Scott Macnab: Flagship childcare policy fraught with difficulties

Nicola Sturgeon has made delivering a workable childcare regime a key part of her governments policies. Picture: Getty Images

Nicola Sturgeon has made delivering a workable childcare regime a key part of her governments policies. Picture: Getty Images

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Sturgeon’s childcare pledge could be a landmark but it will be no simple job to deliver, warns Scott Macnab

When Scots were urged to buy into the SNP’s vision of independence two years ago, we were told to look north. The infant Scottish state was to be transformed into a Scandinavian-style modern, social democracy with excellent public services – although the tax hikes to fund this were usually glossed over. One flagship change was at the heart of this vision – to revolutionize state childcare with the effective introduction of a universal free system which would free up a “lost” generation of mothers to return to the workplace. With the loss of the referendum, most thought this pricey policy – likely to cost somewhere in the region of £500 million a year – would be hastily dropped. Nicola Sturgeon had other ideas. She surprised many by pledging to use Holyrood’s devolved powers to make the scheme a reality by the end of the decade. As political debate rages over school reform, tax hikes and Brexit, this potentially game-changing policy has slipped off the radar but its impact on the lives of ordinary Scots families dwarves everything.

Ms Sturgeon has rightly been quick to dismiss the notion of childcare as a women’s issue. She told a summit on women’s employment four years ago that it is an “infrastructure” problem which Scotland must urgently address.

US President Barack Obama has gone even further in the States, insisting the issue is a “national economic priority”. A quick glance at the make-up of Scotland’s employment picture sets out the situation all too clearly. The headline figures aren’t so stark, with about 1.3 million women in work – only slightly less than their male counterparts. There are also 61,000 women out of work, compared with 91,000 men. But the gender workplace divide starts to emerge in the sort of jobs being done. More than half a million women in Scotland work part-time – about three times the number of men. This means about a third of women staff are only working 16-30 hours a week compared with 10 per cent of men. Instead, most men (59 per cent) are working up to 45 hours – while fewer than half of women workers fit this category.

It is this situation which Ms Sturgeon wants to address. The SNP has said it wants to see Scotland emulate European countries like Finland where 85 per cent of childcare is publicly funded. The cost remains a bone of contention, particularly in light of former SNP justice minister Kenny MacAskill’s recent claim that Scots may have to accept higher taxes as the cost of universal benefits. But senior Nationalists have previously also pointed out that 80 per cent of childcare was met by the state in Germany and 75 per cent in Iceland. Those two countries have similar taxation levels, compared to the size of the economy, as the UK.

But the obstacles are already clear. Nationalist ministers point, with some justification, to the fact that they have increased the childcare entitlement for Scots parents from 412 hours when they came to power in 2007 to 600 hours for all three- and four-year-olds and extended eligibility to around 27 per cent of two-year-olds. This equates, in rough terms, to either a morning or afternoon, each day in term time. The problem arises when working parents try to make this fit in with their jobs. Things would be fine if they could simply take up their state entitlement – say, a morning – then fund the afternoon out of their own pockets with a top-up payment. No such luck. Most council nurseries won’t allow this and there are a dearth of so-called “partnership” nurseries which operate such an arrangement. It has meant that many parents in Scotland are forced to fund all care themselves – losing out on their state entitlement. This can stretch to more than £100 a week for families seeking up to 25 hours a week childcare, the Family and Childcare Trust has found, and up to double this for full-time cover. The situation has prompted angry parents in Scotland to form the Fair Funding for Our Kids pressure group to lobby for a level playing field. They say too many working parents are effectively left with no state support for leaving their youngsters in care for a full day.

They question how the Scottish Government can meet ambitious plans to almost double entitlement to 1,140 hours a year by the end of the decade when so many currently miss out. And it comes at a time when Scots say they are finding work-life increasingly stressful. More than a quarter of parents say they are “constantly torn” between work and family and over a third felt this affected their family life and relationships with their partner, according to the annual Modern Families Index published by Family Friendly Working Scotland. Barely a quarter (28 per cent) of parents in Scotland are getting home on time every day and more than three-quarters are working for longer, with 22 per cent claiming they persistently work more than their contracted hours. Perhaps most worrying is that almost two-thirds of women (65 per cent) and 51 per cent of men now think carefully about role changes, including promotion, because of childcare issues. Not far off half (41.7 per cent) of women and about one in ten (9.2 per cent) of men reduce their working hours to care for children under the age of eight.

Nicola Sturgeon has shown bravery in taking on something which could bring about fundamental change. This is political big game hunting when others stalk rabbit. The obstacles already facing childcare delivery are all too clear. If the current entitlement for many parents isn’t being delivered, how can ministers be serious about doubling it? But if they do, it will place Scotland in the vanguard of social change UK-wide. Previous landmark achievements of the Scottish Parliament like the smoking ban and land reform will pale by comparison. The prize of delivering a generation of women from the career paralysis which too often accompanies the onset of family life would surely mark Holyrood’s crowing glory for generations to come.

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