view that

“a sustainable exit from poverty will never be just about securing and retaining a job”.

However, securing and retaining parental employment is a crucial element in addressing child poverty, and that cannot be overlooked. That is particularly important for women, and I am grateful to Close the Gap for providing its briefing ahead of today’s debate. It states:

“action to address women’s labour market inequalities is vital for tackling child poverty.”

Parents still face barriers to employment such as poor childcare provision, lack of support when re-entering education and a failing transport system. Not being able to access childcare was the most common barrier to employment that was raised in response to the committee’s call for views. For example, the Scottish Women’s Convention quoted a mother who was struggling to juggle work and childcare. She said:

“There are no childcare providers through there, so you’re constantly having to look into what family or friends are available … no women can develop in their work, or their career until their child has reached a high school age.”

Accessible, affordable and flexible childcare is essential to support parents into sustainable employment.

The “Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan: progress report 2022-2023” recognised the need for more accessible, flexible and high-quality childcare, and a recent review of the impact of childcare on parental poverty noted that formal childcare is an

“indispensable part of a policy toolkit” for tackling child and in-work poverty. Unfortunately, the toolkit is missing a wrench and a couple of spanners.

I must again mention the City of Edinburgh Council’s proposal to phase out funded childcare in private and independent nurseries for parents who live outside the city. That will have a massively detrimental impact on my constituents in Fife who commute to Edinburgh for work.

I was recently informed that, because of the deferred start date for primary 1 as a result of the Give Them Time campaign, North Lanarkshire Council will not allow three-year-olds to start their funded hours the day after their third birthday. The reports that some councils are looking at cutting the provision entirely in some areas due to lack of staff are deeply worrying.

Removing parents’ ability to choose a blend of childcare provision goes against the Government’s commitment to getting it right for every child, and it actively hinders parents who want to return to work. The committee’s recommendation that the Scottish Government should

“reassess the scope to accelerate and scale up its work in this area” and should announce

“the exact timing, hours of provision, eligibility and income thresholds” as soon as possible is therefore an important recommendation, and one of which the cabinet secretary should take note.

The Government could make a marked difference by ensuring that there is adequate provision in proximity to places of work or learning. I suggest that, instead of making things harder for private nurseries, the Government should look at ways of increasing the number of on-site nurseries on school campuses, for example. Streamlining the funding process to ensure that the money does, indeed, follow the child would certainly give parents increased flexibility to choose the blend of childcare that is correct for them.

The Scottish Childminding Association described the decline in its workforce as follows:

“In the six years of ELC expansion, the childminding workforce has declined by 34 per cent, which means, in real terms, a loss of 1,926 childminding businesses and more than 11,000 childminding places for families.”

In undertaking its annual audit for the Scottish Government, the association looks at where authorities are as regards their childminder offer. It projected that

“those trends are set almost to double by July 2026 unless we take urgent action.”—[

Official Report, Social Justice and Social Security Committee

, 25 May 2023; c 4-5.]

That is a sobering thought.

I also want to use my speech to highlight the importance of the public transport options that are available and how they can be used to encourage parents back into the workforce. We need to make it possible for people to make orbital trips between suburbs without having to travel via city centres, and we must engage in joined-up thinking on more workable transport options.

I will give an example. I was approached by Fife College, which recently had to cancel a fully subscribed course on its Kirkcaldy campus simply because the time of the bus route had changed. That is not the first time that that has happened. It is surely not beyond the realms of the combined intelligence of organisations in local government, local transport and local education to ensure that they work together on processes to provide a proper, sensible solution.

I fear that, if we do not find sensible solutions, we will actively force families to stay in an imposed poverty trap in which self-worth, pride and individual achievement are sidelined by hopelessness and reliance on others. That cannot continue.

The Presiding Officer:

I call Jackie Dunbar, who will be the final speaker in the open debate.

Photo of Jackie Dunbar Jackie Dunbar Scottish National Party

At the heart of the committee’s report is a recognition that, if we want to tackle child poverty through parental employment, a wide range of interventions needs to be available, because we cannot focus on just one. As Bob Doris said, Dumfries and Galloway Council covered that issue very well in its submission to the committee, in which it said:

“There is no single thing which could be prioritised ... The approach must be considered as a whole system approach not separate policies or interventions.”

Therefore, we need to look at a wide range of interventions in relation to access to childcare, transport, training and education.

As I read the report, which discusses what more could be done in each area, I found myself wondering what is being done in Aberdeen. After all, when my SNP colleagues won control of Aberdeen City Council, they spoke about how they wanted to make Aberdeen a better place to grow up in, and I know that work is being done across the city to make that a reality.

The report states:

“Flexible childcare was a priority for participants of the Committee’s focus group and visits.”

I saw a fantastic example of flexible childcare recently, when I visited Cummings Park nursery in my Aberdeen Donside constituency—where, if they need to, folk can book spaces on an hourly basis rather than on a day rate. I met the nursery’s hard-working team along with Susan McGhee, the chief executive of Flexible Childcare Services Scotland. The new home of Cummings Park nursery is absolutely amazing. It provides a great environment for our young people to learn and grow.

Given that the report looks at education and training provision, I found myself thinking of the work that is done by ABZ Works, Aberdeen City Council’s employability and skills service. That initiative was launched in 2021. It helps parents and carers across Aberdeen to access the Scottish Government’s parental employability support fund. The support that ABZ Works can offer to parents now includes free training and funding; certified training courses; coaching to build digital skills; help to find childcare; and financial support to ease the transition into employment. That is a fantastic example of what can be done when Aberdeen City Council works with the Scottish Government to the benefit of the many folk who call our city home.

To take childcare provision and education together, I was saddened, recently, to hear from a constituent who was struggling to access the UK Government’s tax-free childcare scheme. They found out that, if they went to university, their household would lose its entitlement to tax-free childcare. Without saying what that course is—so as not to identify my constituent—I can say that it is particularly demanding and that its graduates are particularly in demand.

The value to that household of a year of tax-free childcare could be thousands of pounds. That could make the difference between my constituent deciding to go to university this September or waiting until their child is old enough to qualify for the Scottish Government’s 1,140 hours of free childcare.

Although tax-free childcare currently sits under His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, that policy has knock-on implications across a range of devolved policy areas, including early years and higher education, and for the sector that my constituent would seek to work in after their degree. Although tax-free childcare is not explicitly mentioned in the report, my constituent’s situation is an example of why we need a whole-system approach.

The report goes on to discuss public transport provision. Aberdeen is said to have the highest rate of car ownership of any city in the UK. That says something, probably, about the need for improved public transport in the city and about the challenges that are associated with realising that. Through a combination of the expansion of free bus travel and bus prioritisation—supported by over £10 million of Scottish Government funding, which I commend Douglas Lumsden on applying for during his time as the council’s finance convener—things are slowly starting to get better.

However more—something bigger—needs to be done. That is exactly what I am hoping will be delivered in the coming years. In particular, I am keen for Aberdeen rapid transit to roll out across our city: a city-wide mass transit system that could help to improve the timing, frequency and reliability of public transport in Aberdeen—which, in turn, could and should unlock employment opportunities and provide a lever for reducing child poverty.

I have not had time to touch on a lot that is in the report, but I will finish by focusing quickly on the success of the work that has been done in recent years. The report mentions modelling that suggested that,

“without ... the impact of Scottish Government policies, ... child poverty might be around 28% this year”— as John Swinney said. That is significantly more than the estimate of 19 per cent, which is still too high.

A range of decisions by the Parliament, not least to implement and increase the Scottish child payment, is making a real difference. More needs to be done. As the report highlights, that spans a wide range in Government, from early years to higher and further education, transport, fair work, social security and local government. I am confident that Scotland is moving in the right direction. That is certainly helped by the strong desire, across the chamber and the nation, to give the next and future generations the best possible start in life.

The Presiding Officer:

We move to the winding-up speeches.

Photo of Foysol Choudhury Foysol Choudhury Labour

Closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers is paramount in tackling child poverty. Encouraging and supporting parents into employment is a crucial way to ensure that children are lifted above the poverty line. The Scottish Government has paid that far too little attention in recent years, as Carol Mochan rightly pointed out.

The consultation process for this inquiry found that many individuals see childcare as the most important factor in securing a well-paid job. As Miles Briggs said, finding affordable and flexible childcare is the biggest obstacle that many parents face in seeking employment or returning to work. That disproportionately affects single parents, who continue to struggle to find good-quality employment that allows them to juggle childcare responsibilities. In the statistics, we see a gender disparity once again, as women are much more likely to be primary caregivers, and account for 91 per cent of single parents in Scotland.

The expense of childcare can be incredibly high. Meghan Gallacher pointed out that it can be up to £1,000 per child a month. That means that a big percentage of a single mother’s salary needs to be dedicated to funding childcare if they wish to remain in employment. The current 1,140 hours of funded childcare cover only the duration of an average school day. That means that single parents—who are often women—are limited in the hours that they can seek in employment. That often leads to single mothers being stuck in a pattern of working in part-time jobs.

As my colleague Paul O’Kane pointed out, in the latest budget, the Scottish Government cancelled a promised £53 million in funding for employability schemes and scrapped the parental transition fund entirely. Parents need to have ample opportunity to seek out a decent wage in addition to having adequate childcare options. Scottish Labour is committed to improved access to early years childcare. The Scottish Government has to be transparent about whether it intends to make additional resources available. As the inquiry points out, the programme for government does not set out what funding will be available to meet the new childcare commitments. A detailed spending plan is needed to show how it aims to achieve that, with relevant timescales.

It is clear that the labour market in Scotland is not working for everyone. Marie McNair rightly pointed out the barriers to parents accessing fair work. The Poverty Alliance has emphasised that more than two-thirds of children in poverty live in households where someone is in paid work. Access to fair work is crucial. One way that we can achieve that is by ensuring that parents from disadvantaged backgrounds have the same opportunities in the labour market as their peers. Labour’s new deal for working people will tackle the scourge of in-work poverty by making work pay and supporting parents’ progress in work.

Scottish Labour understands that only by delivering secure jobs and fair pay can we drive down poverty in Scotland for good. The committee’s inquiry highlighted the importance of good-quality flexible work as a route out of poverty. That needs to be done in conjunction with targeted support for those who are not able to work.

The repercussions and consequences of a childhood below the poverty line can be long lasting. It can have an impact on both physical and mental health, and so create strain on our already overworked national health service. It can also affect education and children’s ability to learn and develop, and significantly reduce their life opportunities and experiences. That is why Scottish Labour welcomes the recommendations in the Social Justice and Social Security Committee’s report. Tackling child poverty was outlined as the Scottish Government’s national mission. Let us now see that mission being acted on.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

I am happy to close the debate on the committee’s report on addressing child poverty through parental employment, on behalf of my party. I am proud of the work that the committee has done over the past year or so. I thank everyone who contributed to our report, all who engaged with us as we gathered evidence, and our clerks for their help in drafting the report. Sadly, I am the last member standing in that I am the only member who was on the committee at the beginning of the inquiry and is still on the committee today.

I will pick up on an interesting point that Maggie Chapman made. It would be worth checking, but I estimate that around 90 per cent of the people we took evidence from and who told us about their experiences were women. Although we did not deliberately take that approach, the report therefore reflects many of the views held by women in Scotland today.

Child poverty in any form is absolutely unacceptable. It is a shame on all of us that, in 21st century Scotland, children are still going to bed hungry. I hope that our report can be part of a conversation that will move us towards eradicating poverty in this country.

The report is long, but a number of excellent speakers were able to outline its key findings. Miles Briggs and other members mentioned data. Paul O’Kane and others spoke about achieving change further and faster. Undoubtedly, the debate has concentrated on two factors: childcare and transport. I will spend the short time that is available to me by highlighting a couple of the findings that have already been picked up. Everyone has identified those two issues, but we have to start working together on finding solutions to them.

If we are to get people into work, we have to ensure that they can get there in the first place. We no longer live in the world of the last century, in which our local communities provided ample working opportunities. Instead, we live in a society in which the majority of people have to undertake some form of commute before they get to their place of work. If someone is unable to drive because of financial restraints or disability, their only option is to use public transport. Unfortunately, there can be a lack of such services, especially for people who do not live in cities. For example, a few years ago, before I came to the Parliament, I considered applying for a job in the Highlands. There was one bus per day from the centre of the place where I would be working to the place where I might live, and one bus per day back again, which meant that it was never going to be possible for me to do that job.

The report highlights the major issue of people who work shifts or who need to travel outside office hours, when the frequency of transport services can be much reduced or even non-existent. During our evidence gathering, several respondents raised concerns about the recent cancellation of vital bus routes across the country. That underlines the findings of the report that the Parliament’s cross-party group on disability produced on the experience of disabled people across the country. Over and over again, we heard that there is a lack of bus services for people who live in more remote areas, which makes it near impossible for people without cars to get around easily there. The problem is even worse for people with disabilities, because much of our public transport is not accessible. We have heard about train stations with no lifts or ramps and buses that have space for only one wheelchair or buggy to be on board at a time.

If we are hoping to address child poverty by encouraging parents into employment, we must ensure that they can get to their place of work. For that reason, I strongly underline the committee’s recommendations to the Scottish Government on considering how public transport services can be designed and better supported to provide more affordable, frequent and direct services for young people and for parents.

I will finish by talking briefly about employability services. The support that they can provide to those who aspire to be in work can be truly life changing. Over the past year I have met representatives of Fedcap, which is a provider of such services here in my Lothian region, but also works across the country. Some of the stories that I heard were inspiring, and they showed the difference that investment in people can make to their lives. As we say in the committee report, it is very important that the Government makes it clear how it will scale up employability services, especially following the end of the fair start Scotland contract this year, and how, specifically, it will allocate funds to employability for parents.

I whole-heartedly endorse the committee’s report and I hope that, in her closing speech, the minister can shed some light on how the Government will address some of our recommendations.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

I thank the members of the Social Justice and Social Security Committee for securing the debate, for their report and for the very considered recommendations within it. We have only really begun to scratch the surface of those recommendations today, as Jeremy Balfour said. The report is a long read, but a good one.

Tackling child poverty is a central mission of the Scottish Government. It is clear from the committee’s report and from what we have heard today that, while there is certainly more that needs to be done in different areas—by the Scottish Government, local government and the UK Government—the Scottish Government is taking action to ensure that families are protected from poverty and are given the opportunity to thrive here in Scotland. It is right to point that out. At the outset, I wish to confirm that the Scottish Government believes that we have a path to meet our child poverty targets. It will be difficult—it is challenging—but we are absolutely determined to do so.

I have to say that that is made more difficult by UK Government policies, which have an impact on what the Scottish Government can do with its budget. They also have a direct impact on the people of Scotland. I, therefore, gently, say to Meghan Gallacher that it is not “politicking” to bring up the two-child cap. That is reality for people in every one of our constituencies and that is the context in which we are having this debate.

Many members quite rightly indicated that they would like the Scottish Government to go further. The committee’s term for that is for us to “supercharge” our efforts. We take that challenge very seriously, and we quite rightly have to do that, as a Government and as a Parliament. I point out to everyone in the chamber that we have just gone through a budget process where the Government has had to make difficult decisions, and where all parties have had the opportunity to come forward with costed proposals if they think that we should be doing something differently, spending money differently, not spending it on something or spending more money somewhere else. Within the budget that was passed, there was £3 billion of investment from the Scottish Government to tackle poverty and protect people from harm. Carol Mochan and others ask what we have been doing—that £3 billion of investment is exactly what we are doing.

Of course we need to see what more can be done, and that is why the Government looked at the parental transition fund. Unfortunately, when we get down to the difficulties around devolution and what is reserved, it is impossible for the Government, within the powers that we have, to develop such a fund, because of the intricacies of the tax system. That is just a statement of fact; it is not politicking. It is a matter of what we can do that is not the parental transition fund—which we do not have the powers to implement.

What more can we do around these issues? When the Deputy First Minister unveiled the budget, she absolutely committed to multiyear funding for employability schemes. That was one of the major asks that came through from the sector.

When we look at what the Government is doing, we can see the modelling that has recently come out, which forecasts that there will be 100,000 fewer children in relative child poverty because of the Scottish Government’s policies. That is direct action that is making a difference. However, once again, I do not shy away from the fact that poverty levels in this country remain too high and that there absolutely is more to be done.

In one of his interventions and in his speech, Mr Swinney talked about the importance of cross-party working and the need for Government departments to work together. He mentioned the meetings that he used to chair, which I remember fondly. I am not sure whether this is a reassurance, but I hope that he will be reassured that I now chair cross-ministerial group meetings on tackling child poverty. We recognise that we need to look very seriously at a number of issues within Government, as many members have pointed out.

One issue that many people have spoken about is childcare. We have quite rightly focused on that today, because childcare has a significant impact on the families that need it and on those who work in the sector. In 2024-25, we will continue to invest around £1 billion in high-quality funded ELC. That will ensure that we continue to deliver a very high-quality service. Earlier, in an intervention on Mr Rennie, I quoted some of the recent Scottish household survey results that show that. We are, of course, determined to go further.

The Presiding Officer:

We have a little time in hand for interventions.

Photo of Meghan Gallacher Meghan Gallacher Conservative

Will the cabinet secretary engage with the private sector to ensure that nurseries do not continue to close their doors? That will make the childcare policy fail, and nobody wants that. The Government must engage with the private sector and sort out the problems to get the childcare roll-out back on track.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

I know from my time in education that we engage heavily with many stakeholders, including private providers in healthcare, and I know that that has carried on. I am trying to get some consensus with Meghan Gallacher. That is often hard for us, but I will endeavour to do my best. I, too, recognise that the private, voluntary and independent sector is an integral part of what we have in Scotland and that it must have a successful future to ensure that it delivers for families and continues to deliver a high-quality service.

Now that I have tried to get some consensus with the Conservatives, I will move on with my speech. I hope that the attempt was appreciated this time around.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

I am also willing to be consensual with Mr Rennie, if I can be.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

I omitted to mention the First Minister’s commitment when he stood for the leadership of the SNP that he would close the gap between the provision for council nurseries and the provision for the PVI sector. The education minister wrote to me yesterday and basically said that the Government will not be able to meet that commitment. Why is that the case? Why are we not making progress towards closing the gap, especially as the First Minister promised that we would?

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

Mr Rennie has me at a bit of a disadvantage because, funnily enough, I have not seen the letter that the minister wrote to him yesterday. However, I have pointed out that the Scottish Government has provided £16 million of uplift to pay in order to make progress on that issue. That will not fully close the gap, but it is progress. I am sure that, if Mr Rennie is not satisfied with his reply from the minister, it will not be the last that she has heard from him on that.

I also point to the on-going work on ensuring that we scale up the role of childminders. I accept that there has been a decrease in childminding, as members have pointed out, and that we need to look very seriously at that.

A number of members have mentioned transport. I point to the fair fares review that is coming forward.

We know that employability services have had a positive impact, but that there is still work to do to ensure that people are assisted into work. I once again give a commitment that we will do that in partnership with parents, not against them, that we will ensure that there is sustainable and fair work for them and that there will be no threat of sanctions within that.

It is also important to look at the benefits that we have and at eligibility within the social security system. That is why we continue to do what we can to extend eligibility. A recent example of that is our best foods grant, where we estimate that another 20,000 families will be able to benefit from healthy food and milk. Again, that demonstrates what we are doing and will continue to do within social security.

Members are right: the best way to deliver on that is through employment. That is something that we must consider right across Government and I assure members that we will continue to do so.

The Presiding Officer:

I call Bob Doris to wind up the debate on behalf of the Social Justice and Social Security Committee.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

I begin by doing what I did not do at the start, which is thank the clerking team and all those behind the scenes who made our inquiry possible, as well as those who gave evidence to it. I did not do that at the start, which was remiss of me.

I am pleased that we have had an opportunity today to reflect on the committee’s wide-ranging report and the striking evidence that we heard throughout our inquiry. The report has clearly brought to light the importance of strong governance and robust infrastructure to support the development of the best possible parental employment offer. I will focus briefly on employability services and the role of employers before I come on to members’ contributions.

Scottish employability services include a range of devolved and reserved programmes, with local employability partnerships deciding on their own priorities and activities. I put that on record because it came up during the debate, when the minister highlighted the fact that the Scottish iteration of employability services does not include consequences or sanctions for those who do not take part in particular programmes.

The system is complex and can be hard to navigate for parents who may be battling with financial issues or securing childcare, or who lack confidence to take the steps to progress in the job market. One Parent Families Scotland highlighted that parents who are in poverty and stressed find it very difficult even to think about looking for a job. Being able to obtain and sustain a good job and providing for their children is an individual journey for parents. Some will need person-centred support to build essential skills, whereas others will benefit from work-based training to develop their careers. Jackie Dunbar spoke about how that can be possible and told us about ABZ Works in Aberdeen. If that can happen in Aberdeen, why can it not happen systematically and routinely across the country? We must look at, and share, best practice.

Family-friendly jobs that pay a fair wage are essential to maximising parental employment and preventing in-work poverty. The Scottish Government has said that it will use all available levers to make fair work the norm across the economy. Private sector employers must be encouraged and incentivised to implement the right practices and to make changes to match their business needs with the right career opportunities for parents. Witnesses came up with a range of initiatives that they believe could make a difference, such as partnerships with large employers, accreditation and reward schemes and tax rebates for socially responsible employers. The committee urges the Scottish Government to prioritise parents’ needs when devising offers and schemes for the private sector.

I also note that there was lively debate about where employment law should sit to enable us to do all those things and that others put it on record that the STUC and the IPPR think that employment law should sit here. Because I am speaking on behalf of the committee, I will leave that idea hanging, rather than taking a view on it at the moment. [


.] I think that Mr Balfour probably knows my view on that.

We also had a mini budget debate near the start of today’s contributions. Paul O’Kane and others were demanding more funds, which I understand and expect, with Meghan Gallacher specifically mentioning local authorities. Carol Mochan mentioned the parental transition fund and the cabinet secretary explained why she thought that that could not be brought forward. I am keen to know where that money will be used effectively elsewhere.

In an intervention on Mr O’Kane, Mr Swinney suggested that there would be even less money in the coming financial year, because £500 million-worth of Labour tax policies have been brought forward by the UK Government. In response to that, Mr O’Kane mentioned economic growth. An important point to make is that, when Mr Swinney suggested that, based on modelling, the Scottish child payment is reducing child poverty to 19 per cent, that is a £450 million commitment not to getting people out of poverty but to tackling the manifestation of poverty in society. To get people out of poverty sustainably, we need to get them into well-paid, meaningful jobs. That is why the committee’s report is so important, irrespective of party-political views.

We heard a lot about transport during the debate, which was not surprising. Mr Rennie and others talked about rural transport issues. As an urban MSP, John Mason reminded us that cities have issues as well. We seemed to get to a consensus when Roz McCall and John Mason spoke about towns and cities becoming transport hubs. Roz McCall mentioned orbital routes and others, and the importance of allowing people to travel the routes that they need to in order to make transport sustainable for them and their families. Those routes are simply not available in many cases.

Some members mentioned the provisions in the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019. I suppose that the jury is out on that, Presiding Officer. I am conscious that, tomorrow, Strathclyde Partnership for Transport is looking at potential franchising arrangements for Glasgow and the west. As a member of the Social Justice and Social Security Committee, rather than as a Glasgow MSP, I would be interested to know whether, when those new powers are brought in, the strategic transport authorities will think carefully about the journeys that parents and families need to make, especially night-shift workers, weekend workers or those who need to work antisocial hours. Franchising may be one solution, but only if it knits together all the competing demands of working families in order to make the journeys that they need to make possible. The jury is out on that, and we will see where it goes.

In response to demands for more spending on concessionary travel, Mr Swinney, who seems to have spoken frequently in the debate, mentioned the possibility of a tapered or temporary expansion of that for a period of time for those who are moving into employment. That is worth noting.

The central debate—and Mr Balfour acknowledged that this issue was at the heart of it—has been about flexibility and the effectiveness of high-quality childcare provision across local authorities. The minister commented on the variability in the quality of some of that provision. Meghan Gallacher suggested that the central role that local authorities play in the delivery of childcare may squeeze out other providers, particularly those in the private, voluntary and independent sector. There was some discussion about that.

Miles Briggs suggested that there is a lack of flexibility in relation to doing something different, which is something that Mr Swinney and others disputed and, again, there was a lively debate about that. The question that is left hanging is that, if some local authorities can use their statutory obligations and commitments to provide flexibility and be innovative, why can others not? If the powers are there, why are all local authorities not doing that?

The discussion about the early years workforce was important. Consistently at the Education, Children and Young People Committee, as well as in the chamber, Mr Rennie has raised his concern that staff in the independent sector are moving to local authorities because the employment that is offered is well paid and more secure. He raised concern about the gaps that that could be leaving and the potential decline of that sector. Mr Rennie mentioned that pay was one of the reasons why staff could be making that move. Marie McNair mentioned that, irrespective of where childcare staff are employed, it is important that they are sufficiently skilled. She gave an example of case in which staff who have the appropriate training are not always available to work with young people who have additional support needs. Marie McNair put that on the record from her own experience.

Maggie Chapman said that, although pay is important, we should think about raising the status and importance of childcare in our society more generally, which is something that we can forget. Finally, Roz McCall said, and it is worth mentioning, that whether we are looking at the private, voluntary and independent sector, childminders or local authorities, we need to see what a blended childcare approach looks like in order to get the balance and flexibility right for most parents and providers.

The committee’s inquiry and the debate have highlighted that breaking the cycle of child poverty is a tough mission that can be achieved only through collaboration and decisive action. The committee does not underestimate the challenge of effective governance and leadership across portfolios in difficult economic times. However, the progress on some priorities has been slow and time is short.

We thank the Scottish Government for its response to our report and look forward to receiving progress updates on the best start, bright futures delivery plan. As a committee that puts great stock in tracking progress, we will carefully monitor progress against the plan and the child poverty targets until the end of the parliamentary session. The Scottish Government has carefully planned its approach to parental employment, but it is time to move forward and deliver more, providing a strong foundational infrastructure whereby parents can thrive in employment, contribute to the economy and build the best possible future for their children.

I thank all members for their contributions. Our committee looks forward to reflecting on this debate as we take forward our work in the area.