Scottish independence: Could Scotland afford better childcare?

What are the issues at the heart of the childcare debate in Scotland? What does the Scottish government propose in the event of independence and what do the major political parties have to say on the issue? And could Scotland afford an improved childcare system? The BBC's Marianne Taylor examines these key questions.

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How much does childcare cost?

Childcare policy is devolved to Holyrood. All three and four-year-olds in Scotland are entitled to 12.5 hours per week of free childcare, increasing to 15 hours in August, and extended to vulnerable two-year-olds. In the rest of the UK, state-funded childcare is between 10 and 15 hours a week. Some parents can claim working tax credits from the UK government to help with the costs. Working parents on low incomes can receive up to 70% of their childcare charges up to a maximum of £175 per week for one child and £300 per week for two or more children.

Childcare in Scotland

27%

Family income spent on childcare in Scotland

5%

Family income spent on childcare in Sweden

  • 50% Families relying on grandparents to help with childcare

  • 79% Councils saying they do not have sufficient childcare

  • £1,032 Annual shortfall, per child, in council-funded places at private nurseries

PA

Average weekly childcare costs, 2014 (£)

Region/nation Nursery 25 hours (under 2) Nursery 25 hours (2 and over) Childminder 25 hours (under 2) Childminder (2 and over) After-school club 15 hours

Source: Family and Childcare Trust

Scotland

106.04

102.06

95.59

96.84

49.54

England

110.95

106.19

100.74

101.51

48.40

Wales

103.17

102.28

94.24

94.24

45.98

Britain average

109.89

105.52

99.77

100.52

48.19

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Is there anything wrong with the current system?
Children reading books

Parents and childcare experts say the system is expensive, complex and inflexible.

Jackie Brock, chief executive of Children in Scotland, said it was based on parents' ability to pay "and the market's ability to provide and run a business".

The National Day Nurseries Association, which represents private, independent and voluntary facilities, said it was "financially unsustainable", with 92% of nurseries reporting a loss on the "free" places provided by the government. The association said most nurseries had no choice but to pass the extra costs on to parents.

And according to research published by the Family and Childcare Trust in 2013, 40% of local authorities in Scotland do not know if they can provide sufficient childcare for working parents, meaning provision is a postcode lottery that varies from council to council.

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What's the SNP's plan if Scotland votes 'Yes' to independence?

Childcare proposals for an independent Scotland

30

Free hours childcare per week for 3, 4 and some 2-year-olds

£4,660

Maximum saving per child per year

  • 212,000 Families better off

  • 35,000 Childcare jobs created

  • £700m Policy cost per year

Thinkstock

Under the Scottish government's proposals, state-funded provision would be doubled to 1,140 hours - equivalent to primary school hours - for all three, four and vulnerable two-year-olds by the end of the first independent parliament. This would be extended to all children over the age of one by the end of the second parliament.

First Minister Alex Salmond says the policy would eventually save an estimated 212,000 families up to £4,600 per year, per child, and create up to 35,000 jobs in the childcare sector.

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Is there an appetite for more free childcare?
Pregnant woman at keyboard

A report in 2013 by Save the Children found the high cost of childcare led to 25% of low-paid parents giving up their jobs, while a quarter of non-working mothers with pre-school children mentioned affordability of childcare as their main reason for not getting a job. A recent survey by the website Mumsnet found that two-thirds of mothers said the cost of childcare was an obstacle to them working more hours.

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Could Scotland afford a better childcare system?
Baby sleeping

First Minister Alex Salmond believes improving childcare would benefit the economy in an independent Scotland by encouraging more women into work. They in turn would pay tax and help increase economic output.

The Scottish government's White Paper says the childcare plan would initially be funded by savings made from no longer contributing to the UK nuclear weapon and scrapping the UK government's planned married couples tax allowance.

Mr Salmond insisted that his "transformational shift" could only happen under independence.

Economist Prof Donald Mackay backed Mr Salmond's stance, saying "no financially responsible Scottish government would dare to implement the childcare proposals under the fixed block grant funding of devolution, unless they were prepared to take an axe to existing programmes". However, economist Jo Armstrong, professor of public policy at Glasgow University's Adam Smith Institute, said more financial scrutiny was needed.

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We know the SNP plan, but what of the other main parties?
Children playing in play park

Labour: The party's education spokeswoman, Kezia Dugdale, said if Labour was in power at Westminster it would extend free childcare for three and four-year-olds to 25 hours a week for working parents, paid for by a levy on banks.

She added; "Labour would also guarantee parents wraparound childcare - access to breakfast clubs or homework clubs - from 08:00 to 18:00 in primary schools. Money would be provided for Scotland, but it would be up to the government there to decide whether to spend it in the same way as England."

Scottish Conservatives: Liz Smith, Tory education spokeswoman, said her party would increase nursery provision, "particularly to disadvantaged youngsters", and was committed to improving the "flexibility and quality of care". She added: "In the 2011 manifesto we made a commitment to ensuring that every three and four and vulnerable two-year-olds would receive 12.5 hours of nursery care per week and stated we would look to go beyond this when finances allowed."

Also the coalition government at Westminster, which includes the Tories and the Lib Dems, announced in March plans to offer families a new childcare subsidy worth up to £2,000 per child.

Scottish Liberal Democrats: The party's education spokesman Liam McArthur said it was important to do more to give "more children in Scotland the best start in life".

He added: "The strength of devolution is that countries within the UK can share the best ideas and benefit from different policy approaches at local, national and UK levels. For example, the UK coalition government's major new childcare voucher scheme will help around 210,000 families in Scotland, saving the typical working family with two children up to £2,400."

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