THE SNP’s childcare policy is a shambles. Innovation, not independence is the way to improve and expand provision, writes Kezia Dugdale
Childcare is easily the biggest expense for working families and, therefore, no wonder it’s at the forefront of the referendum debate, which sees huge swathes of women in the stubbornly undecided category.
To see an issue entirely devolved to the Scottish Parliament used as a battering ram to make the case for independence is deeply cynical but I refuse to lose sight of the ambition. Why? Because women in the labour and trade union movement have been arguing for investment in childcare for decades.
The referendum has put the issue front and centre. If you believe, like I do, that high-quality, flexible childcare is key to tackling inequality, to raising attainment and unlocking women’s ability to access to work – we have to keep it there. Regardless of the result in September.
But that requires a serious debate about childcare, what its purpose is, how it’s provided and, ultimately, how we’re going to pay for it. It’s a serious debate that, despite its prominence, has been poorly served by the referendum.
So with that said, let me be clear, the White Paper offer on childcare is nothing but a pipe dream.
The goal is sound. I just wish the level of ambition had been matched with groundwork and detail.
Let’s start with the price tag. The SNP simply can’t tell us how much 30 hours of childcare a week for all one-year-old to pre-school children would cost. SPICe can. At least they’ve had a go at doing the numbers. That’s the Scottish Parliament Information Centre – a group of independent experts that works directly for the Parliament. They put the cost at £1.2 billion. But that’s just revenue costs. No one has a clue how many new nurseries would need to be built, how many refurbishments.
Surely if Government is going to embark on spending “a thousand, million pounds” as Alex Salmond likes to put it, you think they might have done some economic modelling to prove it worthwhile?
Alex Salmond has repeatedly said this policy will bring 100,000 women back in to the labour market but he’s done absolutely no work to evidence that his childcare policy will be the policy to do it.
If he had, he would have identified fairly early on that they weren’t enough women. Quite literally, there aren’t enough women with kids under the age of five looking for work in order to fulfil his objective.
Even if his policy was 100 per cent successful, he’d still be 35,000 women short.
NO POSITION AT-A-GLANCE
• Childcare is already devolved to the Scottish Parliament. All parties at Holyrood support increases in childcare.
• The SNP’s plans, which they say hinge on separation, are not funded. Instead they say they will have increased tax from getting economically inactive parents into work.
• However, the Scottish Parliament’s independent research centre found that there were around only half the number of economically inactive parents that the SNP policy required to go into work.
• The additional cost of these plans will be between £1.1 billion and £1.4 billion. Without knowing where this money would come from, the SNP policy is totally unconvincing.
This matters because the First Minster expects this policy to pay for itself. He believes that the tax receipts of 100,000 more women in work would pay for the additional outlay. But he has no idea of timescales and clearly no sense of what women get paid. Again, because he hasn’t done his homework.
They’d only get remotely close if every woman out of work returned to work on a full-time salary of £26,000 a year. No consideration whatsoever that women with young kids are more likely to end up in part-time, poorly paid, often unsustainable jobs. Given the SNP’s stubborn commitment to slashing college places for women and adult learners, it’s hard to see those patterns changing.
It is an utterly astonishing approach to public policy making and I can’t help but think it’s so cavalier, so nonchalant because they just don’t expect to have to deliver it. A pipe dream is all they need.
But even the dream is a disappointment because it’s still relentlessly based on an entitlement to “hours” and the reality is that families just don’t think like that.
What happens in the summer holidays? What about kids over the age of five? What about that frenetic 90 minutes getting kids fed, dressed and out the doors and yourself to work on time? What about those troublesome hours between the end of the nursery day and the working day? What about traffic and last-minute jobs and the realities of life?
The White Paper offer is an utter shambles. But I’m not prepared to kick it to the side of the road and leave the childcare agenda behind.
That’s why Labour is relentlessly focused on developing its alternative childcare policy based on the real-life experiences of families across the land. With the ambition of giving families what they need when they need it – crucially, by asking them first.
We’re looking at creative solutions too, and there are wonderful examples that don’t receive a penny of Scottish Government or council cash at the moment. Like Families First in Dundee, a One Parent Families Scotland project. It has worked with the local housing association to turn a tenement building into a nursery. The housing association charges a peppercorn rate knowing that if more women are working, they’re less likely to fall into rent arrears.
This model isn’t based on the childcare being free. Simply affordable. And for those awkward bits – being the start of a shift and the start of a school day – the nursery offers a home-based service. Again, not for free but for affordable rates.
The reality is that we can realise a dream of transformational childcare in Scotland but the constitution has absolutely nothing to do with it. It’s not about who has power where – but how it’s used.
• Kezia Dugdale MSP is shadow cabinet secretary for education.