Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig

Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, November 2, 2023


Early Childhood Development Transformational Change Programme

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-11053, in the name of Jenni Minto, on the early childhood development transformational change programme. I invite members wishing to participate in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now, or as soon as possible.


The Minister for Public Health and Women’s Health (Jenni Minto)

It is a great privilege to open the debate on our early childhood development transformational change programme. I believe that it will create the opportunity and momentum for us to come together to help build the healthier, fairer and more successful nation that we want to see, by creating the conditions for future generations to thrive. Children get only one chance at childhood, so we must ensure that, whether we are parents, practitioners or politicians, we do what we can to get it right for every child.

There is nothing more important than giving our children the best start in life. The period of a child’s life from before they are born and through the very early years is a unique and critically important period of development. It is when lives are shaped, laying the foundations for future health and wellbeing. As a nation, we must collectively do all that we can to support, help and nurture their growth. The World Health Organization is clear that all children need nurturing care during that early period. That means that the care that they get needs to be sensitive and responsive to their needs, providing the right nutrition and opportunities to play, learn and grow up healthy and safe from all types of harm.

That is why, in this year’s programme for government, we included a clear commitment to continue to invest in primary prevention from pre-birth through the earliest years, to ensure that children have the nurturing care that they need to improve their outcomes, and to provide enhanced support for speech and language development during the critical window in the early years.

I appreciate and agree with much of what Jenni Minto is saying. However, does she not recognise that, at the moment, the waits for speech and language services across much of the country are simply unacceptable?

Jenni Minto

Through the programme, we are gathering evidence to ensure that we improve what is going on across the country. We are working hard to deliver that.

I am proud of the work that is already going on across Scotland, and I am grateful to the volunteers, practitioners and support networks that make that work happen. The power to do that is in our communities, and it is reflected in the African proverb:

“It takes a village to raise a child.”

However, I know that families are experiencing challenges now like never before. With the impact of the pandemic and cost of living pressures, care givers’ wellbeing and capacity are a major factor in providing nurturing care. We must therefore ensure that they get the support that they need. I am pleased that partners are already working on that across Scotland through the whole family wellbeing fund.

In Scotland, our families have the support of the health visitor pathway. That means that we get an early indication of concerns about early child development. Covid has pushed up those concerns, and we are determined to turn that around. I particularly want to see children in our most deprived areas thrive. Our early child development programme will ensure that more children develop to meet their potential.

Will the minister take an intervention?

Jenni Minto

I would like to make some progress.

By working together, we will create a culture, an environment and a society that enhance early child development. I saw that in action when I attended the picnic at the Parliament as part of Scottish breastfeeding week. Meeting staff and volunteers as well as parents and babies demonstrated the dedication and enthusiasm for that important work. The right support at the right time for mums makes a world of difference. I know that there is fantastic work across Scotland that looks at how we can create a more positive culture around breastfeeding. That involves everyone, not just mums.

We are building on the foundations of much excellent work in Scotland. For example, we have our brilliant baby box, which has reached more than quarter of a million families since 2017. That ensures that every family with a newborn has the essential items that are needed in the first six months of a child’s life. It helps our health visitors to support parents to help their children’s development, through using the contents of the box to have conversations on issues such as home safety and safe sleep and promoting actions to support aspects of child health, such as teeth brushing.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

The Scottish Government’s own research on the baby box found questions raised by professionals. Jenni Minto mentioned breastfeeding—questions were raised about how that can be improved through the box. What is the Scottish Government doing about improving the content and information on that?

Jenni Minto

That is a fair question from Mr Whitfield. We are gathering information so that we can understand the different requirements. We have a really strong process that we are working through to gain information from people who have been lucky enough to receive the box and to think about how things can change.

We know that things are hard for a lot of parents and that they need support. This week, a Queen’s Nursing Institute nurse told me how she can see the positive impacts on babies and their families when a wee bit of extra support can be given. We have delivered the internationally recognised family nurse partnership programme across Scotland for more than 12,000 young parents. That makes a real difference for them and their babies. Our best start maternity and neonatal programme, with the introduction of our neonatal transition care, keeps mothers and babies together, which is crucial for bonding and attachment.

I was very fortunate to open the best start learning event in the summer. Midwives and maternity teams from our health boards came together to learn from one another and recognise the success of continuity of carer in improving outcomes for women and their babies.

The introduction of our young patients family fund provides essential financial support for meals, travel and accommodation, and it supports families to stay with their babies and children when they are in hospital.

Meghan Gallacher

A leaked document from staff at a Lanarkshire hospital has shown that senior medics fear for the safety of babies if the specialised centre at the Wishaw neonatal unit is downgraded. Does the minister share my concerns that medics in the facility in Wishaw are concerned about those proposals? As a result, should that be reviewed?

Jenni Minto

We are currently speaking to medics in the neonatal unit in Wishaw. However, I take the opportunity to emphasise the important, evidence-driven changes that we are making in neonatal intensive care. Due to pioneering advances in medicine, babies who are born at the extremes of prematurity today stand a much better chance of healthy survival. Evidence tells us that that complex care is safest in units that treat a higher number of babies, with co-located specialist services so that they can get the best chance in life.

We need to join up our policies and services, building a more strategic approach that is centred around the needs of children and families. That will build on so many examples of great collaboration, from the wonderfully fun bookbug sessions to the valuable and crucial care that we provide through our universal health services.

The transformational change programme will build on the significant approaches that we are already delivering, with a shared aim of improving early child development and clearly reducing the level of child development concerns. Without intervention to support babies, young children and adults who are affected by adversity, we hold back our nation in terms of both the long-term consequences for jobs and income and the health and wellbeing of our citizens.

We need to act collectively, and we need to act now, to support all the children, parents and carers who need help. Healthy and positive early child development requires family-friendly environments, services and supports that are focused on the needs and rights of babies and young families. Delivering that requires action across Government, with the support of health boards, local authorities and the third sector.

By working together, we will achieve outcomes that are greater than the sum of their parts. I believe that, with the right action, we could see the level of early child development concerns reduce by a quarter by 2030. I am sure that we can all, across the chamber, agree that creating a culture and environment that fully support every child’s development is of utmost importance.

Children are the adults of tomorrow, and providing those future adults with the best life chances, the highest quality of life and the opportunity to contribute positively to the economy and to society must start even before they are born. I hope that members on all sides of the chamber can recognise the excellent progress that we have made, while agreeing that more is needed if we are to truly make Scotland the best place in the world to grow up in.

I highlight a quote from the World Bank, which says:

“Investing in the early years is one of the?smartest investments?a country can make to break the cycle of poverty, address inequality, and boost productivity later in life.”

I whole-heartedly recognise that position. I and my ministerial colleagues are focused on ensuring that Scotland is a nation where children can develop, grow and reach their full potential. I commend the motion to Parliament and thank all members here today for their continued support of measures to promote early child development, for our youngest children of today and future generations of tomorrow.

I move,

That the Parliament recognises the need for an Early Child Development Transformational Change programme to build on the excellent and world-leading practice already delivered in Scotland, and to further act on the unique and critical period of child development from pre-pregnancy to age three, when experiences and the environment shape the foundations for life and population health, including physical and mental health and wellbeing, life expectancy, educational attainment and participation in the economy and community; is committed to focussing collective efforts on giving all babies and children in Scotland the best possible start by making sure that the Scottish Government applies the latest evidence and continues to invest in and improve its existing policies, to ensure that it is “getting it right for every child”; considers that it can build on the targeted investments that it has already made in support of families pre-birth to three and that joint working can create a culture, environment, economy and society that prioritises and enhances early child development, to realise its ambition of creating a more healthy, fair and equal society; notes the negative impact that the UK Government austerity measures and policies such as the two-child benefit cap continue to have on child development, and welcomes Scottish Government interventions, including the Baby Box and the Scottish Child Payment, to give children the best possible start in life.


Roz McCall (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I am pleased to open the debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives.

As much as I understand that the Scottish Government recognises a need for an early child development transformational change programme, it is difficult to welcome, and even to debate, a programme that is nothing more than a voice of intent. I also understand that the motion affords Scottish National Party members the opportunity, over the course of an hour and a half, to enjoy a round of self-congratulatory pats on the back while berating the United Kingdom Government. One would be forgiven for thinking that there was an election on the horizon.

However, I am happy to talk about the commitment to focusing collective efforts on giving all babies and children in Scotland the best possible start. There is so much to say, and I know that my colleagues will expand on many of these points during the debate, but I will pick out three main points from the Conservative amendment to ensure that we are getting it right for every child, starting with pre-birth.

More and more evidence is coming forward about the importance of pre-birth support and the effects on the fetus from the environment and the detrimental health of the mother. We know about the negative effects of cigarettes and alcohol on a baby’s development within the womb; we can physically see how fetal alcohol syndrome causes brain damage and growth problems, and we know that those effects are irreversible.

There is also neonatal abstinence syndrome. Recent evidence on NAS states that babies born with opioid addiction, within the first few weeks after birth, are likely to suffer from tremors and convulsions, excessive crying, poor suckling or slow weight gain, breathing problems, sweating and lack of sleep, to name but a few.

That is nothing compared to the long-term problems that can drastically hinder a person throughout their life. Neonatal abstinence syndrome will result in brain developmental delays, motor problems due to poor bone, muscle and movement growth, behavioural and learning problems, speech and language problems, insomnia, ear infections and even reduced vision. Early detection is imperative. Antenatal and neonatal services are, therefore, so important.

Literally no number of baby boxes or child payments will ever be able to make a difference if children are born with completely avoidable syndromes. With Education Scotland’s figures showing that between 3 and 5 per cent of learners have fetal alcohol spectrum disorders and recent information that more than 1,000 children have been born with NAS within the past five years, it is disappointing that the SNP has downgraded neonatal services, and that there are still almost 6,000 midwifery posts that have not been filled.

My second point is about access to child mental health services. The Scottish Government likes to talk about getting it right for every child, and it has done so again in its motion today. However, as is so often the case, the rhetoric very rarely meets reality. There is a mental health crisis among children and young people, which the Government has failed to get close to dealing with. On the SNP’s watch, Scots across the country are waiting far too long for mental health treatment, and none more so than in child and adolescent mental health services. We should remember that the SNP has never met its CAMHS target for 90 per cent of children and young people to start treatment within 18 weeks.

In 2022, almost 9,000 children were refused mental health treatment. Between January and June this year, 4,640 referrals to CAMHS were rejected. In my region of Mid Scotland and Fife, in the quarter ending March 2023 alone, NHS Forth Valley rejected 225 CAMHS referrals. Long delays in accessing treatment can lead to more entrenched difficulties by the time a child or young person is able to access a service. Time and time again, we stand in the chamber and voice our collective will to keep the Promise, but that is impossible if we do not recognise the connection to the mental health of the young people in Scotland.

Let us again look at the CAMHS statistics for Forth Valley in my region. Recent figures showed that NHS Forth Valley has missed a key child mental health waiting time target. Between January and March 2023, 42 per cent began treatment within 18 weeks, which is absolutely disgusting considering that the target is 90 per cent. Less than half of our young people are being seen within the allocated timeframe. More than two thirds are waiting over a year to begin treatment in the first place. Failing to solve the CAMHS crisis will lead to poor mental health outcomes for future generations.

My third point is about the early years. The proposal for the 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare was well discussed when I was a councillor, and we were constantly reassured that the only way to ensure the provision was to work actively and proactively with childminders and the private nursery sector. It was also highly stressed that the aim was to facilitate a blended approach, allowing parents to plan and utilise the correct variables and choices of childcare that were right for their child’s needs.

It was always going to be impossible to meet the targets without the support of childminders and the private nursery sector. Therefore, I wonder what has happened. Why do we now have private nurseries closing, fewer centres providing funded early learning and childcare than in 2021, and fewer three and four-year-olds registered than in 2021? Why have a third of childminders quit the profession since 2016, and why are we being advised that the number will increase to 64 per cent, which means that almost two thirds of childminders will be gone within the next three years?

Audit Scotland found that the Scottish Government’s previous flagship policy to reduce child poverty—the 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare—was now “fragile” due to

“budget pressures and risks around workforce and the sustainability of funded providers ... which are important to achieving the intended policy outcomes.”

Surely, child poverty is still high on the agenda. I look forward to the Scottish Government sorting out that situation as a matter of urgency.

It is impossible for the SNP to get it right for every child and to achieve the transformational change to which the minister refers when its policies are failing young children across Scotland right now. When we eventually get some detail about the early childhood development transformational change programme, I hope that the SNP will stand up, recognise the implications for the Promise and finally make tangible inroads on the outcomes for all Scotland’s children.

I move amendment S6M-11053.2, to leave out from “the need” to end and insert:

“that work must be done to act on the unique and critical period of child development from pre-pregnancy to age three, when experiences and the environment shape the foundations for life and population health, including physical and mental health and wellbeing, life expectancy, educational attainment and participation in the economy and community; is committed to focussing collective efforts on giving all babies and children in Scotland the best possible start; regrets, however, that it cannot welcome an Early Child Development Transformational Change programme without the detail of what this programme entails; believes that there must be a new Early Years Framework, which was last updated in 2009; notes that, under the Scottish National Party administration, Scotland does not have an excellent and world-leading practice; understands that the Scottish Government has downgraded neonatal services across Scotland and is failing to support children and families pre-birth; acknowledges that the childminding workforce has declined by a third since 2016 and that an Audit Scotland report concluded that the early years and childcare sector is fragile due to budget pressures and risks around workforce sustainability; recognises the mental health crisis among children and young people, which can lead to significant problems later in life; is concerned that the Scottish Government failed to meet its target to clear Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) waiting lists, and calls on the Scottish Government to meet its target for 90% of children and young people to start treatment within 18 weeks, which it has never done before.”

I call Martin Whitfield to speak to amendment S6M-11053.1.


Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

It is a pleasure to take part in this debate because, to echo what Jenni Minto said in her contribution, children are the most important people in Scotland. I hope that accountants will not think it unfair of me to say that children are the most important asset that we have. Most importantly, our young people are our future and we owe it to them to move heaven, earth, stone and water to ensure that they have the best life.

For a number of years, we have heard that Scotland should be the best place in the world to grow up. I absolutely agree with that, but I think today’s debate is a missed opportunity to discuss the complex issue behind the question that it poses. The answer is not simply to get one part of the jigsaw correct: unless we put all the pieces in place, we are going to fail, no matter how successful certain elements are.

This is in no way a criticism of Jenni Minto, but I am slightly concerned about data. We had a short exchange about the baby box. In August 2021, the Scottish Government undertook a review of the baby box scheme. Much of that is rightly successful, but the objective evidence showed that 26 per cent of the parents who were interviewed said that they needed additional support, specifically with breastfeeding. The Government has that data. Of the 72 per cent of professionals who had received training regarding the baby box, 37 per cent said that that was insufficient. With respect, the data is there. What is missing is the conclusions that might be drawn from that data, the strategies to improve those percentages and the policies that would make changes, which we should be debating here. After that, we can have an exchange about where training is needed.

Jenni Minto

It is important to recognise that the Government has invested an additional £9 million in breastfeeding and that 46 per cent of babies aged from six to eight weeks are now being breastfed, which is the highest ever rate. We also have far wider recognition and understanding that mothers can breastfeed in many different locations across Scotland.

Martin Whitfield

I am now concerned that we are having a debate in which we are being told that we are trying to find data when data actually exists. Could we not have had a debate about where and how that money is being spent and whether it is reaching the families who are most in need? As we heard in Roz McCall’s powerful opening speech, significant numbers of young people are born facing challenges that we are not addressing. Out of respect for the people of Scotland, and particularly out of respect for our young people, we should be taking the opportunity to debate those facts. I look forward to the next debate.

Does the member agree that it would also be helpful if before today’s debate, Opposition parties had been made privy to what the programme would actually mean for young people?

Absolutely. Information is all.

Will the member accept an intervention?

Martin Whitfield

I will proceed or we will get stuck in a cul-de-sac.

Information is all and we must know what the ideas are. People in this chamber and across Scotland—professionals, parents and our young people—have a lot to contribute so that we can bring about the exceptional life that children truly deserve from us. We could have been having that debate, which might have been the start of a debate on those ideas. We will certainly have to return to this.

One challenge that I find, and which I raised in connection with evidence on the bill to incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Right of the Child into Scots law, is that so much time is wasted. That may be less important to an adult than to a child. We heard during First Ministers’ questions today that a child may have left high school before there is an appropriate transition in place for them. We are letting down generation after generation and that is unfair on them, because they are looking to us and they expect more.

I realise that time is particularly tight this afternoon, Presiding Officer, so I am going to finish with a great point that will, no doubt, cause utter controversy across the chamber. It is worth remembering that the last Labour Government reduced by 2 million the number of children who were growing up in poverty in the United Kingdom—that is 200,000 children in Scotland. Despite all of the offerings from the SNP-Green Government to improve that, we are in a worse position now than we were then, and that disappoints.


Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

I will start with a quote from one of my favourite Nobel prize winners, the economist Professor James Heckman. He said:

“some kids win the lottery at birth, far too many don’t—and most people have a hard time catching up over the rest of their lives.”

He went on to say:

“Early investment in the lives of disadvantaged children will help reduce inequality, in both the short and the long run”.

I do not think that anybody in the chamber would disagree with that.

There is a common understanding about what we are trying to do, and I accept that some of the work that the Government has done has been positive. The expansion to the 1,140 hours for three and four-year-olds and some two-year-olds is a good thing, and I think that it has made a difference to many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. I take some credit for the expansion to the disadvantaged two-year-olds, which I eventually persuaded Alex Salmond to adopt after considerable and repeated badgering in this Parliament over many months. The support for those two-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds is an important part of raising the life chances for that group.

Will the member take an intervention?

Willie Rennie

Let me just say this next bit.

It is a bit odd that today’s debate is broadly about rhetoric rather than a plan. I like the rhetoric; I could talk about rhetoric all day. However, we need a plan if we are going to have a meaningful discussion about what is next.

We have got into some of the detail today. I think that the Government’s proposals for family nurse partnerships and breastfeeding are equally good. The steps on minimum unit pricing for alcohol—which deal with some of the points that Roz McCall was talking about in relation to alcohol and drugs—are helpful.

However, there are big midwife shortages and huge CAMHS waits. We have real problems around the issues that Oliver Mundell was raising about speech and language therapists. It would be good to have a plan about how will tackle those issues so that we can examine what is going forward.

I want to get some clarity from the minister on a really important point—that she will not be surprised to hear me make—about the private, voluntary and independent sector. We have had promises for a long time, including from the First Minister during the leadership hustings for his party, that he was going to solve the problem. I welcome the £12 an hour living wage increase—that is a good thing. However, the minister knows that that is not going to solve the problem on its own. The problem is that experienced staff are leaving the PVI sector because they can earn more elsewhere. That is threatening the quality of the education and care that those facilities provide. In future years, we might face some really negative Education Scotland and Care Inspectorate reports. We need to deal with the problem now so that we can avoid that in the future.

I will give an example. I received a report from Cambusbarron village nursery near Stirling, which has been recruiting for a new member of staff. It found that the starting salary for early years practitioners in the local council was £16.02 an hour. The Government promised to fund £12 per hour starting salaries for the PVI sector. That leaves that nursery to fill a gap of £4 if it has a hope of getting anybody to work in that post—it is expected to cover a third extra. God knows where it will get the money from, because the sector is not rolling in money. The Government has somehow built in a discrimination that means that the nursery worker in Cambusbarron village nursery will be expected to provide exactly the same quality service as the worker in the council nursery for £4 an hour less. Who is going to do that job? The Government has, by design, built that discrimination into its funding of the PVI sector. That has got to change. If we are going to have a hope of getting good quality, flexible private nursery provision, which is a major part of the Government’s offer, the Government really needs to solve that problem—ideally very soon and in the next budget.


Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

Scotland is leading the way in giving children the best start in life. I am proud to say that that is internationally recognised and evidenced through the groundbreaking baby box, the Scottish child payment and so much more.

Across the country, more than 250,000 baby boxes have been delivered since the start of the scheme in August 2017. Since August 2021, the Scottish Government has delivered at least 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare for all eligible three and four-year-olds, saving families £4,900 per year.

Children living in poverty can never flourish or have the best start in life. That is why the Scottish Government has invested £1.3 billion in the game-changing Scottish child payment, which is forecast this financial year to lift 50,000 children out of poverty—the figure is 90,000 when the payment is combined with other benefits. Currently at £25 per week, the payment has been increased by 150 per cent since its inception, and it is available for all children up to the age of 16.

The Scottish child payment is unique to Scotland, and it is one of the most ambitious policy interventions to reduce child poverty in recent history. That is despite the financial challenges emanating from the UK Government’s callous cuts and the abhorrent two-child benefit cap, which affects almost 81,000 children across Scotland.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation believes that the Scottish child payment is significantly reducing child poverty. In addition to many other measures to promote wellbeing among children and families, the best start grant package has put more money in the pockets of 284,495 low-income families in Scotland.

We aim to go further on access to funded childcare, which is a game changer for families and for expanding our workforce. It will be expanded from nine months through to the end of primary school in early-adopter communities in six council areas. Fife and Shetland Islands will join the existing councils of Glasgow, Clackmannanshire, Inverclyde and Dundee City. That means that 13,000 additional children stand to benefit by the end of the parliamentary session.

As our motion says,

“the unique and critical period of child development”


“from pre-pregnancy to age three, when experiences and the environment shape the foundations for life”.

The early child development policy recognises that, because childhood development is fascinating and complex. One size never fits every child, as they each develop at different rates in different ways. The one thing that they all have in common is the need for attachment, love and care. Attachment is crucial in the early years for healthy development. I have seen children at first hand who have not been lucky enough to experience that, and it often leads to a variety of problems during the course of their lives.

Nothing is more important than attachment and a stable, loving start in life. That is why all measures taken by this Government aim to provide that to support families that are often struggling in the most difficult circumstances, particularly now, during a Tory-made cost of living crisis.

I am aware that my contribution is highlighting the achievements and aspirations of this Government to get it right for every child. I am very proud of them. I am sorry if they sound self-congratulatory, but I think that they are worth repeating at any opportunity. However, it cannot be overlooked that, over the past six years, the Scottish Government has spent £733 million to mitigate the worst impacts of UK Government policy, such as the bedroom tax and benefit cap, with £127 million being invested this financial year alone.

It is plain to see that, if we could use that money to promote our wellbeing policies, reduce poverty, build more schools and create a climate-friendly environment, we must have the power to use our resources—our taxpayers’ money—to do that, rather than spend them mitigating the UK Government’s wrecking policies. The only way to do that is for Scotland to be independent.


Oliver Mundell (Dumfriesshire) (Con)

I welcome the opportunity to speak in today’s debate. It is personal to me, having two relatively young daughters and many friends who have children in this age bracket.

I will always be exceptionally grateful to those individuals who have supported my family, but, having been through the system recently, I have no doubt that it is under great pressure and huge stress. That leads to many people experiencing patchy delivery and poor outcomes. There is a growing sense that our health and social care system is now in a position where it is good at responding to emergencies but it is not always there to meet the care needs, particularly of mums and their babies. That should make us pretty sad.

I have spoken previously in a debate about support for the whole family. I do not think that we can even get to that point, because we are failing at the first hurdle when it comes to pre-birth and post-birth support.

We know that when families get off to a bad start it makes everything more difficult and can have lasting impacts for children. The quality of services and support on offer for mothers and young children, both clinical and in the community, causes me serious concern. I say that on the basis of my experience in my constituency and listening to colleagues in debates around the country.

We cannot fault the Government when it comes to ambitious rhetoric. Like other speakers, I do not aim this criticism at Jenni Minto—I have a great deal of respect for her and believe her to be a very hard-working minister. However, we are doing families and our young people a disservice if we do not own up to the reality that we often fall a long way short when it comes to delivering a Scotland that is the best country in which to be born and grow up.

I do not want to fall into the trap of getting bogged down in petty debate about the baby box. Equally, we have to be grown up enough to say that, although the baby box is nice and is helpful for many people, it does not fundamentally shift the dial for many of our most vulnerable families. After 16 years, if that is the best that things get, we need to be asking serious questions.

Does the member recognise any good policies that the Scottish Government has introduced? Does he recognise that some of the ones that I have just listed are helping families?

Oliver Mundell

I recognise them, and I am saying exactly that, but I cannot understand how the member can come here and trot off that political spiel without recognising that we have a national shortage of midwives, that neonatal services in this country are being cut and that they are struggling to provide the level of service that their many dedicated and hard-working staff members would like to offer.

Parents in my constituency are fundraising for key hospital equipment. Families are struggling to access national health service services that are near enough to their home, so they are having to travel for hours to access those services, and are then struggling to find accommodation and keep their family together.

We have had promises of flexibility. Willie Rennie made a point about the childcare policy; it is a really positive policy, but having it means nothing if you cannot access it. Those sorts of policies get announced in Parliament but they evaporate the minute we leave the chamber, because they cannot be delivered on the ground.

What about people who are trying to find a dentist for their child or to get them the chance to see a doctor quickly? What about the pressure that health visitors are under? Health visitors are great, but if they must look after more children than they personally can manage to cope with and support, they find themselves overburdened, stressed, stretched and completely disheartened. They are unable to provide the bespoke support that families who most need that help and intervention are trying to access, never mind provide access to speech and language and mental health services. I do not think that members across the chamber need new evidence to know that those services are in crisis.

The Government has the power to do something about all that now, and it really should.


Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

I welcome the opportunity to discuss our shared ambition for making Scotland the best place in the world to grow up in. I understand and believe that everyone who is contributing to this debate is doing so in good faith and with that aim in their hearts and heads as they speak.

Pre-pregnancy to three years is a unique and critical period of child development, during which experience and the environment shape the foundations for life and health. Future physical and mental health and wellbeing, life expectancy, educational attainment and participation in the economy and community are all impacted by those early experiences. Our understanding of that should ensure our continued commitment and focus in this area. Every child, regardless of their circumstances, should get the best start in life.

The importance of pre-pregnancy to three years covers a simply massive range of issues and policies. Today, I would like to focus my remarks on play. I have spoken about that before as I feel that it is a really important area for our children. Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child enshrines a right to play, and play and meaningful interaction between a child and their parent or carer are essential for early mental and social development. Initiatives such as PlayTalkRead and the bookbug programme are intended to facilitate play, learning and connection during a child’s early years.

There is clear, compelling and robust evidence that play times at school and around the school day are very important. Play is not just something that is nice to have and it is not simply a shame that children do not play outdoors as much as they used to. It is a bit more serious than that. Through playing outdoors, our children can improve their physical health. Children are two and a half times more active when they are outdoors than when they are inside, and they sustain physical activity for longer.

Another important benefit is to mental health, which we are all concerned about. We instinctively know that being outdoors makes us happier. We can think about how we feel when the sun shines on our face. Multiple research studies from around the world have shown that, whatever the weather, as long as we are dressed right, children and adults feel less stressed, more relaxed and happier if they have been outdoors. Being outdoors regularly often helps children to identify safe, quiet places where they can reflect. Being outdoors and away from screens helps children to build positive relationships, to make and sustain friendships and to develop the social skills that they will need throughout life.

Outdoor play can improve academic progress. Children need time to assimilate learning, and after play time outdoors they are more attentive to lessons and more on task, and they behave better. A study of more than 2,500 children in Spain found that exposure to total surrounding greenness was associated with a 5 per cent increase in progress in working memory, a 6 per cent increase in progress in superior working memory and a 1 per cent reduction in inattentiveness.

Importantly, outdoor play also helps children to connect to the places that they live in and to the planet around them. We love only what we know. Regularly playing outdoors for sustained periods often leads to greater care and concern for the environment, and having more green space in urban neighbourhoods in Scotland is linked to lower levels of perceived stress and physiological stress.

Moving forward, I ask the Scottish Government to include play in its thinking on children and child development and to do what it can to support and increase opportunities for our children to play.


Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

The early years are pivotal for children’s future development and opportunities. Their experiences and the environment at that stage of their lives shape the foundations of their futures. It is therefore critical that every child in Scotland has the opportunity to thrive. There should be no class or glass ceiling and we must work tirelessly to smash it in the earliest years. To do that, we need to have a laser focus on improving childcare and early education and we need health and family support that reaches beyond the child and extends more widely to their parents and families and the communities in which they live.

However, to recognise the challenges that hold too many children back is not, on its own, enough. We also have to find and then implement solutions to address those challenges. The ways in which we can do that have been demonstrated before. In 1997, a Labour Government took office with the objective of giving every child the best start in life. As Martin Whitfield highlighted, the legacy that it left behind was one of great success. Sadly, however, that progress has since been squandered.

In government, Labour introduced sure start centres because we recognised that parents needed a source of support that was truly wraparound, integrated and connected. We engaged with and listened to parents and carers and we designed our policies to meet the needs that they identified. We did that on the basis of their continuous involvement, as well as co-operation from all the sectors that impact on the crucial early years of a child’s life. We listened when they told us that they needed better access to support and advice on parenting, information about services that were available in their area and access to specialist, targeted services, and we ensured that the sure start centres delivered that.

We recognised that, alongside that, they needed easy access to child and family health services, and we made sure that that was also there. When parents told us that they wanted help to get into training and employment, we made sure that centres had strong links to Jobcentre Plus. We understood that people in the most disadvantaged areas faced greater struggles in accessing appropriate childcare, so we also guaranteed provision of childcare in those centres.

The Government’s current childcare offer is, however, not delivering for those families. They need a more flexible system to work around their lives but, because of the Government’s approach, the private and voluntary sectors that are needed to give some of that flexibility are struggling. The Government must address that if we are to give young people the fighting start in life that they need.

By listening to parents and putting all the services that they need in one place, Labour broke down barriers and removed the need for parents to jump through hoops just to get the support that is needed. In contrast, right now in Scotland, education can be disconnected and health and social care are far from integrated. Too many families fall between the cracks.

Earlier this week, I met a group of parents from different backgrounds and circumstances who told me how hard it can be to find the information that they need or to even know what information they are looking for. That, they said, leaves them disengaged, lost and overburdened. That is why the one-stop shop of a sure start centre was so successful. We have to see children once again in the wider context of their family and community. They need healthy, happy, empowered parents and carers, and both need supportive, encouraging and inclusive communities.

I recently met representatives of Govan HELP, an organisation that supports people to learn, volunteer and access support, advice, guidance and counselling all under one roof. It is providing hope and opportunity for people who have been left behind. A Labour Government would support and nourish such organisations, knowing that, in so doing, we would also be supporting the families who use them. However, in Glasgow, the SNP is still sitting on some tools to do that. Eighteen months into a four-year pilot, not a penny of the whole family wellbeing fund has been commissioned.

The success of sure start is what any future reform of early years should aspire to. Those policies saw children get physically healthier and living in more stimulating and less chaotic home environments. That is the sort of success that we have to replicate now. To do that well, as well as ensure that childcare is flexible and services are connected, we have to fully understand the problems that we are trying to solve. We need robust and comprehensive data and to empower parents and carers to tell us what it is like to be them. Neither of those things is happening enough just now. Until we fix that, the goal of giving every child the best start in life will be harder to achieve.

I urge the Government to reach out to children and their families, empower them to share their stories and solutions, listen to them and, most importantly, act on what it hears. Then and only then will we build the system that is needed for the challenges ahead and that will, once again, spread opportunity for everyone.


Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

I am pleased to be taking part in the debate. I hope that my previous experience can add to the conversation.

I will start by acknowledging some of the good stuff and the positive impacts, and then I will go on to suggestions that I make as a critical friend. I pay tribute to the best start grants, the food payments, the baby box and the Scottish child payment, which have inevitably made significant differences. I welcome the expansion in childcare.

We know that investment in early childhood, families, prenatal care and that crucial stage of bonding in the early stages after birth makes a huge difference. As the Dalai Lama says, the foundations of our lives are laid in our childhood, so it is really important that we get it right.

From that point of view, I would like to touch on attachment. The motion in front of us talks about child development, but it does not mention anything about attachment theory. We know that that is really important, so I want to link it in with staff training. Although I welcome the expansion in childcare, I would like the early years staff that we have to be fully trained in attachment theory. That is especially significant at the moment, because we know that our children suffered during Covid, and that it had an impact on their speech and language. I speak to teachers regularly—I was in a nursery last week—and the challenges around that are immense.

Oliver Mundell

I am grateful to Kaukab Stewart for bringing up that issue, because I ran out of time to do so during my speech. Does she think that the response to that crisis has been sufficient, or does she feel that more resource is needed in speech and language?

Kaukab Stewart

I am going to push for an additional response and investment in speech and language. I have to do that—my conscience tells me to ask for it—because there is a knock-on effect on communication, obviously, but also on children’s ability to self-regulate.

We have had a bit of a debate about the impact of speech and language challenges on children’s behaviour. If children are not able to communicate properly, and if staff are not trained and do not have enough exposure to the right materials to support the whole family, that will have a knock-on effect on behaviour. It is really important that we invest in speech and language therapy, to reduce the stress levels of children who cannot communicate and of their parents. I know that brilliant work on that is being done by Children 1st, for instance, which has a parent line that parents who are struggling can take advantage of.

I will touch a wee bit on play—I will not go into it too much, although I could talk about it a lot. I echo the remarks made by my colleague Ruth Maguire on the importance of outdoor play in particular. I will give a wee shout out to the investment that has been made in our playgrounds; I can see the result of that.

We have not talked about the impact of adult behaviour on children. I came across a study that was published at the beginning of October on the impact of verbal abuse of children by adults. It was by Professor Peter Fonagy, and it discovered that more than 40 per cent of children are exposed to verbal aggression or hostility from adults. Half of those children are exposed to that each week and 10 per cent are getting screamed and yelled at every day. We know that children will grow up to have increased levels of anxiety and stress from that. That takes us back to attachment theory, which leads to separation anxiety, and we know that that is coming through in our schools.

What can the Scottish Government do about that? I have suggested investment in staff training that is attachment-theory led, so that staff are fully au fait with that. There should be more investment in speech and language, psychological support services and early intervention.

We need more detail on that when we get more flesh on the bones of the programme. I know that the Scottish Government will absolutely be able to do that.


Evelyn Tweed (Stirling) (SNP)

As the minister has said, experiences and the environment in early childhood shape the foundations for life. The Government has made a number of positive interventions to reduce inequalities at that stage in life, which is to be welcomed.

However, if we are to create a culture, an environment, an economy and a society that prioritise and enhance early child development, we must not forget rural areas. Killin, in my constituency, sits at the south-west end of Loch Tay. It has a population of just over 700 people and its amenities serve many other nearby communities.

Killin nursery was, until recently, one of the few council nurseries providing care for zero to two-year-olds in the whole of Stirling, which was to be applauded. However, in the council budget in March, that provision was cut by the local administration. There was no prior consultation with the community, and families only found out when they were trying to apply for a place. The nearest council nursery is an hour away by car and hard to access by public transport. Private alternatives, as we have heard in the debate, are costly and can be far away, and most are already full.

Opportunities for socialisation are key to the healthy development of babies and children. Without any baby groups or soft-play areas within a reasonable distance, the Killin nursery provides a crucial space for socialisation. Research by NHS Health Scotland has found that children in quality non-parental childcare have better vocabulary and social development by the age of three. With provision being cut, rural children risk being left behind. Without the opportunities that access to childcare affords parents, entire communities will be left behind, too.

The comprehensive childcare offering in Killin drew in many young families who contribute to the community, several of whom have told me that their decisions about whether to start their family or to grow it were made on the basis of that childcare being available. I spoke to a constituent who works remotely from Killin and fulfils a vital role as an on-call firefighter. She now faces a difficult decision about whether to sacrifice her career or to move away from the community in which she grew up.

Staffing of other vital services, such as the pharmacy, has relied on that childcare being available, and the provision of those services is at risk without it. The programme for government promises childcare for two-year-olds from next year. If nothing changes in the meantime, there might be neither demand nor staff in Killin by then.

Therefore, the decision to cut provision at Killin nursery seems extremely short-sighted. Residents are concerned about the impact on numbers in the primary school in years to come. If the primary school closes, families will move away in droves. Rural communities across Scotland see their populations ageing faster than urban ones, and they can face issues with recruitment and retaining key workers across many sectors.

I very much welcome the Scottish Government’s early childhood development programme, but we must ensure that the needs of rural communities are heard, understood and embedded in policy. When other key services that are under the purview of the council, such as local bus routes, are also under threat, we must consider how to work closely with local authorities to ensure that children who live in rural areas also get the best start in life.


Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

I thank members for their contributions thus far. It is notable that it has been a reasonably constructive debate, which is welcome.

I will start on a note of agreement with the Government. Its motion—which I appreciate that we are trying to alter somewhat—says that the Government wants to create a society in which we can look forward to having

“a culture, environment, economy ... that prioritises and enhances early child development”.

Those three key words—“early child development”—will form the basis of my contribution. I whole-heartedly support that aim because of the obvious benefits that early intervention will reap for society further down the line.

In its motion, the Government also promises

“to build on the excellent and world-leading practice already delivered”.

I do not disagree with some of that—I accept that good work has been done.

However, I will now diverge from the consensus for the rest of my comments. It has been refreshing to hear Government back benchers talk about their concerns about some of the live issues that they face in their communities. Our problem is that it is often hard to get the statistical data that we need in order to be able to have frank and honest conversations. I know that those conversations are difficult for Governments to have, but they are ones that we must have in this Parliament.

Over the past few weeks, I have taken to submitting an awful lot of written questions, for which I apologise to the civil servants at the back of the chamber, because I have had a bit more free time on my hands. It has been interesting to discover what information is elicited from such questions. We should not have to go that far to get such information—the Government should be more forthcoming with it.

An answer that I got back last week shone an interesting light on children’s dental care in this country; unfortunately, it showed it in quite a dim light. I want to point that out because I do not think that people realise how shocking and precarious the situation is. Last year, 43,000 letters were sent to parents to advise them of the state of their children’s mouths after inspection at school. One in 10 of those letters were classed as grade A letters. Basically, a grade A letter alerts the parent to the urgent need for their child to see a dentist immediately because of severe decay or an abscess. One in four of the letters that were sent to parents were type A or type B letters. Type B letters also require medical follow-up because of problems of decay. Tooth decay was found to be three times more prevalent in our most deprived communities than in our least deprived. I am sure that that is not a surprise, but it represents a monumental increase in the amount of decay.

Of course, it is not just about dentistry. Problems about access to CAMHS and other children’s services have been well rehearsed. One thing that struck me this year was the frankness of comments by Scotland’s former Children and Young People’s Commissioner, Bruce Adamson. He did a great job in office but, in his parting shots to the Government, he did not hold back. He was asked by journalists whether he believed that, over the period of the previous First Minister’s Administration, the lives of children had truly been improved.

I see that the clocks have gone off. Does that mean that I can keep speaking forever, Presiding Officer? I will carry on and will try to keep to time. I assume that we are still broadcasting; however, even if we are not, I hope that the minister is paying attention.

Bruce Adamson said that he felt that there were real failures of “constant broken promises”. His main concern was that actions did not always follow words. In other words, the endless cycle of press releases, promises, manifesto commitments and programmes for government did not always come to fruition. He really did not hold back in those comments.

It is hard to illustrate that without digging deep. When I dug deep, I discovered another statistic last week, which, I hope, will horrify every one of us. The number of children aged five to 15 who were hospitalised due to intentional self-harm was four times higher last year than a decade ago. That is world leading—a world-leading failure.

The Government’s motion misses out many of the statistics that we should be talking about. We do not talk about the number of children who are in temporary accommodation, which is at its highest ever—more than 9,500 children are in that situation. We do not talk about the levels of breakfast provision in our schools—40 per cent of our schools do not make such provision, compared with 7 per cent in Wales, 18 per cent in England and 27 per cent in Northern Ireland.

We do not talk properly about the attainment gap in numeracy and how that compares to the position when the Government took office.

Will you conclude, please?

Jamie Greene

I see that I have gone over my time.

I will make a final point. The Government is learning the hard way that all those policies cost money. Social security accounts for a quarter of all UK public spending. That is an expensive game to play in. Of course, one-off payments are welcome, but they are not the solution to long-term problems.

I end by saying simply—

Please conclude, Mr Greene.

No matter what the Government says in its motion, we need to have more honest and frank conversations, such as the one that we are having today.


Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

We are debating a very full motion from the Scottish Government. It is summed up in the Government’s ambition—which we all should have—of making Scotland the best place in the world to grow up in. To look at how the SNP-led Government has helped to bring that ambition closer to reality, I have only four short minutes. That will not nearly be enough, but I will give it a try.

As we all know, a child’s early years are fundamental to how they develop and grow. Their early years will have a huge influence on the rest of their lives. An individual’s health, wellbeing, social and economic metrics and even life expectancy all have a strong correlation with factors in the early years.

In Scotland, from the moment they are born and regardless of their circumstances, a child is eligible for a baby box. Since the start of that ambitious scheme six years ago, more than a quarter of a million babies have received the box, which contains some of the essentials for the early months of their lives. There has already been a pretty full debate on the baby box.

An even more ambitious scheme that we have already talked about is the Scottish child payment. As of June this year, the families of more than 316,000 under-16s have benefited from that payment. The Scottish Government is investing £1.3 billion, which is forecast to lift 50,000 more children out of poverty in this financial year alone.

Those schemes have helped to give some peace of mind to thousands of parents, guardians and children across Scotland who are concerned about the rising cost of living and the effect that that will have on their health and wellbeing. I know personally that those policies have had a great impact on many families in Coatbridge and Chryston as well as more widely across Scotland, and they will continue to do so.

I will speak briefly about nurseries and the early years sector. The roll-out of the 1,140 hours of provision has been game changing, and I completely support the First Minister’s plans to expand that. Some of the local authority nurseries in my constituency are excellent, including the provision at the brand-new Riverbank community facility in Coatbridge, which I had the pleasure of visiting recently.

The private, voluntary and independent sector plays a vital role in achieving our current and future ambitions for the early years sector. The minister knows that I have been meeting nursery owners in my area, some of whom are part of the 2020 together campaign, and I know that other members have mentioned the subject.

The minister knows that I have raised before in Parliament such nurseries’ concerns about the current funding model, which I recently wrote to her about again. I know that the sector is grateful for the minister’s on-going engagement, but it seems clear that PVI sector staff are not as well paid as local authority staff are, which is leading to difficulty in retaining them in such settings.

That is just one issue that arises from the current model, and I have only four minutes for my speech. We must do more to resolve the situation, as we will need the PVI sector if we are to fully realise our ambitions. I encourage the Government to work with all in that sector to try to find a solution.

I fully welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to free school meals; I know how much that benefits my constituents and people across Scotland. I welcome the pledge to roll that out to all who are in primary school, which cannot happen soon enough. I also full-heartedly support the roll-out to all pupils in Scotland. Free school meals for secondary pupils could be yet another game-changing Government policy, and I encourage the Government to find a way to make that happen.

I will speak about other issues. A main policy of the organisation Upstart Scotland, which I think that Kaukab Stewart recently hosted in the garden lobby, is to raise the school starting age, which I support. The SNP has debated that at conference, so I hope that there will be more movement on that important area, which links in exactly to Ruth Maguire’s discussion of outdoor play.

Scotland is well on track to be the best country to grow up in. It is even more of a testament to the Scottish Government when we think that its achievements have been made in the context of Brexit and mitigating some of the UK Government’s cruellest policies, which seem designed to keep people in poverty.

Across the chamber and across Scotland, we must all work to make our country the best place to grow up in. I hope that we can all support that.


Carol Mochan (South Scotland) (Lab)

I am pleased to close the debate for Labour. It is right that we have taken the time to debate such topics, and we have had some interesting discussion. However, as has been mentioned, it would be helpful to focus more on policy and debate that in the chamber. This is an important area of cross-portfolio working, so we should have such discussions in the chamber.

When Labour members talk about poverty, we often talk about Labour’s proud record of delivering for the early years. As my colleague Pam Duncan-Glancy said, the Labour Party in government lifted millions out of poverty, including many children, through the delivery of the innovative and life-changing policies of sure start and the national minimum wage.

As a lifelong member of the Labour Party, I remember that, at that time, I was always pleased but I was never satisfied. I always wanted more for those who were living in poverty, and we must all be driven by that ambition.

Labour members recognise that policies such as the Scottish child payment, which I pick out, the whole family wellbeing fund, which my colleague Pam Duncan-Glancy mentioned, and the expansion of childcare hours, which Willie Rennie mentioned, have had successes. We want to support that, but it is our role to call out the Government to address issues and make enhancements when it can go further. I welcomed the points that Ruth Maguire and Kaukab Stewart made about challenging their front benchers, because that is how we will change outcomes for young people in our society.

We all recognise the need, which we have heard about today, for an early childhood development transformational change programme. The path to its success must involve driving our ambitions further and further. We know that there are barriers in front of infants and their families at the moment. We know, too, that, for early childhood development to work and to have the impact that it can have, other services have to operate at a high level. We hear from professionals, voluntary groups and families that the reality on the ground is not as the minister described it in her opening remarks.

Jamie Greene mentioned the former Children and Young People’s Commissioner’s comments on the Government’s actions. We must acknowledge those, because doing so is the first step to being able to move matters forward.

Early-stage educational provision must be as accessible in rural and urban areas and deprived communities as it is in our affluent areas, to make early development matter and allow skills to continue to develop throughout a young person’s life. We have heard that said so many times in the chamber in the debate, and we all need to work to that ambition.

I will pick up on Evelyn Tweed’s contribution. Councils need to be adequately funded to provide local facilities and hubs that will allow development to flourish and create potential. We must consider how we move towards local government funding. The idea is strong and has the support of members, but the infrastructure is sorely lacking due to the decisions that the Government is currently making. It feels as though there is a lack of ambition, or perhaps there is just an acceptance that we can go on doing what we have done because we have done it a bit better or done a certain bit well. We need to do more.

I reiterate that Scottish Labour recognises the value of early childhood development, which is absolutely crucial. As my colleague Martin Whitfield said, it is part of a jigsaw.

I believe that the scale of health inequality in Scotland will continue to restrict childhood development until we see radical change. Just this week, a report from National Records of Scotland highlighted that death rates are almost twice as high in the most deprived areas of Scotland as they are in the least deprived. Research published by the Health Foundation earlier this year found that infant mortality has increased in our most deprived areas since 2014. We know that, in 2021-22, there was an increase in the proportion of children with developmental concerns at all three review points. We have a lot of work to do, and we need to acknowledge that.

The motion rightly highlights the importance of the early years. As many members have reiterated, the motion states that they last

“from pre-pregnancy to age three, when experiences and the environment shape the foundations for life.”

I fully agree. Given that we have a dire Tory Government at Westminster and that there has been a lack of urgency and boldness from the SNP Scottish Government, both of our Governments have fallen short of the mark for children.

I will conclude by referring to the contribution of Rona Mackay. As she said, it has become clearer by the day that Scotland is in desperate need of a fresh start and a move away from two failing Governments. A change of Government at Westminster would truly make a difference to the delivery of child development measures in Scotland. I urge members to think about what we, in this Parliament, can do about that.


Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

Presiding Officer,

“Giving children the best possible start in life”—

those are words that we can all get behind, regardless of where we sit in the Parliament. We have all heard them from the Scottish Government before. In 2009, a similar programme, the early years framework, was launched, which also promised to give

“all our children the best start in life.”

That leads me to Willie Rennie’s earlier point about rhetoric. It is all well and good for the Government to launch documents and programmes that intend to improve the lives of children and young people. However, what are its aims? What will the Government do, in addition to the policies that are already in place, to make such improvements? How will success be measured? Those are key questions that I am not sure have been answered in the debate.

I reflect on a quote from the Government motion, part of which my colleague Jamie Greene picked out earlier. The Government states that

“it can build on the targeted investments that it has already made in support of families pre-birth to three and that joint working can create a culture, environment, economy and society that prioritises and enhances early child development, to realise its ambition of creating a more healthy, fair and equal society”.

Joint working with whom? And how will joint working lead to the creation of a more healthy, fair and equal society? Detail is everything if the Government wants people to come with it on its early years journey.

The minister mentioned Government policies that are already in place. Some of them are good and some—well, we will leave that for later. However, when will we see the outcomes? Martin Whitfield was spot on when he mentioned data, and I am beyond fed up with the Government’s lack of data capture, especially across portfolios. Carol Mochan mentioned that during her speech.

Throughout the debate, we have travelled through the stages of raising a child, from pregnancy to early years, and policies and ambitions have been mentioned. However, as Oliver Mundell has rightly said, we are falling at the first hurdle. That was evidenced just last week during First Minister’s question time, when I asked the First Minister about the Pregnant Then Screwed campaign. The First Minister had no answers for parents who have had to reduce their hours or leave the workforce because work and childcare are incompatible. He has no answers for the 43 per cent of parents who cannot afford to have any more children. It has already been forecast that the number of births will drop over the next decade. The Government needs to realise that current policies are not working for parents but are working against them.

Martin Whitfield

In last week’s First Minister’s question time, I asked the First Minister about the PVI model in early years. Does Meghan Gallacher think that the PVI model actually works in early years? I have asked the Government that question and I have not had a response, yet it holds the information that should enable it to know whether, economically, it is a viable model.

Meghan Gallacher

No, it does not work, as was referenced by Pregnant Then Screwed. The research from the charity that I have in front of me shows that it is due to childcare issues that parents are choosing not to have any more children and that parents are finding it difficult to manage that work and childcare balance.

I do not diminish anything that Meghan Gallacher is saying, but does she share my feeling that employers need to do a bit more to support families with children in their workplace in terms of flexibility?

Meghan Gallacher

I agree that discussions need to take place around that, because we need to have a whole discussion on the issue of early years. I go back to the point about detail, because many such issues have not been mentioned today. That is why I think that the Government needs to have more open conversations with the whole of the chamber instead of having debates and not really informing us what it is trying to debate during its Government business.

I turn back to the point that I was making with regard to Pregnant Then Screwed. Carol Erskine, its head of policy and campaigns, said:

“there is a price on being a parent today is brutal. It is truly shocking that almost two-thirds of Parents are being forced to reduce their hours or leave the workforce entirely due to the cost and availability of childcare, and there is no end in sight.”

That view is coming not from politicians but from parents who are completely fed up about the fact that the system is working not for them but against them.

That brings me on to nurseries. Like Willie Rennie, I will raise the issue time and again until the Government finally gets it and sorts the problems that exist around the 1,140-hours policy. When we look at the various issues that were mentioned today around the policy, we can see that there are politicians on the SNP benches who get it: Fulton MacGregor and Evelyn Tweed get it, and I praise them for their honest assessment of childcare issues in their communities. Evelyn Tweed is right that rural communities have been left behind when it comes to nursery provision, and they have also been left behind in relation to other issues relating to pregnancy and bringing up a child. We need only look at Dr Gray’s hospital in Moray and the Caithness general hospital to see how hard it is for rural mums to bring up a family.

I realise that time is tight and I do not have much time left. There is much more that I would have liked to mention today, because there have been some really good conversations. Oliver Mundell mentioned speech and language therapy and said that the Government needs to sort those issues out, and Jamie Greene rightly mentioned the issues surrounding child dental care. There are many more issues that we need to resolve in relation to early years development as a whole, but, my goodness, this Government has a long way to go.


The Minister for Children, Young People and Keeping the Promise (Natalie Don)

I thank my colleague the Minister for Public Health and Women’s Health, Jenni Minto, for opening this important debate, and I am grateful for the contributions from members on this extremely important topic.

Although I do not agree with all the points that have been made this afternoon, I think that the passion that has been shown in the debate demonstrates the importance that we all place on early child development and getting it right for every child. I advise members who have not accessed the briefing on the transformational change programme that it can be viewed on the Scottish Parliament information centre section of the intranet. In response to Meghan Gallacher, I say that the aim of the programme, as was set out by Jenni Minto in her opening speech, is to reduce early child development concerns by a quarter by 2030. That is included in the briefing.

In Scotland we are globally recognised for our work to prioritise early child development and support families. However, I fully recognise the need to do more for our youngest children, and the transformational change programme will do just that. It will strengthen the importance of early child development across Government portfolios. We will work with services and practitioners to hear about what they need and when they need it. We will also listen to parents and children, and we will do all that we can do to give them the capacity and agency to make choices and achieve their life goals and aspirations.

I will try to respond to as many as possible of the points that members raised in the debate.

First, I want to consider poverty. We need to continue a relentless focus on reducing child poverty. Many families who are affected by poverty have very young children, and evidence shows that younger parents and single parents are disproportionately affected. We know that the actions that the Scottish Government is taking are making a difference. I appreciate that members raised that point in the debate.

Oliver Mundell

I have tried hard to listen to what has been said. At the start of the debate we heard about how there has been great success in Scotland with breastfeeding—that 46 per cent of mothers are breastfeeding. When we dig into the statistics and look at the detail, however, we find that twice as many mothers from the most affluent areas as mothers from the most deprived areas are breastfeeding . The figures are 63 per cent versus 31 per cent. I find it hard to hear things from the Government about deprived communities and deprivation when such statistics are covered up in what is presented to us, as happened at the start of this debate.

You can get the time back for that, minister.

Natalie Don

I agree with the sentiment of that point. I absolutely agree that we have to increase breastfeeding rates across the board. Breastfeeding rates are increasing in areas of high deprivation—that is certainly something that we are focused on and that I have been focused on. We want improvements in that area, and we are working towards that.

Going back to the anti-poverty measures that I was referring to, it is estimated that under the Scottish child payment around 90,000 fewer children will be living in poverty this year. The actions that we are taking are making a difference. We are removing the income thresholds from the best start foods scheme from February 2024, thereby supporting an additional 20,000 pregnant mothers and children to access healthy food and milk. Our three best start grant payments provide financial support to low-income families at three key transition points in their children’s early years. We are doing all that we can do, with our limited powers, to lift people out of poverty. I was pleased to hear recognition of that in some speeches this afternoon.

Does the minister think that her Government will hit the child poverty targets?

Natalie Don

I am very confident that we, in Scotland, are doing everything that we can do. However, that is not helped by decisions that have been taken by the UK Government. We have austerity, inflation and an inadequate benefits system. As I said, I am confident that we are doing everything that we can do in this Government. However, I lack confidence in the UK Government.

I will move on to infant mental health and perinatal mental health. We recognise the importance of good infant mental health and the impact of poor parental mental health on early child development. Since 2019, we have overseen a significant programme of change to support the mental health needs of parents, infants and families across Scotland. I appreciate the concerns that have been raised about CAMHS, however, and that we still have work to do, but I want to highlight that the past five quarters have featured the five highest figures on record for the numbers of children starting treatment. We are moving in the right direction—we are seeing better performance and we will continue to consider how we can improve that further.

I really appreciated Ruth Maguire’s comments on play. We will continue to promote the importance of play in supporting early child development—physically, socially and cognitively. We have continued to support national initiatives such as “Play, Talk, Read” and bookbug, which are supporting thousands of our youngest children up and down Scotland with books and low-cost activities. Through my work in Government and my personal connections—as most members know, I have two young children at home—I hear about the difference that those initiatives are making and about how appreciated they are by families and parents across Scotland.

Our investment of £60 million to renew play parks across Scotland will make play more accessible in our communities, which will provide families, grandparents, carers and friends with spaces in which to spend precious time together. I assure members that I will continue to promote and push the importance of play for children as a way to support positive mental health and a healthy lifestyle, to build positive relationships and to lay the foundation for future years’ growth and development.

I have been on a number of visits recently, seeing at first hand how nurseries and schools are embedding play and, importantly, outdoor play in their settings.

What is also important and encompasses many of the efforts that I have just laid out is the need to support both the child and the family through promoting bonding relationships as a key factor in improving child development, and supporting parents and carers to build strong relationships with their children by giving them opportunities to do so.

Early learning has been raised by a number of members from all sides of the chamber. I whole-heartedly recognise the issues that were raised by Willie Rennie, Fulton MacGregor, Oliver Mundell and several other members.

I am actively engaging in, and working to support, our hugely valued PVI sector. As a critical first step towards addressing the recruitment and retention issues that are facing the sector, we are funding pay of £12 per hour for ELC professionals in that sector.

Will the minister give way on that point?

Natalie Don

I am sorry—I really need to make progress.

I know that we need to do more, however. The Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities have undertaken a review of the sustainable rates that are paid to providers to deliver funded ELC, and I will consider carefully the findings of that review when it reports later this year. I want to do everything that I can do, and everything that it takes, to support the sector, because it is fundamental both to our current offer and to our further expansion of childcare.

Will the minister take an intervention?

I am sorry—

Oh, okay.

I am grateful to Natalie Don for giving way. Does she believe that the PVI model is financially viable at the moment?

I will give you the time back, minister.

Natalie Don

I believe that there is work to do. As I said, I am positive that the actions that will be taken as a result of the rates review will help to support the sector more.

However, I highlight that our nursery offer for three and four-year-olds is positive—it is universal and has a 99 per cent take-up rate. As has been noted, the programme for government goes further than that, because we know that parenting support and enriched early learning opportunities will improve outcomes for children and families.

I am running out of time, but I will try my best to get through the issues. I know that members raised issues around health visiting. I point out that, over the past few years, we have invested more than £40 million to increase our health visitor workforce by more than 500, and that we have more health visitors than ever.

The issue of speech and language therapy waiting times was also raised. I assure members that we continue to work with speech and language therapists across Scotland to try to understand the reasons for increased waits. Work is under way to improve early speech and language development of children prior to their starting school. For example, we have appointed seven regional speech and language therapy leads, and we will develop an action plan in order that young children in Scotland will experience language and communication nurturing environments.

This Parliament does not yet have the full powers over many areas that impact on child development. Westminster’s austerity policies continue to limit public spending, and UK Government welfare policies such as the two-child cap are pushing children and families into poverty, but we are taking action where we can, and we are determined to go further. Indeed, we are determined to do everything that we can, in the context of the powers that we have available to us.

If we want to make a difference in the lives of those who need it most, we must all work together to remove barriers, challenge existing beliefs and assumptions, and listen to the voices of families and communities on how our precious resources could and should be used to make sure that every child grows up loved, safe and respected.

Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

On a point of order, Presiding Officer.

I note that, not for the first time, we have only six Conservative members in the chamber. In other words, 80 per cent of Conservative members are not present at decision time. Do you share my dismay that that shows disrespect for Parliament?

That is not a point of order, Ms Grahame. Members will be aware, and I can confirm, that remote participation is a facility that is available to all members.