Pledge to deliver on it as quickly as possible
By Bill Heaney
The Scottish government’s commitment to double the provision of state-funded childcare—one that has not been made by a Government anywhere else in the United Kingdom—is not on hold, according to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
She told Holyrood MSPs this week: “Inevitably, its timescale has had to be re-evaluated because of the impact of Covid.
“We have seen an interruption to construction work, and local authorities, which lead on implementing and delivering the childcare policy, have been obliged to divert resources to tackling and dealing with the pressures created by the virus.
“We are simply being frank with people about the inevitable and unavoidable consequences of that.
“As I said yesterday, we will of course keep the position under review and will look for all opportunities to accelerate progress. I want to see our commitment—which we might say is the Government’s flagship commitment—delivered as quickly as possible.
“I know the benefits that it will deliver to young people as they go through their school education and the rest of their lives.
“However, I also know the financial benefit that it will deliver to families at a time when that will be both necessary and welcome.
“As I have done throughout the crisis, I have tried to be straight about the challenges that we face and to set out the reasons why some things that we would like to happen either cannot happen or cannot do so in a particular timescale.
“I will continue to keep the public updated in the same open and frank way. We will continue to be committed to delivering that policy.”
LibDem leader Willie Rennie said: “For weeks I have been making a positive and constructive case for a joined-up approach on childcare.
“Thousands of parents have been asked to go back to work without childcare arrangements being in place, so I am relieved that we might finally have something that might work.
“If physical distancing indoors for under 12s has gone and childcare fully reopens next Wednesday, that might allow parents to get back to work.
“However, the advice on childminding needs to keep pace with the education advice, because the risk to the childminding sector is clear.
“More than 80 per cent of childminders fear for their future, which is serious. I hope that the First Minister will respond to that.
“The First Minister knows that I am an advocate for good early learning and childcare and that I support the expansion to 1,140 hours of provision.
“I understood that many of the nurseries could not be built or refurbished in time for the expansion in August because the construction industry had to shut, but I was surprised to learn that the nursery expansion has been delayed for a year.
“Why does a three-month lockdown result in a 12-month delay for parents, carers and children around the country?”
Ms Sturgeon told parliament: “I do not want any childminder fearing for the future of their business; indeed, I do not want anybody fearing for the future of their business when we can do something to avoid that.
“However, equally, I do not want parents fearing for the health and safety of their children, and it is really important that, as we take these decisions, we take them on the basis of the best possible evidence.
“That is why some decisions have taken longer than any of us would have liked—it is unavoidable. We are looking carefully at this decision, but we must ensure that the safety of children is central to everything that we do.
“I addressed the point about the expansion of childcare earlier. There is not a uniform position; some local authorities will deliver the commitment more quickly than others and much closer to the original timescale. “Beyond that, we will take every opportunity to accelerate the roll-out where we can.
“We cannot magic away the inevitable impact that Covid has had on the timescales, but nobody—certainly nobody in Government—is keener than I and the Deputy First Minister to see the commitment delivered as quickly as possible. We will work with local authorities to ensure that that happens.”
But Willie Rennie told her: “Families are banking on the expansion of provision to enable them to get back to work.
“Children have already missed out on nursery education because of the months-long lockdown.
“The inequality gap continues to grow and the price of delaying the roll-out will be paid by families and children around the country through lost opportunities.
“The First Minister says that she wants to support an economic recovery, but there is no way to a strong recovery that does not include strong and growing childcare provision.
“This week, her minister signed off a statement saying that there would be no review until December and that, for six months, the position would not change. A few minutes ago, the First Minister said that that was not fixed. I want some clarity: if it is not fixed, have the December review date and the six months’ notice period also gone?”
The First Minister said she did not want to fight about it – an adversarial exchange, she called it – but told the LimDem leader: “However, the reality for almost every aspect of life right now is that nothing is fixed, which is really difficult.
“We are trying not to raise the expectations of parents before we know that we can deliver. This will probably happen in a range of ways.
“We will build a bit more time into things than we genuinely hope might be necessary. We are trying to strike a balance.
“We will do everything here—as well as across the whole range of our other responsibilities—to accelerate things as much as possible.
“There are significant uncertainties around how plans can be recast and accelerated as quickly as possible and around what we face with the virus.
“Our key challenge over the next few weeks is to ensure that we do not allow the easing of the lockdown to lead to a resurgence of the virus, because that will set everything back even more. We will then go into a winter period in which the risks of a genuine second wave are significant.
“Believe me, given the uncertainty of the past four months, I would love nothing more than to be able to give people in every sector cast-iron certainty about the future, but it would be irresponsible of me to do that. “We try to build the most realistic timescale that we can, on the basis that we will bring it forward where that proves at all possible. That will be the case with childcare and everything else that we are dealing with.”