IN A blow to one of the SNP’s flagship policies, new research reveals today that two-thirds of voters believe Alex Salmond should act now to extend free childcare provision rather than wait until after independence.
The Nationalists have vowed that childcare in Scotland will match the best in Europe within a decade of independence, with 30 hours of childcare each week - the same time a child spends at primary school – from the age of one onwards.
Writing in Scotland on Sunday today, the First Minister insists that vital extra tax revenues needed to fund the £1.2 billion change would be “lost to Scotland” and instead remain in London under the current constitutional set-up.
But childcare is already under the control of Holyrood and a YouGov poll released today found that 64 per cent of voters believe the Scottish Government should use the powers they already have to deliver improvements. The figure rises to 66 per cent among women.
Just 22 per cent thought Salmond needed the powers of independence to introduce the policy, according to the poll of 1,000 adults commissioned by the pro-union Better Together campaign.
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont said: “This poll should act as a clear warning to Alex Salmond that people in Scotland are fed up with him putting independence ahead of their interests.
“The Scottish Government already has the power to help parents who are struggling to juggle family life with their work commitments. Alex Salmond could act today to provide them with better childcare but would rather use it as a false argument for breaking up the UK now.
“When the SNP launched their independence white paper last month they claimed childcare was their priority. They could prove this by getting on with the job right now.”
The childcare plans are aimed at getting a generation of about 100,000 women back into the workplace. The SNP government believe the additional taxes raised - along with reductions in the benefits bill - would see the policy fund itself in two key phases.
The first phase promises to provide all three- and four-year-olds, and vulnerable two-year-olds, with 1,140 hours of childcare per year – the same amount of time children spend in primary school – by 2020, at a cost of £700 million per year. By the end of 2024, this would be extended to all children from the age of one to when they start school.
Salmond points to the 59 per cent of women with children aged under six who go out to work in the UK, compared with the 79 per cent in Denmark with its “excellent childcare system”.
The First Minister insists that the “transformational” change cannot be achieved under the current system at Holyrood.
“People ask why we can’t simply introduce these plans now,” he writes. “The problem is that the increased tax revenues which would be generated by thousands of women returning to work – as well as the reduced level of welfare payments they currently receive – would be lost to Scotland and go to Westminster instead.
“Under independence, that money would stay in Scotland to help pay for the expansion of childcare on a sustainable basis.”
The Scottish Government is already making some moves at Holyrood to improve the lot of working mums. The Children and Young People Bill proposes to increase the number of hours of nursery care to 600 for three and four-year-olds, and two-year-olds who are, or have been at any time since turning two, looked after or subject to a kinship care order.
Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie has voiced concerns that Scotland is currently falling behind England where 130,000 (20 per cent) of the poorest families are eligible for free childcare and this will extend to 40 per cent by September. Rennie said: “The SNP have the powers they need to ensure Scotland can share the same care that families in England are receiving right now thanks to Liberal Democrats in government. There is no good reason why children here should miss out on this crucial support.
“Alex Salmond’s own backbenchers are backing quick action to help children. Why should families here have to wait for the referendum?
“Parents need to see SNP ministers spending less time talking about the powers they want and more time using the ones they already have to help children get the best start in life.”