The 10,000 Women and 600 hours of free nursery provision

Marlyn Glen

International Women’s Day was marked by a newly-minted declaration from Alex Salmond during First Minister’s Questions that there were now 10,000 more women in work in Scotland than there were last year.

However, the latest official statistics suggest something different from the weekly flurry of ceaseless Nationalist self-congratulations.

If we compare the number of women in work in Scotland in the latest available quarter, October-December 2011, with those in October – December 2010, the number of women in employment has fallen by 29,000.

In terms of the percentage of women at work in Scotland in the latest quarter,  the figure is 66.8 per cent.

This is the second lowest figure since the spring of 2002.

The number of women in Scotland without a job in December last year was over 41,000 which was some 4,000 higher than the year before.

The current number of women out of work in Scotland stands at 45,421.

There are big barriers to women wanting to return to work after having a child.

One is the monolithic 5-year council tax freeze which is forcing councils, with a predominantly female workforce, to shed more and more jobs.

The second is the same regime of cuts running through the entire public sector, with its majority female workforce.

Another is the expensive cost of childcare.

Mr. Salmond has sought to address this with the promise earlier this month of a legal guarantee of 600 hours a year of free nursery education for all three and four years olds in Scotland.

Now, seasoned politicos will recognise that this is the second outing for an old broken promise from the 2007 election manifesto when the SNP promised to increase the entitlement of free nursery education for three and four year-olds “from 400 hours a year to 600 hours a year"

Children in 30 of 32 Scottish councils never saw the promise fulfilled.

The 600 hours pledge is to come into force in the autumn of 2014 on the cusp of the Referendum campaign.

Women in Scotland need more affordable childcare now , but Mr. Salmond needs it for his Referendum campaign 30 months from now.

By contrast, as from next month, in England, the entitlement to free nursery education rises to 570 hours a year, over two years before Mr. Salmond plans his 600 hours introduction.

Hardened politicos will also recall that the organisations that will be charged with the responsibility of providing the increased nursery hours in Scotland will be the very same councils who have been compelled to shed thousands of posts, including teachers, and endure never-ending cuts in their budgets for services, in order to maintain Mr. Salmond’s council tax freeze.

Also promised is similar support for some 2,000 looked-after 2 years olds in Scotland.

This is welcome, but still only a fraction of the numbers of such children being helped in Wales.

The Welsh Flying Start programme for 0 to 3 years old disadvantaged children offers free part-time childcare for 2-3 year olds, and it is doubling its intake to 36,000 over the next 5 years.

Cast your gaze now to Scandinavia, to Sweden.

The official Swedish Institute website “Gateway to Sweden” reports on Sweden’s enviable record on childcare costs.

“Sweden's maximum-fee policy makes childcare affordable for everyone. Fees are calculated according to income with low-income families paying nothing while the costs for more affluent parents are capped at about £140 per month. The policy states that parents should only have to spend one to three percent of the family's income on childcare, depending on how many children they have. This means childcare costs in Sweden are a fraction of those in other nations.”

Note the cost .... nursery fees capped "for more affluent parents" at about £140 a month ...£35 a week .

Sweden has a progressive taxation policy.

Mr. Salmond by contrast, firmly sees Scotland’s future  as a low tax state with large  cuts in Corporation tax and its consequent big reductions in social expenditure.

Mr. Salmond has two dilemmas.

One, you cannot have Scandinavian-levels of public services paid for by US-levels of  low taxation,

and two,

He can never refer to both of them in the same speech.


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