Alex Salmond unveiled a £114 million family support package of extra childcare and free school meals yesterday as he fired the opening salvo in Scotland’s referendum year at Holyrood.
More than a quarter of two-year-olds in Scotland are to get 600 hours a year of nursery care, the equivalent of 38 weeks of morning or afternoon session. All pupils in the first three years of primary will get a free lunch.
Last November, the Scottish Government promised a childcare “transformation” in its white paper on independence, but came in for criticism for delaying flagship plans until after the referendum, when responsibility for childcare is already with the Scottish parliament.
Yesterday, opposition parties claimed Mr Salmond’s announcement was a response to that criticism.
The Scottish Government, however, insisted the move was a defence of “universal benefits and the welfare state”.
It comes a day after Chancellor George Osborne announced plans for a further £25 billion of cuts – mainly from benefits – after the next general election.
Mr Salmond made his announcement on MSPs’ first day back at Holyrood after the festive break. He said the package was “important and immediate”, but added that only independence would bring about the greater changes required in Scotland. “They fall short, I readily admit, of the transformation that’s required in Scottish society,” he told MSPs.
The country needed a “tax, welfare and childcare system that doesn’t plunge children into poverty as the UK government is doing, but that puts us on a par with the best childcare systems in the world”, he said.
“That is why the future of Scotland’s children is Scotland’s future – and Scotland’s future is independent.”
The free school meals measure follows a similar announcement by the coalition government in Westminster last year.
Yesterday’s extension of childcare provision goes some way towards the pledge in the white paper to effectively introduce universal childcare in Scotland after independence. Under SNP plans, all children from the age of one would get 1,100 hours – the equivalent of a primary school week in nursery care – within a decade of a Yes vote.
Last night, Labour and Conservatives accused the SNP of cynically using childcare to boost its chances of winning the independence referendum. The announcement is the latest justification for an “unpopular” plan to leave the UK, according to Labour leader Johann Lamont.
“I have to be honest, both as a mother, as someone who taught some of the poorest children in our communities for 20 years, school meals would not be my priority in addressing child poverty,” she told MSPs.
“We have said, as the First Minister has said before the holidays, that we make our priority the 10,000 vulnerable children who would benefit from better childcare. Rather than help families now, he chooses to make a false offer for a referendum when he has the power to do so now. He makes them wait so he can engineer a false argument for changing the constitution.”
But campaigners insisted the changes would make a significant difference to the lives of vulnerable Scots. Children in Scotland chief executive Jackie Brock said: “Very few households are untouched by inadequate, inflexible and expensive childcare arrangements.
“This move towards subsidised childcare for some of Scotland’s poorest families will not only serve to help both the children and their families but will enable parents to consider employment, should they wish to do so.”
John Dickie, head of the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, said the free school meals announcement would be a “huge boost” to children and parents” who face growing pressure from benefit cuts, soaring food prices and flatlining wages.
“Means-testing means too many of our worst-off children are not receiving a free school meal and parents too often struggle to meet the extra costs of lunches as they move back into work or increase their hours when their children start school,” he said.
“What’s more, a universal approach ensures that all our children, whatever their home circumstances, gain the health and education benefits of a healthy lunch in the middle of the school day.”
The new package of support will be funded using consequentials from the UK government’s autumn budget statement. Free school meals will cost £13 million in year in 2014-15 and £42m in 2015-16. The childcare expansion will cost £15m in 2014-15 and £44m in 2015-16.
Mr Salmond said the free school meals plan would build on pilots established in five council areas in 2007-8.
He added: “It will remove any possibility of free meals being a source of stigma during the first years of a child’s schooling, it will improve health and wellbeing, and will be worth, crucially, £330 each year for each child to families across the country.”
A warning from campaigners that 100,000 Scottish children face falling into poverty by the end of 2020 as a result of UK welfare cuts is “important and memorable” Mr Salmond said. He said it could “reverse” the 27 per cent fall in child poverty under devolution.
The Scottish Government already planned to extend free nursery care from 475 hours to 600 a year for three- and four-year-olds – and 3 per cent of vulnerable two-year-olds, including those whose parents are out of work.
Yesterday’s announcement means this will be expanded in two stages to 27 per cent of two-year-olds – about 15,400 youngsters – by August 2015.
The changes will be introduced even if the referendum is lost by the Yes side in September.
Conservative leader Ruth Davidson noted that the SNP made a promise about school meals in its 2007 election manifesto.
“Nearly seven years in government, and let’s look at the record,” she said.
“Class sizes going up not down, PE promises broken, school-college partnerships still in the in-tray, while the student debt write-offs landed firmly in the bin.”
The SNP had now been embarrassed into making a pledge to copy Conservative-Lib Dem UK policy, she said.
She added: “A cynic might say that the SNP, having promised the earth and failed to deliver for years, has only now rediscovered its commitment to free school meals because the coalition government is delivering it.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “I welcome the commitment to free school meals, because there are significant numbers of children who don’t benefit from free school meals, because even though they are poor, they don’t qualify. So having this rounded policy that expands it to all young children is a welcome development, and will actually help to change the life chances of young children, despite what the critics say.
“But none of this stuff would be happening if Nick Clegg hadn’t taken the step last autumn, because the Scottish Government weren’t moving very fast on free school meals up to that point.”
The measures will mean about 15,400 Scottish two-year-olds will be entitled to 600 hours of free nursery care a year.
But councils are being encouraged to be flexible about how care is provided, in order to help parents juggle work around childcare – the key aim of the policy.
The measures will be introduced in two stages. From August, the entitlement will cover two-year-olds in families which are seeking work. This will give parents additional support when they are looking for employment, and will maintain that support when they are successful.
In August next year, it will be expanded to all families receiving certain welfare benefits such as Jobseekers Allowance.
The government had already committed to extending nursery care from 475 hours to 600 hours of childcare for three and four-year-olds as well as about 1700 of the Scotland’s most vulnerable two-year-olds.
The free school meals measure has been agreed after discussions with local councils and will be introduced for all school children in primary 1 to primary 3 from next January.
State ‘guardians’ set to keep an eye on youngsters until they reach age of 18
Young people are likely to be monitored by a state-appointed named person up to the age of 18 after a bid to end scrutiny at 16 failed at Holyrood.
Scottish Government proposals to appoint specific named persons from the NHS and councils to monitor every young person’s wellbeing from birth to 18 are one of the most controversial aspects of the Children and Young People Bill.
The bill is designed to encourage professionals to take ownership of a child’s wellbeing and identify potential neglect and abuse early, but opposition parties have questioned whether this should continue up to the age of 18.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats backed a Conservative bid to limit the named person to 16 at Holyrood’s education committee today, but they were defeated by the majority SNP members of the committee.
Conservative MSP Liz Smith said the bill could result in some young people having three named persons monitoring their family life if two 17-year-olds go on to have a child.
But children’s minister Aileen Campbell said that continuing the named person to 18 was vital to help young people bridge the gap from teenage life to adulthood. Ms Smith said: “We strongly believe it is not practical, nor indeed consistent with many aspects of Scottish legislation, to include 16- to 18-year-olds in the category of the child. As a child increases in age they increase in capacity, and have an increased right to make their own decisions and determine how they will lead their own lives.”
Ms Campbell said: “Many organisations and parents have stressed to us the importance of co-ordinated support from the school and other professionals as children with complex needs approach 17 and 18 years. The removal of the named person would simply heighten their concerns.
“We all recognise that young people aged 16 or under have varying degrees of concerns, skills and maturity and the majority will be able to reach their own decisions.”