SNP conference: Alex Salmond pledges childcare boost for families
ALEX Salmond sought to woo working families to the cause of independence yesterday with a pledge to legally enshrine free nursery provision for pre-school children.
In a speech to his party’s spring conference in Glasgow, the First Minister announced that from September 2014, a month before his planned referendum, all three and four-years-olds will be entitled by law to 600 hours a year of nursery provision.
The SNP leader also pledged money for sports facilities, cash to create volunteering opportunities for young people out of work and made a promise to introduce a “living wage” of at least £7.20 an hour in every SNP council, a move that will benefit thousands of low-paid female workers.
He told his party’s spring conference in Glasgow that with the limited powers Scotland already had under devolution, the Scottish Government had “made Scotland a better place”. But he said that if the country left the United Kingdom and became independent, more could be achieved.
“A little independence has been good for Scotland,” Salmond said. “But real independence will be even better.”
The nursery care pledge will help to close the gap between provision in Scotland and England, where from this year, three and four-year-olds will get 570 hours a year free nursery care.
Salmond said the SNP in power had already increased free pre-school provision from 412 hours a year to 475 hours, with this benefiting 100,000 children a year.
But now his administration would be going further in that the Children’s Bill to be introduced to Holyrood next year would include a “statutory guarantee of over 600 hours of free nursery education for every Scottish three and four-year-old and for every looked after [in care] two-year-old in our land”.
But the pledge was immediately attacked by opposition parties who pointed out that the 600-hours-a-week promise first appeared in the SNP manifesto as far back as 2007.
The focus on family-friendly policies comes with polls continuing to show that women remain far more cautious about independence than men. Salmond’s aides said yesterday that the speech was aimed at what they term “responsibility Scots” – those who back the Scottish Government’s policies on health and education, and may be persuaded to back independence.
They believe that around 20 per cent of voters may fall into this category, and with polls suggesting that around 40 per cent of decided voters currently back independence, those floating voters could prove crucial to success.
With the SNP Conference hall at the Scottish Exhibition Centre packed to over-flowing, Salmond sought to argue that his party’s record in pursuing distinct policies at Holyrood under a devolved government showed that they were now ready to be trusted with independence.
The First Minister argued: “With a measure of independence on health, on education, and on law and order we have made Scotland a better place.
“Think what we could do with Scottish control of the economy.”
Focusing on everyday issues, he argued that “for every mum or dad juggling work and parenthood, our message is clear: the SNP is here for you and your family.”
The new measures to be introduced by the Scottish Government would provide a greater number of nursery hours, but could also provide more flexibility, with the free provision available over more weeks of the year.
Salmond hailed it as “the best package of free nursery education on offer anywhere in the UK”.
The first children to benefit will be those beginning nursery school in the summer of 2014, shortly before the planned independence referendum in 2014.
Labour, however, said the SNP had already declared it would be “increasing the entitlement from 400 hours a year to 600 hours a year”.
In fact, that has risen only to 475 hours and Labour said that only two councils – Labour-led Glasgow and East Renfrewshire – had achieved the target.
Neil Bibby MSP, Shadow Minister for Young People, said: “Why should parents believe Salmond’s 600 nursery hour pledge when, shamefully, Scotland is currently behind rest of UK in nursery provision? The SNP promised 570 hours of nursery provision five years ago and only two authorities – Labour’s Glasgow and East Renfrewshire – are delivering it. They also cut funding for vulnerable two-year-olds when they got in, claiming it didn’t work.”
Salmond also announced a new legacy initiative linked to the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.
A £10 million fund will be used to bring “sports facilities across Scotland into the 21st century” with the First Minister adding: “Our aim is to inspire Scots young and old to seize the opportunity presented by the Games and its legacy to become a better nation.”
Young people who are out of work could also benefit from volunteering opportunities at the Commonwealth Games. The most recent figures showed more than 100,000 16 to 24-year-olds in Scotland were unemployed.
To try to help them Salmond revealed details of a £5 million package to ensure 2,500 young people are “given the right support to help them towards the world of work”.
But Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont said Salmond had made a “fantasy speech designed to get applause in the hall” which failed to address “the real, big issues in Scotland”.
Lamont said: “He has the powers to create jobs, but chooses not to use them, so 400 women a day lose their job.
“He has powers to tackle child poverty, chooses not to use them, so more children live in poverty.
“He has the powers to get more young people into college, but cuts college budgets, so they can’t.”
She added: “If Alex Salmond thinks devolution is a stepping stone to leaving the UK, he’s got another think coming. Home rule and independence are two opposing concepts. One means we are part of the UK, and the other means we aren’t.”
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Wednesday 19 June 2013
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