Childcare – Yet another broken SNP promise that is getting worse

Childcare – Yet another broken SNP promise that is getting worse

by Gordon Dean
article from Thursday 18, March, 2021

THE ABSENCE of effective provision for childcare in Scotland is a longstanding problem that the SNP Government has failed to address, despite Nicola Sturgeon promising many times to do so. 

A seminal report issued by Citizens Advice Scotland in 2014, seven years after the SNP had come to power revealed that: 

  • Parents in Scotland spend 27 per cent of their household income on childcare, while the average in developed (OECD) countries is just 12 per cent. 
  • The average annual cost of childcare in Scotland was an unaffordable amount of over £5,000 for 25 hours care per week for children under the age of five.  
  • Only 23 per cent of Scotland’s Local Authorities stated that childcare for working parents in their area was sufficient, compared with 54 per cent of English Local Authorities 

Since then the Scottish Government has continued to fail to address the childcare crisis. Back in 2014 Nicola Sturgeon, who had just taken over as SNP leader, announced plans to double the amount of free early learning childcare available for children from the then 600 hours. There would be a “childcare revolution”, she said. This promise had also formed part of the SNP’s Yes campaign during the independence referendum of that year. Seven years later, the promise is still unfulfilled.  

Some revolution! 

The pledge to double child care to 1200 hours was watered down to 1140 hours, but there are no signs that the SNP will ever achieve this. The Scottish Government's August 2018 target to recruit 435 additional graduates to nurseries in the most deprived areas was missed – and still missed a year later. The SNP pledged to build or revamp 750 nurseriesbut by mid-2019 they had only managed to build 13 new ones and retrofit or extend 84 – 13 per cent of Sturgeon’s target. 

The failure of the SNP to implement its pledge is no surprise, in 2018 the independent watchdog Audit Scotland issued a damning report that criticised SNP Ministers for failing to begin detailed planning for the policy once it was announced and identified a range of failings including recruitment delays, lack of childcare infrastructure and inadequate funding. Of course the SNP Minister responsible insisted that the government remained “on track to deliver 1,140 hours by 2020”, which, needless to say has turned out not to be true.   

A March 2020 update from Audit Scotland, issued three months before the 1140 hours policy was meant to be fully implemented, noted that 50 percent of the necessary infrastructure had yet to be completed and, as of late 2019, councils had only recruited half of the necessary additional staff. The SNP tried to blame its failure to expand hours on Covid, but the truth is that neither the necessary infrastructure nor staff were available. 

Audit Scotland was not the only body to warn the SNP’s childcare policy was failing. A year later the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) warned that too little was being done to recruit staff to nurseries, which were facing a “workforce crisis.” 

Moreover, new regulations introduced by the SNP are actually leading to a reduction in childcare provision. Nurseries are pulling out of council funding agreements for three and four year-olds, saying that the Scottish Government’s new scheme does not cover their staffing costs and bars them from charging top-up fees to plug the gap.

Previously parents could top up the “funded” hours by paying for the remaining cost themselves. Now many parents will be unable to pay the whole bill and will be forced to remove their children from childcare. 

The SNP’s failure on childcare of course has knock-on effects, notably on poverty, which is rising in Scotland under all metrics. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation  reported in 2020, “Scotland has one of the lowest provisions of childcare for full-time working parents, compared to the rest of the UK. Previous JRF research has shown that families on a low income are more likely to work atypical hours, and therefore accessing childcare that fits those hours is important. In Scotland, just over 20 per cent of local authorities do not report any availability of childcare for parents working atypical hours.” 

It is the poor that suffer most from the absence of affordable childcare.  Citizens Advice Scotland provides the example of “a lone parent with a two-year-old. She has to leave for work every day at 5.30am so needs to rely on her father to take her daughter to a child minder early in the morning. The childminder costs £140 per week which the client is struggling to pay and has built up rent arrears and other debt. She feels the current arrangements are unsustainable and has looked for full-time work with a later start time, but without success. She wants to know if she would be better off giving up work and claiming Income Support.” 

It is a sad fact that under the SNP less than 30 per cent of local authorities have enough childcare for parents working full-time, compared to 56 per cent in England. Scotland has one of the lowest provisions of childcare for full-time working parents, compared to the rest of the UK, despite the SNP promising seven years ago to tackle the issue. 

This was a key commitment made by Nicola Sturgeon personally. Yet she failed to deliver. This whole episode demonstrates yet again that the SNP’s focus is on performative government – talking about things – as opposed to actual government – getting things done. 

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Gordon Dean is a Scottish policy analyst. 

Photo provided by Shutterstock. 

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