As 18 September and Scotland’s choice in the referendum approaches, more and more people are waking up to the opportunity to transform childcare with independence. The opportunity to build a high-quality nursery system that supports parents – particularly women – into work, is one the greatest prizes to be grasped with a Yes vote.
It is an opportunity that can deliver a virtuous circle. Increased employment delivering increased tax revenues, which can be invested in even greater expansion of free nursery places.
It is an opportunity that simply isn’t on the table with devolution. The virtuous circle is broken by the overwhelming majority of tax revenues from increased employment going straight to George Osborne.
And, his plan isn’t to invest in expanding childcare. His plan is to cut a further £25 billion from public spending.
What we have been able to do with devolution is expand nursery provision to 600 hours a year – an increase of almost 50 per cent on the level we inherited from Labour. And we have extended eligibility to two-year-olds from workless households this year.
The move to 600 hours saves families £707 per child per year.
That’s a record to be proud of, but we can do much more with independence. We can transform childcare.
Independence will give us the opportunity to invest more in the supply of services, rather than subsidising demand. This is the approach adopted in the most successful countries. That ensures resources are spent most effectively, and that childcare becomes more affordable.
It is subsidising demand that has partly contributed to childcare in the UK being amongst the most expensive in Europe.
And we can begin that investment by having access to all of Scotland’s wealth. As one of the top 20 wealthiest nations in the world it isn’t that we can’t afford to provide more and better childcare, it’s that as part of the UK the money that could begin that transformation is spent on other priorities such as nuclear weapons. With independence we can spend that money on our bairns not on bombs.
In year one of independence, we will extend 600 hours of nursery care to half of all two-year-olds.
By the end of the first independent parliament, we will ensure that all three and four-year-olds and vulnerable two-year-olds are entitled to 1,140 hours of childcare a year. That’s almost double the current level and matches the time a child spends in primary school.
And, by the end of the second independent parliament we will extend this to all children from one to school age.
YES POSITION AT-A-GLANCE
• Expansion of childcare by the Scottish Parliament already saves families £707 per child per year
• With independence we can phase expansion of childcare to 30 hours a week – the same as primary school
• By the end of the first parliament, vulnerable two- years-olds and all three and four-year-olds will be entitled to 30 hours
• £700 million pledged in the first independent parliament to support increased childcare
• An increase in women in the workforce of 2 per centage points could boost tax revenues by £200m (0.5 per cent). If we match Swedish levels – an increase of 6 per cent – tax revenues could increase by £700m
This is a massive expansion that will allow thousands of women to work. Free childcare for the whole primary school day makes taking a job far more practical than the current system of free morning or afternoon sessions.
Anyone who currently faces the hard choice of how to make a job pay in the face of childcare costs will understand just how significant this change can be.
But delivering this level of childcare provision won’t happen overnight. It will require hard work and commitment but it is the kind of national ambition that independence allows us to pursue.
That national ambition can deliver for Scotland’s women, but just as important, it can also deliver for Scotland’s children.
We all know that the social and economic consequences of child poverty can last a lifetime. A child trapped in poverty at three is too often still trapped in poverty at 30. That is one of the most damning indictments of the current constitutional settlement.
But we know that study after study has shown that high-quality early learning and childcare is one of the most effective ways known to break the generational cycle of poverty.
Taking a child from a disadvantaged background, providing them with stimulation and learning, surrounding them with love and support, has repeatedly been shown to deliver real results.
Children who benefit from high-quality childcare are healthier, do better in school and in later life. And, the benefit is greatest for those children who currently have the least in life.
The late, great professor of economics, Ailsa McKay, writing last year, said: “The gains of investment are greatest for the most deprived children.”
That’s why Jackie Brock, chief executive of Children in Scotland has called our plans “a game changer”.
That is the opportunity that can be grasped with independence. It is an opportunity that no party can credibly offer with devolution. Even straining every sinew to expand nursery care within the current constitutional settlement, the most that will be delivered is an incremental increase with little or no revenues returned to Scotland to help fund further expansion.
The debate over Scotland’s competing futures is fully joined. The arguments are being tested. A choice of two futures is before us.
We can choose to take control of Scotland’s wealth, to set our own priorities and to put all our energies into making Scotland the fairer and wealthier society we all want it to be.
We can choose a better future.
I believe on 18 September we will grasp the opportunity of independence and transform the lives of women and children.
• Aileen Campbell MSP is minister for children and young people