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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, June 16, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 16 June 2016

Agenda: Business Motion, General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Points of Order, Post-study Work Visas (Rural Communities), Policing and Security, Children, Decision Time


Contents


Children

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-00467, in the name of Aileen Campbell, on the best start in life for Scotland’s children.

15:03  

The Minister for Public Health and Sport (Aileen Campbell)

I am delighted to be here in a new role, joining my colleagues Shona Robison and Maureen Watt in continuing to improve the health and wellbeing of all children in Scotland. I am also delighted to be part of today’s debate alongside my friend and colleague Mark McDonald, the new Minister for Childcare and Early Years.

This Government remains committed to our ambition of making this country the best place to grow up in. Despite the differences that we may have across the chamber, I know that that aim transcends party-political lines. The life journey of our youngest members of society does not fit neatly into one portfolio, which is why our ambitions to give our children the best start are a whole-Government effort.

John Carnochan, formerly of the violence reduction unit, says:

“the most important years of a child’s life are up to the age of 3.”

For me, that beautifully sums up the need to continue our focus on children’s health and wellbeing from pre-birth and to continue our efforts to embed prevention and early intervention to address inequalities. Disadvantage begins before birth and continues in a child’s early years, and it can have lifelong negative effects on their health and wellbeing. An analogy that I have often used to describe that is that children are like wet cement: whatever lands on them leaves an impression. Our job—whether we are parents, practitioners or politicians—is to ensure that the impressions that we leave are positive, as they can last a lifetime. That is why we are committed to ensuring that universal and targeted services provide the support that all children need to have the best mental and physical health and wellbeing.

Elaine Smith (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Breastfeeding is not mentioned in the motion, yet, in relation to preventing disease and saving resources, a UNICEF publication of two years ago says that recent studies have shown an

“increased risk of poorer cognitive development and behavioural problems in children who are not breastfed”.

Could the minister comment on that?

Aileen Campbell

Breastfeeding is not specifically and explicitly mentioned in the motion, but I will mention it later in my remarks. I pay tribute to the effort and work that Elaine Smith has put into promoting breastfeeding; I certainly want to continue to work with her on that and I am happy to meet her again.

Children living in disadvantaged circumstances are more likely to be exposed to adverse factors such as parental substance misuse, mental illness, neglect, abuse and domestic violence. We need to strengthen our universal services to identify risk as part of an on-going assessment of child development. Early access to high-quality maternity care and antenatal education is crucial for both the mother and her unborn child in reducing the effects of the multiple and overlapping risk factors that some families face. It can also have a powerful effect on reducing rates of morbidity and mortality. Through our efforts, women are now accessing maternity care earlier in their pregnancy, with 93 per cent having their antenatal booking appointment by 12 weeks, compared with 87 per cent in 2013.

Our world-leading patient safety programme is also contributing, by driving through many improvements in maternity services. Through a combination of co-ordinated, collaborative actions by the Government, national health service boards and stakeholders, we reduced the stillbirth rate in Scotland by 18 per cent over a four-year period. We will continue to strive to reduce that rate further and help more families avoid the heartbreak and loss that that brings.

Last year, we conducted a maternity care experience survey, and we were pleased that the report highlighted that more than 90 per cent of women rated their care during pregnancy and birth very positively. That is a credit to the professionals who provide those services. However, we need to keep our foot on the gas to make good on our commitment that mums and babies get the best care possible.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

I absolutely endorse the minister’s remarks about the quality and dedication of NHS staff, but does the minister agree with me that it is still a problem that 71 per cent of health boards have no training or trained personnel in perinatal mental health and that they are not adequately equipped to deal with the many conditions that are faced by almost 8,000 mothers every year following birth?

Aileen Campbell

That is why, in our manifesto and under our commitment to the work going forward, we want to address some of those issues and have a look at mental health in our strategic plan now and in the future. I take on board the expertise that Alex Cole-Hamilton brings to the debate through his previous role at Aberlour. I look forward to working with him on some of these areas of common concern.

We continue to invest in our maternity services. We are creating an additional 1,000 nursing and midwifery training places and we are retaining the nursing and midwifery bursaries. We are undertaking a person-centred review of maternity and neonatal services, with choice, quality and safety at its heart.

In the first few years of a child’s life, health professionals, particularly health visitors, continue to have a vital role to play in supporting children and families. The early establishment of a therapeutic relationship provides health visitors with a sound foundation for their role as the named person from birth. That is why we have provided funding to every territorial health board across Scotland to appoint additional health visitors and grow the workforce by 500 by 2018.

We have strengthened the support to families by publishing the new “Universal Health Visiting Pathway in Scotland” last year. It details the core home visiting programme that will be offered to all families with children up to the age of five. The programme consists of 11 home visits to families, with eight within the first year of life and three child health reviews between 13 months and four to five years. Moreover, the child health review at 27 to 30 months, which was put in place two years ago, is now helping more children than ever.

We will also continue the roll-out of the family nurse partnership programme to reach all eligible teenage mothers by the end of 2018, extending it to include vulnerable first-time mothers up to the age of 24. However, we need to ensure that everyone is working together to put the child at the centre of all that they do. Interagency and interprofessional working, along with the valuable contribution from the third sector, must be pooled together, creating a strong focus on improving outcomes for all children, especially those furthest away from reaching their full potential. Early learning in childcare will play a key role in that endeavour, and I know that Mr McDonald will say more about that when he sums up this debate.

Over the past four years, we have invested an additional £19 million on specialised children’s services, which has improved priority specialist services, and our patient safety programme has published the first worldwide paediatric early warning score system for use throughout our health systems. However, the Government is aware that it has to do more and we have made a number of commitments specifically relating to continuing to improve the health and wellbeing of children. We will develop a new 10-year child and adolescent health and wellbeing strategy, covering both physical and mental wellbeing, key to which will be support for children in community health services. We will also implement a new framework for families with disabled children, so that all our children get the right support from birth to adulthood.

The Scottish Government is committed to equality for disabled children and young people in Scotland and to ensuring that all children can achieve their potential. Families with disabled children face a range of challenges and are far more likely to be affected by poverty than other families—by virtue of that, they are also at greater risk of health inequalities. Although a great deal of work has already taken place to improve the lives of disabled children and their families, we need to increase our efforts to ensure that our ambitions of getting it right for every child are met.

In 2011, we introduced a 10-year strategy, the maternal and infant nutrition framework, which was the first of its kind to recognise the importance of the pre-conception period. We are now five years into the implementation of the framework and are currently refreshing the evidence base to set the direction for the next five years, connecting with the work on obesity, diet and physical activity. As part of that work, we recently announced that all pregnant women will receive free vitamins from spring 2017. That is a positive step and we are also exploring how we can complement that work to further improve the diet and nutrition of pregnant women and young children. Evidence suggests that the best nutrition from birth includes exclusive breastfeeding and starting solid foods at around six months. We want to ensure that everyone understands the benefits and—perhaps more important—understands their role in ensuring that breastfeeding is protected, promoted and supported and being cognisant of the pressures mums feel at what is, or can be, a very vulnerable time for them.

To support that ambition, I am delighted that, from May this year, Scotland became the first United Kingdom country to achieve full maternity UNICEF baby-friendly accreditation. One hundred per cent of Scotland’s births are now in hospitals that meet UNICEF’s infant feeding standards, which compares with 52 per cent in England, 92 per cent in Northern Ireland and 61 per cent in Wales.

The best start in life for our bairns means recognising that parental smoking and substance misuse have an adverse impact on children. Giving up smoking is the single best thing that a pregnant woman can do to improve her health and that of her unborn child. Our support to NHS boards helps to ensure that vital stop smoking support is available to all pregnant women in Scotland who want to quit smoking. That support builds on the array of strategies and targets that are in place to raise awareness of tobacco harm to children and young people, and to prevent it from happening.

Our priority as a Government is to give all children their fair chance to flourish, but we are doing so against a backdrop of persistent social inequality and poverty, and having to mitigate the worst impacts of welfare reforms. We know that, if we are going to close the poverty gap later in life, we need to do more to reduce disadvantage in the early years. That is why our manifesto committed to replacing the sure start maternity grant with a new maternity and early years allowance. The new benefit will be targeted at reducing inequality and will provide more support to low-income families, increase the maternity payment for the first child from £500 to £600, and restore a payment of £300 for second and subsequent children, which was cut by the Westminster coalition Government in 2011.

We will introduce two new payments to support families through key transitions as children begin their education: £250 when children begin nursery and £250 when they start school. The new benefit will help to tackle the impact of child poverty in a child’s earliest years, to help ensure that all children who are born into low-income families can receive the very best start in life.

Within a year from now, every child born in Scotland will receive a baby box—a box of essential items to help level the playing field in the very first days of life. The First Minister stated in her opening address in this parliamentary session that our children deserve the best start possible in life, and the introduction of the baby box symbolises that fair and equal start. That commitment to the principles of fairness and equality is the hallmark of our approach to social and economic policy.

We promote the measures that we do because they advance both our economy and our society. Children only get one shot at childhood, so we must endeavour to do all that we can to get it right. The early years offer a glorious opportunity to mould and shape a landscape of opportunity for each child, and the benefits can last a lifetime.

I have set out the actions that the Government is taking from pre-birth; Mark McDonald will set out our ambitions to do ever more. I look forward to working with all the new spokespeople and members on this journey towards making Scotland the best place to grow up in. Regardless of party and politics, giving children the best start in life unites us and I hope that it will unite our effort, with the appropriate challenge and debate, to create the fairer Scotland that we all seek.

I move,

That the Parliament commits to making Scotland the best place for children to grow up; supports parents through the promotion of children’s health and wellbeing from pre-birth, in the early years and primary education; believes that the new 10-year mental health strategy should help renew focus on the early identification of child mental health issues; welcomes that all pregnant women will receive free vitamins and support to enable a healthier diet, and that every newborn in Scotland will be entitled to a baby box to help them to get the best start in life; agrees with a grant for expectant mothers on low incomes for the first and subsequent children, and that low-income families should also receive grants when their child starts both nursery and school; believes that investment in the expansion of high-quality early learning and childcare, alongside an increase in highly-trained staff, will support children during their early years and help them to reach their full potential, and supports efforts to reduce stigma and social pressures on children of all ages.

15:15  

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I welcome Aileen Campbell to her new post. Over a long period of time, she has done a great deal for children and young people in her previous role. I do not think that anyone can doubt the minister’s commitment to her brief.

I have lost count of the number of debates on children and young people that I have taken part in, but that is because it is such an important policy area that has commanded a great deal of cross-party support. Nonetheless, it presents some of the most significant challenges to the Government and the other parties, in both the health brief and the education brief. We are probably agreed—pretty unanimously—about the extent of those challenges, so compelling and consistent is the evidence that is presented to us about the importance of the early years. We maybe agree a bit less on how to address those challenges, but it is important in this debate that parties take the opportunity to set out their positive vision, so I will do that on behalf of the Conservatives.

I will deal first with the very earliest years—even pre-birth—and restate our strong commitment to the midwife and health visiting system, which believes strongly in the earliest possible intervention and commands huge public trust, particularly among parents. That is important. The system has a very dedicated and professional staff, and we need to pay a bit of attention to what they are saying now about the additional responsibilities that they are expected to take on. We owe them a great debt.

We should also listen to what other countries are saying in this area. Many recommend that the health visiting system should be extended from year 5 up to when a child is seven years old, but that would require an extraordinary commitment of resources and a recalibration of Government priorities. Nonetheless, the evidence that is presented to us—particularly from the Scandinavian countries—is pretty compelling.

Of course, we will not get all the results that we want if we do not invest wisely in neonatal care. Reports have been produced recently—I am thinking particularly of the report from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health—that identify issues of overworked staff, cancelled appointments and insufficient medical cover. We need to take those issues seriously, as neonatal care is a crucial area of intervention. The report also expresses strong concerns about the training opportunities that are available and whether staff have enough time to spend on professional training compared with what happens in other parts of the United Kingdom.

The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 contains provisions to extend the number of hours of free childcare that a child receives, and we warmly welcome what the Scottish Government has done in that respect. However, we are concerned that some disadvantaged two-year-olds are losing out. No party in this Parliament can ever pretend to be delivering all the childcare that we would like to deliver, because there are significant constraints on resources and the facilities that we use. Nonetheless, there is a debate to be had about where the greatest priority should be within tight spending and whether we should put more focus on one and two-year-olds, especially the most vulnerable ones.

Extending the number of hours of free childcare is only part of the issue, which is all about flexibility—I know that the Scottish Government is working on some aspects of that—and my colleagues will look at some reforms that we think are needed to make the system more responsive to the needs of parents, whose working lives are becoming increasingly diverse.

The same is true when it comes to nursery provision. We need to introduce greater flexibility in care, so that there is a good mix of state partnership and private provision, because parents should be allowed to choose. There is another debate to be had about the entitlement to public money for that provision. Again, we should take a leaf from the Scandinavian countries. We need to look at what they do, because I think that they do things a little bit better than we do.

There is an aspect of nursery provision to which I will return: the inequity that lies within nursery provision relating to the date of the child’s birthday. We have debated the issue several times—during consideration of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill and at other times in the chamber. That matter still concerns us. Our party suggests that provision for all children should start at a fixed point in the year, because it is not acceptable in today’s Scotland that 50 per cent of youngsters do not have the same provision simply because of when their birthday is.

Of course, what matters most is staffing. I know that the Government is looking at some of the key spending commitments in that area, but there are concerns. Indeed, Alex Cole-Hamilton flagged up the concerns in his intervention. Again, that is a high-priority matter.

I turn to the issue of mental health. We welcome the new mental health strategy, which focuses on the early identification of such health issues, and the fact that consideration is being given to the long-standing call from the Scottish Association for Mental Health for a 10-year strategy. Indeed, the minister has good things to say about that area. A wealth of evidence shows that more than half of diagnosable mental health problems take root before the age of 14. Clearly, early intervention is vital. The Scottish Parliament information centre has provided interesting statistics about the impact of the mental health crisis—I do not think that “crisis” is too strong a word—in Scotland. It is a hidden crisis for many youngsters, so our talking about it in a cross-party way and the Government’s focusing on the issue is a good thing.

According to NHS Scotland statistics, 83 per cent of children and adolescents who were referred for mental health treatment in the last quarter were seen within 18 weeks. That is an improvement on the figure for the previous quarter, but it is still quite a bit below the Scottish Government’s target. We have issues about where the bed provision is and how quickly some of the treatment centres are able to deal with youngsters, many of whom, as I say, may not come forward to talk to someone. Barnardo’s highlighted that important issue to us when it described the matter in considerable detail.

There is nothing more important than the early years—I do not think that there is any division at all among parties in this Parliament about that. We owe it to the Government to accept that it has done excellent work on that; nonetheless, there are significant challenges, and I would ask the minister to look particularly at nursery provision. We have mentioned that issue for a long time, and it has resonance with a lot of parents. An improvement in the flexibility of childcare would also be a huge step forward.

I look forward to hearing the rest of the debate.

I move amendment S5M-00467.4, in the name of my colleague Donald Cameron, to leave out from “agrees” to “potential” and insert:

“notes calls from children’s organisations for a wholesale review of child and adolescent mental health services to ensure that funding is being used in the most effective manner; considers that investment in neonatal training courses for nurses should be prioritised so that every newborn is always cared for by a team of fully qualified staff; believes that investment in high-quality early learning and childcare should focus on expansion into care for one and two-year-olds; agrees that parents should have flexibility in accessing childcare”.

15:23  

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

Before I talk about the motion or my amendment, I add that my thoughts are with Jo Cox and her family, given the tragic circumstances today.

I declare an interest—in fact, I have two of them. One is aged nine months and the other is four years old, and they are the light of my life. They are also the reason why this debate is so important to me. For my family, like all working families, childcare is not about abstract arguments, statistics about places or quality criteria; rather, the childcare issues that families face are practical, financial and daily.

My childcare challenge is quite often getting out the door in time, so that I can get my daughter to nursery and get to my desk here at a decent hour. We are a family with two parents, both of whom have busy, demanding jobs, but even for us childcare is expensive. Balancing the expectations of work and the demands of family life is, to put it mildly, testing.

To my mind, childcare is central to so much of what we seek to achieve in this place. The way that we treat, look after and raise our children speaks volumes about the kind of society that we are. In that direct way, childcare shapes our future.

We know how important the early years are to a child’s development. Childcare and early years education are vital if we want our children to thrive. One of the most encouraging aspects of the new parliamentary session is the consensus on the need to tackle some of those issues—in particular, the attainment gap—about which Liz Smith just spoke. However, it is also becoming clear just how important the early years are in closing that gap.

Language is the most fundamental learning tool that we have. The Save the Children analysis that was released today, which demonstrates that 7,000 of our youngest children are struggling with their first words, is of concern. Most alarmingly, the analysis shows that toddlers from the poorest families in Scotland are twice as likely to have those difficulties and that the gap that opens up at that stage persists until children are right the way through primary school.

In a real way, the attainment gap has already come into existence before children have even entered a classroom or so much as opened a textbook. Therefore, we should heed Save the Children’s call for more qualified professionals with speech and language expertise to work in our nurseries and consider that proposal seriously.

Elaine Smith

Does Daniel Johnson agree that language is important in the debate and the motions? That is why I made the point about breastfeeding not being mentioned although it is so important to the best start in children’s lives.

Daniel Johnson

I thank Elaine Smith for that comment and echo the comments on the matter from right across the chamber. The importance of breastfeeding is well understood and we must make every effort to ensure that every child benefits from it.

Labour has taken the early years seriously for some time. Expanded childcare, the introduction of paternity leave, increased maternity leave and pay, tax credits and the sure start programme are all achievements of recent Labour Governments. The Scottish Government will have our support when it builds on those foundations.

Childcare also has serious impacts on women’s ability to work. According to figures from SPICe, a quarter of women who are at home caring for children under five would like to be out working. Access to affordable childcare is critical to ensuring that that can happen. The Scottish Government’s commitments on that are welcome, but most women do not—and, indeed, cannot afford to—wait until their child is three before they get back to work. Nor are childcare places comprehensively available for the parents who want to take them up, which leads many of them to have to top up childcare. Claiming the free hours needs to become more straightforward and provision needs to be more consistent if the Government’s ambitions are to be achieved.

The important point in our approach to childcare is not only what is provided but how it is provided. The pattern of dads dropping kids off at nurseries so that the mums can pick them up at the end of the day is familiar to me. It betrays an expectation that we still have in society that women will compromise their work by leaving early to pick up children. Indeed, a recent survey showed that, in the UK, for every hour of childcare that mothers provide, dads provide only 24 minutes. For single parents—

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

Will Daniel Johnson give way?

Daniel Johnson

In a moment.

For single parents, the logistical problems are even greater. The way that the Government approaches and delivers childcare provides an important signal. Tackling the gender pay gap depends on implementing childcare.

Bob Doris

I am sorry that I intervened at a slightly inappropriate time, when Mr Johnson was halfway through making his point.

I declare my interest, which is a five-month-old baby called Cameron. This is the year of the dad, as I am sure Mr Johnson is aware. He mentioned gender roles in childcare. Does he agree that both of us and all dads have a responsibility to lead by example and challenge some of that gender inequality during the year of the dad in particular?

Daniel Johnson

I could not agree more, but I also emphasise that it is really important that the Government sends out the right signals on the accessibility and availability of childcare and ensures that our approach to childcare is not incremental but comprehensive.

More than one in four of Scotland’s families do not have access to a breakfast club. That is worse than in any other part of the UK. We need to ensure that childcare does not stop at the age of five and that we have a more comprehensive, wraparound view of what it is. We need to set ourselves challenging targets and high ambitions for childcare. The way in which we approach it has profound impacts—not just on our children, but on our society and our future.

Frankly, the current incremental approach from the Scottish Government shows signs of creaking under pressure. Fair funding for our kids warns that 8,000 children are in danger of missing out on their entitlement—that is one in five children. That is perhaps unsurprising, given the way in which that provision is being delivered. Furthermore, according to the National Day Nurseries Association, 77 per cent of nurseries say that the funding provided simply does not cover their costs, with the average of £3.56 per child per hour providing little beyond staffing costs.

These debates, in the early weeks of the session, are important as they allow the parties to talk about what we agree on and where we share ideas on priorities. Most important, though, they enable us to talk about our ambitions for this country. I have set out criticisms of the SNP Government’s childcare plans—not because I think that they are wrong or because I do not value the provision that is undoubtedly being made. Rather, I want us to be ambitious for more. We need a comprehensive childcare plan for the whole of Scotland. That is why I am pleased to move Labour’s amendment.

I move amendment S5M-00467.3, to insert at end:

“; believes that high-quality childcare is good for children and families as well as the economy; recognises that some aspects of childcare in Scotland are now more expensive than anywhere else in the UK apart from London, with prices rising well above the rate of inflation and many parents struggling to access affordable childcare that fits their needs; notes that nurseries often have a waiting list of parents waiting to access their funded hours; believes that Scotland’s children and their parents deserve a childcare strategy that will genuinely deliver an affordable, flexible and wraparound system, and calls on the Scottish Government to deliver funding for a breakfast club in every primary school and to start delivering a wraparound childcare policy”.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We now move to the open debate, with speeches of up to six minutes, generally, please.

15:31  

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

As we have heard from the minister and other speakers, this Parliament is committed to putting children and their families at the heart of policy making, as captured in the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014. The aim is

“to make Scotland the best place in the world to grow up”

and

“to ensure that all children have the best start in life and are ready to succeed”.

Today, right at the start of life is where I would like to focus—first, by mentioning the Scottish Government’s announcement that it will accept the key recommendations of the national infertility group. Scotland already leads the way on in vitro fertilisation access and rights in the UK, and the changes will ensure that Scotland’s provision is as fair and generous as possible. I know that news of the changes will be very welcome to couples who are having difficulty in conceiving.

I also welcome the announcement of free vitamins for women throughout their pregnancy. Good nutrition is, of course, essential but, even with access to a good-quality, healthy diet, additional nutritional support is beneficial for pregnant women and their babies, which is why universal provision is so important.

We know that the best nutritional start in life for babies is breastfeeding. Next week is national breastfeeding celebration week and, on Wednesday 22 June, the Ayrshire breastfeeding network will have an information and support pop-up stall in the Irvine mall, which I look forward to visiting.

The network’s peer supporters, trained volunteers and drop-in centres provide important support and encouragement to new mums in relation to feeding their babies, including, importantly, in weaning them on to appropriate first foods. I am told that the chats that they have at the drop-in groups cover many other topics, such as parenting skills; sleep—or lack of it; maternal mental health; and infant bonding and development.

The network is also doing some good work with schools, including, recently, delivering simple information to some P3 pupils at Woodlands primary in Irvine and some secondary pupils at St Matthew’s in Saltcoats. The hope is that talking to young people will help to normalise breastfeeding and make it a choice that they can imagine making themselves when they choose to have children.

Perhaps most importantly, the drop-in groups provide somewhere that families can come to meet other parents and develop supportive social networks, which we all know play a huge part in preventing feelings of isolation and therefore promoting wellbeing.

I take the opportunity to highlight the network’s breastfeed happily here campaign, which it has been working hard over the past 12 months to promote. It has had a number of successes, including signing up all public transport in Ayrshire. Evaluation of the scheme shows that women value seeing the stickers and posters and can feel more confident about feeding somewhere that has a sticker visible. Businesses’ feedback is also that they value the chance to support breastfeeding mums and their babies and to make families feel more welcome. That is really brilliant to see when out and about, although, of course, it is important to remember that it is a mum’s right to breastfeed her baby wherever she wants—a right protected by law. However, it is always helpful to see positive encouragement and a welcome.

Speaking of helpful, I once saw a helpful cafe notice for those who object to breastfeeding in public. It stated that a blanket was available and that anyone who found the sight of a mum feeding her baby offensive should take the blanket and gently place it over their own head. [Laughter.]

I thank the Scottish Government for extending the family nurse partnership programme, which provides targeted support for young mothers to help them to improve outcomes for themselves and their children. The partnership programme has been running in my health board area—Ayrshire and Arran—since February 2013. I had the privilege of meeting some of the nurses and young women and their wee ones at the programme’s first birthday celebration in Irvine. To date, the Ayrshire family nurse partnership has helped more than 250 mums and their babies, and it reports really encouraging results in areas such as smoking behaviour, breastfeeding initiation, healthy birth weight, immunisation take-up and children’s developmental progress.

One of the most important things to note about the programme is the fact that it is grounded in good relationships. It is strengths and assets based, and it focuses on expectant mothers’ intrinsic motivation to do the best for their child. In all our work with children and families, that strengths and assets-based focus should be a hallmark of what we do. We need to build good, healthy relationships and provide positive support and encouragement for people to do the best that they can do, while always remembering that giving all our children the best start in life is the business of us all.

15:36  

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

As my colleague Liz Smith pointed out, this is a very important debate. The link between a child’s education and their health is clear, and it is helpful that we have brought the two issues together in this afternoon’s debate.

I would like to raise two very different but important points. I welcome the minister’s comment about disabled children and her intention to do more on their health and education, which brings me to the first issue that I want to bring up, which is the mainstreaming of disabled children. It has been helpful that, over the past few decades, more children have been mainstreamed in secondary and primary schools, and I think that we should encourage that. However, in certain cases it is not appropriate for children to be mainstreamed, because their education and their social skills are affected by bullying, feeling isolated and simply not getting the schooling that they require.

On Monday afternoon, I had the privilege of going to the Royal Blind School; I use the word “privilege” carefully, because I was grilled for 45 minutes by pupils in the modern studies class, who asked me more questions than I had at all the hustings I did before the election. The Royal Blind School and Donaldson’s school, both of which are in the Lothians, are excellent examples of schools that provide specific education for people with a particular disability. From talking to the children, I found out that one of them had recently come to the Royal Blind School because they had been bullied in mainstream education. Another child I spoke to feared that her funding would be cut by the local authority, with the result that she would have to leave the school and enter mainstream education. She was deeply worried about the bullying that she might suffer.

I appreciate that it is up to each local authority to make individual decisions about each child. I should probably declare that, as a local councillor, I know that those decisions are not always easy to make. However, I encourage the Government to work with local authorities, where possible, to fund the type of education that I have mentioned, when that is appropriate.

The Minister for Childcare and Early Years (Mark McDonald)

Jeremy Balfour was not a member in the previous session, so he will not know that when I was a back-bench MSP, I secured a commitment from the then minister for schools, Alasdair Allan, to look at how the presumption of mainstreaming was operating. I am more than happy to find out what is happening with that at the moment and to write to the member, because he makes some very important points on the issue.

Jeremy Balfour

I am grateful to the minister for those helpful comments. That means that I can move on quickly to my second point, which is about funded childcare hours. The 600 hours that are provided in a year mean that three hours and 10 minutes a day are provided during the school term. It is often impossible for working parents to use that provision, because they cannot drop off their children, get to their job and be back within three hours and 10 minutes. There is no flexibility.

The Family and Childcare Trust’s annual survey, which was published back in February, showed that only 13 per cent of local authorities in Scotland had provision for working parents, in comparison with 43 per cent south of the border. A challenge for national and local government is to look at childcare afresh.

The Government and local authorities need to look at how we make childcare more flexible. Instead of saying, “Here’s the system—you must fit into it,” we must ask how we can make the system work for each family. That will mean looking at examples such as the successful childcare voucher system in Sweden, which gives families the choice between public pre-schools and nurseries and approved private and voluntary sector providers. The small step of giving parents vouchers would open up the system and allow parents to have flexibility. I ask the Government to look afresh at that.

15:41  

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

As Elaine Smith did in an intervention, I will refer in my comments to something that is not mentioned in the motion but which I am pleased about: kinship care.

My relationship with kinship care campaigners dates back to 2006, when a national kinship care hustings was held ahead of the 2007 election. I have campaigned for equity and equality for kinship carers for many years.

Last year, I was delighted that the Scottish Government invested £10.1 million in kinship care. That gave 5,200 children who are in kinship care equity and equality by ensuring that local authorities pay their carers the same amount as foster carers are paid. I am pleased that, after the Scottish Government made its commitment, we got there and succeeded. At that time, Anne Swartz of the Scottish kinship care alliance said:

“We are delighted that the Scottish Government has finally recognised the comparable needs of children in kinship and foster care, which kinship carers have campaigned tirelessly for. This will make a huge difference to the 5,200 children who will be entitled to further support.”

Two constituents of mine—Jessie Harvey and Sadie Prior—were part of the tireless campaign to get fairness and justice for kinship carers. If they were listening today, I am sure that they would say, “Well done, SNP Government, and well done, Bob—but we still want more.” That is quite right. Just as Elaine Smith wants more in relation to breastfeeding, it is understandable that we always demand and campaign for more. However, the Scottish Government has made progress on how we deal with kinship care children, who are vulnerable.

We would like to look at the variance in foster care allowances across the country and kids who are in kinship care arrangements not because they were placed there by local authorities but because of a proactive act by their families. There is more to do, but significant progress has been made.

Aileen Campbell

I know from my previous role and from experience of speaking to kinship carers—as Bob Doris will know from his experience—that we must also consider the provision of therapeutic benefits; it is not necessarily about financial assistance. In that regard, sometimes traumas in the early years do not show themselves when a child is placed with a kinship carer but present themselves when a child hits adolescence. Especially when children are in kinship care settings, we need to be mindful of their individual needs.

Bob Doris

In responding to the minister’s intervention, I promise members that we did not compare notes before the debate. I was about to make the point that much of what the motion refers to will support families, so that relationships between vulnerable mothers and fathers and their kids will perhaps not break down in the first place, which would mean fewer kinship care kids. That is vital.

Also, the motion refers to the commitment to the new 10-year mental health strategy, which

“should help renew focus on the early identification of child mental health issues”.

In that regard, I return to the position of kinship care children. As the minister has just pointed out, kinship carers are not focused only on financial support; it is just one aspect of a much wider campaign for the vulnerable young people who they do so much to look after. Kinship carers seek equity and equality of access to a range of services, including mental health services.

Many young people in kinship care have been fundamentally impacted by their life experiences, sometimes because of what they have witnessed or because of the lifestyle of their mum before they came into the world, which may have involved drugs, alcohol or whatever. Through the mental health strategy, we must ensure that the situation and experience of kinship care children are properly assessed by medical professionals when referrals are made to mental health services. I ask the minister in his summing-up to give a commitment to consider how we can ensure that kinship care children are suitably assessed, because the system does not always meet the needs of those that we want it to serve, despite the fact that significant progress was made when Jamie Hepburn was mental health minister in dramatically reducing some waiting times.

I agree with many of the comments that have been made on childcare and flexibility. Considerations about the flexibility of childcare have to feed into the extension of partnership nurseries in a valuable way, so that childcare is available in the right place and at the right time for families. We also have to ensure that there are no artificial boundaries between local authorities in relation to childcare provision. I have a specific constituency case in that regard. I have not asked for permission to share the details of it with members so I will not do so, but I have specific concerns about a family who have not been best served in that respect. I ask whether the minister could make the space to discuss that case with me at some point in the near future.

Finally in relation to childcare provision, local authorities are disposing of assets, which is understandable, but they sometimes dispose of assets where childcare establishments could be suitably placed. The Scottish Government and local authorities must as a priority discuss with each other how we are going to roll out the welcome dramatic expansion of childcare facilities and how we can ensure that assets are kept for such strategic measures.

I hope that the minister will take on board some of those points in summing up the debate.

15:47  

Elaine Smith (Central Scotland) (Lab)

There are of course many ways to give children the best start in life, such as through a loving and caring family environment, good childcare and a good pre-school and nursery experience. However, the best start in life from a nutritional and nurturing perspective and to positively affect children’s health and wellbeing is undoubtedly breast milk, a point that is clearly made in the Government’s infant nutrition framework. I must say that I really enjoyed Ruth Maguire’s contribution on the subject.

When I saw the title for today’s debate, I presumed that at last the Government was going to lead a plenary debate on breastfeeding. Therefore, I was astonished to see that, even though next week is national breastfeeding awareness week, the motion had no mention of breastfeeding and nor did any of the amendments, including those that were not selected for debate—apart from mine.

Only this month, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child highlighted the need to tackle the extremely low breastfeeding rate in the UK, including in Scotland, to improve and protect children’s health and wellbeing. Among other recommendations, the UNCRC states that we should

“Promote, protect and support breastfeeding in all policy areas where breastfeeding has an impact on child health, including obesity, certain noncommunicable diseases, and mental health”.

Therefore, I took the unusual step of lodging a back-bench manuscript amendment to include mention of breastfeeding in the motion for today’s plenary debate. I regret that my amendment was not chosen, but I will focus on the issue. I think that the last time that I lodged such an amendment was when I wrote and logded one in the name of John McAllion on the Iraq war in 2003, so I do not do that kind of thing very often.

If someone invented breastfeeding, they would be hailed as a genius and they would no doubt be worth a fortune, so why is it that this miracle food with substantial health benefits for mum and baby, which is readily available to most babies and specifically tailored to them as their own designer food, is bypassed for an inferior product with far less nutritional value and that has to be paid for? It makes no sense.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

Will the member take an intervention?

Elaine Smith

Do I have time, Presiding Officer?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Yes.

Elaine Smith

Very briefly, please.

Liam Kerr

We have heard a lot about breastfeeding and the merits thereof and I do not disagree with the member. However, I am sure that the member will agree that many women are unable to or actively choose not to breastfeed, for whatever reason. It is important that that is not a source of censure.

Elaine Smith

I thank the member for that intervention. I am going to come on to that very point later in my speech. There are very few women who cannot breastfeed, although I accept that there are some. Certainly many choose not to.

In her book “The Politics of Breastfeeding” Gabrielle Palmer says

“If a multinational company developed a product that was a nutritionally balanced and delicious food, a wonder drug that both prevented and treated disease, cost almost nothing to produce and could be delivered in quantities controlled by consumers’ needs, the announcement of this find would send its shares rocketing to the top of the stock market.”

However, the big corporations profit from selling a substitute and marketing it, even when the “International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes” bans formula good advertising. The World Health Organization, the UK Government, the Scottish Government and voluntary organisations all recommend breastfeeding as the healthiest way to feed a baby and provide the best start in life. Manufacturers of formula milk, however, make phenomenal profits from selling the substitutes, and that really must change if we are being serious about our children’s health and wellbeing after birth and in the longer term.

Steps have been taken in countries around the world to address the issue. For example, in India, legislation requires that tins of infant formula carry a conspicuous warning about the potential harm of formula feeding.

With all the available evidence pointing to the health and wellbeing benefits of breastfeeding, we might think that it would be the standard way to feed our children and that society would view it as unremarkable, normal, nurturing and maternal behaviour. Sadly, that is not the case. As UNICEF points out,

“it is a highly emotive subject because so many families have not breastfed, or have experienced the trauma of trying very hard to breastfeed and not succeeding.”

It goes on to say that no parent should have to feel the pain of any implication that they have not done their best for their child, but that

“the UK context has become so fraught”

that conversations about breastfeeding are shut down. I am a bit concerned that that might be why there was no mention of it in today’s motion or amendments, although I accept what the minister said in her opening and I also accept her offer of a meeting on the subject.

Aileen Campbell

Will the member give way?

Elaine Smith

Do I have time, Presiding Officer?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

If it is brief, yes.

Aileen Campbell

The offer was meant in all genuine sincerity. Some positive things are happening right across the country such as the early years collaborative and the fact that 100 per cent of hospital births are now in UNICEF-accredited hospitals that welcome breastfeeding. We are putting in an enormous amount of effort. I know that we need to do more but there was certainly no deliberate intention to hide or shy away from the challenges that we face in breastfeeding, and we actively promote and support it.

Elaine Smith

I am delighted to hear that, but it makes why it was not mentioned in the motion even more of a mystery.

The shutdown that UNICEF refers to has massive implications for child health, wellbeing and nutrition, for the future health of the population and for the public purse. Powerful new evidence about the benefits of breastfeeding provides a compelling case for altering prevailing attitudes and practices—that has just been published by the Gates Foundation. It adds to the evidence that was found for the UNICEF report “Preventing disease and saving resources: the potential contribution of increasing breastfeeding rates in the UK”.

UNICEF also recommends that we change the conversations around breastfeeding by stopping putting the responsibility for such a major public health issue in the laps of individual women and acknowledging the role that politics and society have to play at every level. It is also difficult for individual women to make an informed choice unless they have the right information. Much more support for breastfeeding is needed, with all health boards treating it as a priority public health measure.

Breastfeeding is also an issue of class and poverty. Mothers in the least deprived areas are three times more likely to exclusively breastfeed than those in the most deprived areas. Although all babies benefit immensely from breastfeeding, children in more deprived areas need the start that breast milk gives even more than the better-off.

I know that the minister acknowledges that families also needs access to professionals who are fully trained in breastfeeding, particularly health visitors.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Could you come to a close please?

Elaine Smith

They need to be aware of the protection offered by the Breastfeeding etc (Scotland) Act 2005, which was my own member’s bill, and they need support groups in the community.

I will come to a close, although I rather regret taking all those interventions. I acknowledge the excellent document “Off to a Good Start”, which was produced by NHS Health Scotland last year to commemorate 10 years of the Breastfeeding etc (Scotland) Act 2005 that was passed by Parliament—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

You really must close Ms Smith.

Elaine Smith

I trust that the Government will include that in information to all pregnant mothers.

15:54  

Gail Ross (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)

We do not speak a lot about affection in the chamber. Today, though, we are talking about giving our children the best start in life, and that can be done in so many ways. The Scottish Government has made a huge commitment to our children in the form of the baby box, the maternity and early years allowance, the increase in flexible childcare and all the other measures that are listed in the minister’s motion. I warmly welcome them.

Social attitudes towards children have changed dramatically in recent decades—notably through the influence of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, with its strong emphasis on children’s rights being respected, and on children being consulted about matters that affect them. The convention has been ratified by 191 countries, which makes it the most significant international human rights instrument designed to promote children’s wellbeing. The convention draws heavily on the principle that children have a right to develop.

Those who have heard of Suzanne Zeedyk will know that she is an expert in infant attachment and is big on hugs. Hugs, cuddles and physical affection are things that most children take for granted, but they are also things that lots of children in Scotland miss out on every single day. Deprivation can mean different things to different people; it can be deprivation of food or finance, it can be deprivation of social activities or clubs, and it can be deprivation of physical contact and love.

It has been scientifically proved that infants and children who are deprived of a safe and loving environment in which to grow up develop at a slower pace than those who are not. Suzanne Zeedyk gave a presentation to Highland Council a couple of years ago at which she showed us two pictures of children’s brains. One brain belonged to a child who had been brought up in a loving home, and the other belonged to a child who had been brought up in an environment in which it was starved of affection. The difference between the rates of brain development of the two was stark.

Let us also ponder on an experiment that was conducted in the 1950s by Harry Harlow. He placed two baby monkeys in a cage with a cloth mother with no food and a wire mother with food. Guess which mother they chose. They chose the cloth one; the baby monkeys sacrificed sustenance for physical affection.

Elaine Smith will be delighted because I would like to pay tribute to her for her continued support for breastfeeding and her recent motion to recognise breastfeeding week next week. We actively promote breastfeeding in Scotland and we recognise that breast milk undoubtedly gives our babies the best start, but—as has been mentioned—judging by the statistics we can do better.

Elaine Smith

I thank Gail Ross for taking an intervention because I will make a point that I wanted to make in my speech but did not have time. Despite all the work and goodwill, breastfeeding rates have not changed in the past 10 years. Does the member agree that we need to do more in that respect?

Gail Ross

Indeed, I do, and—as the minister said—we are prepared to work together to ensure that that happens.

I have spoken to a number of new mums about breastfeeding and they say that what they need is support and encouragement throughout the process. They feel confident about breastfeeding in hospital, but change to bottle feeding when they return home. They sometimes feel embarrassed about breastfeeding in public because they think that people will stare or comment negatively. That is not their problem—that is society’s problem. Breastfeeding needs to be seen as the norm, not the exception.

I would like to talk briefly about Highland Council and how it has been running the family nurse partnership, supported by the Scottish Government. My colleague Ruth Maguire also mentioned it. The family nurse partnership offers first-time young mums aged 19 and under valuable help and support to enable them to provide the best start for their children. As the minister said, that help and support will now be offered to vulnerable first-time mums who are aged 20 to 24. The initiative operates as a joint partnership between NHS Highland and Highland Council, and 82 mums across the region have recently completed the full programme. In Highland, we recently marked the fourth anniversary of the integration of health and social care, and the family nurse partnership team is being held up as a shining example of partnership working. Bill Alexander, Highland Council’s director of care and learning, said:

“I am delighted that our Family Nurse Partnership team is being described as a shining light of best practice across Scotland.”

The nurses have one-on-one time with the families and the relationship between them is at the heart of the initiative. The mothers are encouraged to act on their natural instincts to give their children the best start in life. The breastfeeding rates are the highest that we have seen, the attachment is evident, and the relationship between mother and child is positive and strong.

Children’s experiences of childhood are not simply an expression of the fact that they are young, growing and learning. Their childhood is shaped by the circumstances in which they grow up and by the beliefs and attitudes of those who influence them. When we go home from this great establishment where we do our jobs with enormous responsibility, we should give the people in our lives a hug—especially the little people. We should tell them that we love them, that we are proud of them and that they matter. Let us give them the tools to face the world and, together, we can make Scotland the best place in the world to grow up.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I wipe a tear from my eye, Miss Ross, and call Brian Whittle.

16:00  

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

Yesterday, I hosted Arthritis Research UK in my office. Members may say that that is a strange way to start a speech during a debate on the best start in life for Scotland’s children, but I ask members to stick with me. Interestingly, the discussion was around the prevention and treatment of musculoskeletal conditions such as osteoarthritis. Treatment of it—surprise, surprise—nearly always includes exercise, as it does for many ailments, but for a person who is not used to an active lifestyle that is not easy to hear.

Most important for this debate, though, is that preventing development of that painful and debilitating condition begins at birth. Parliament needs to consider the fact that by the time a child reaches school age, his or her bone density has already developed to about 90 per cent. The same is true for the neuromuscular system, for the cardiovascular system and for movement patterns. In other words, a child’s life-health patterns are pretty much set by school age. If we want our children to mature fully and to develop to be all that they can be—to live a long, happy and healthy productive life—we need them to get active early and we need to stimulate minds and bodies early.

What about the rewards? How about not spending £353 million a year on treatment of musculoskeletal conditions? How about having a healthier society, both mentally and physically? How about a more productive, inclusive society?

Last week, I had the great pleasure of visiting my old primary 1 school in Symington for the school sports day. The children were bursting with excitement and enthusiasm. The experience took me back to my P1 sports day in the play park across the road, where I first discovered that I could run. Later, at Troon primary school, I won at the school sports, was picked for the Troon interschool sports and won there, and soon joined my first running club, which was called Marr Tortoises. There I met my coach, who stayed with me for the next 21 years. It was a series of events that we could call a happy accident.

There are countless such examples of a teacher or coach happening along at the right moment, with the energy and enthusiasm that captures a child’s imagination, taps into an unrealised talent or skill, and sets them on a path. Too many of our kids achieve as a result of happy accidents, rather than by design. More important is the fact that without those happy accidents talents go unrealised. We need to strive to take the happy accident out of the equation wherever possible, in order to ensure that we open up the world of possibilities and ensure that academic and physical opportunities surround our children.

Members should speak to any teacher on the subject. Jenny Gilruth and I have discussed the difference between teaching children who are active in and out of school and teaching children who are sedentary. The active children are more alert, attentive, enthusiastic and confident. Many parents tell us that those children sleep at night. Bliss.

How could we pay for that approach? English primary schools receive £9,000 a year for extracurricular activities. I have spoken to a headteacher who uses that money to recruit teachers who can not only teach school lessons but can take extracurricular activity, and are paid accordingly. I sense beads of sweat popping out on the finance minister’s brow.

I pay for out-of-school care for my youngest daughter who is moving from P3 to P4. Although the care that she receives is first class, if you came to me and said that she wanted to do games after school, or art, or music, or French and you were going to charge me for it, I would bite your hand off, because, in reality, it is not going to cost me any more. If councils were to collect money from all parents across the region who are in the same situation, they could then redistribute it in such a way that teachers and coaches could be paid appropriately for their time, at all schools. This is just an outline thought; members might think that there is merit in exploring it, or otherwise. However, we need to think laterally. I would welcome members’ other thoughts and ideas on the issue.

It is the Government’s responsibility to create an environment in which our children not only have access to opportunity, but understand the choices that they can make and are confident and informed enough to make better lifestyle choices, irrespective of background and personal circumstances. Once they step into their arena, whether it is on a sports field, picking up a paint brush or musical instrument or stepping into a debating chamber—whatever their passion is—they are no longer defined by where they came from, but by where they are going, and they share a sense of purpose and responsibility with those around them.

Aileen Campbell

I point out that we have an active schools network across Scotland and an activity framework that has been lauded internationally that tries to get children and young people active. We also have the better movers and thinkers approach, which is trying to debunk some of the myths that we have around the current teaching of physical education which teaches children to be still, standing and sitting. We want to ensure that we get and embrace children’s natural activity in order to allow them to take up the opportunities that Brian Whittle has described.

Brian Whittle

I know that steps have been taken, but we must—as I said in my previous speech—acknowledge that we have the unfortunate title of “unhealthiest nation in Europe”. We have to do more about that.

I have been lucky in life in that I have been immersed in a world of people of all colours, creeds and religions, all bound up in a common interest—in my case, sport. Mutual respect is a given, and when we are all together, all we see is sportsmen and sportswomen. The bonds have endured. In the light of recent atrocities and our collective belief that education is the big solution to overcoming prejudices, perhaps we should take time to consider another consequence of active participation—we open up a world to our children, help them to find a passion and introduce them to others who hold that same passion.

It is the duty of Parliament to help our children to step into their arena while their minds are open to opportunities, in a world in which aspiration, perspiration, expectation and excitement can take them anywhere that they can imagine.

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

Thank you. As members know, we are tight for time.

16:07  

Jenny Gilruth (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)

Scotland is a rich country. In 2012, we were ranked the 14th richest country in the world by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Today, inequality and poverty continue to affect children’s life chances from birth and even during pregnancy, but inequality is not a new phenomenon nor, indeed, as the Opposition might have us believe, is it a social construct of the SNP’s making. When I was born in 1984, Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, George Michael was singing “Careless Whisper” and there was, so Thatcher claimed,

“no such thing as society.”

Fast-forward to the 1990’s and it was the Blair project, D-Ream’s “Things Can only Get Better” and the third way. Consistently, under both the Tories and new Labour, the gap between the haves and the have-nots widened.

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

Will the member give way?

Jenny Gilruth

I will in a wee second.

The opportunities for the next generation shrunk as inflation ratcheted up house prices, council homes were sold off and Scotland’s industries crumbled.

Iain Gray

The member must acknowledge that what she said about the Labour Government is simply not true. There was a massive reduction in child poverty in the years of that Government.

Jenny Gilruth

I do not agree with that at all.

Iain Gray

It is a fact.

Jenny Gilruth

From my position on this side of the chamber and as a member of the generation that had to pay the graduate endowment, I have to say that I completely disagree with that sentiment.

Granted, I am not painting a particularly positive picture for a Thursday afternoon, but I would nonetheless like to tell members that when the SNP swept to power in 2007, it was on a wave of optimism, hope and aspiration and to the tune of Rihanna’s “Umbrella”. Although that last sentence might well be true, it remains a sobering fact that the life chances for some of Scotland’s children are unequal from birth.

Before I became a teacher, I worked as a play worker at the Cranhill Beacon family learning centre in my colleague Ivan McKee’s constituency of Glasgow Provan. The Beacon was the community in Cranhill that summer—in particular, for the children growing up there. It provided them with opportunities to take part in arts and crafts, to play sport and to develop their social skills. It gave them something to do. Being a play worker certainly made me realise the importance of building up young people by creating inner confidence, whether they became better at reading “The Grufallo”, at playing badminton or, indeed, at hiding my house keys, which many became addicted to doing while I worked there.

One day, after visiting the stylish student’s staple, Primark, I was on my way into work for an afternoon shift when I was met by Billie and Adele, two of the girls who came to the Beacon that summer. They did not know where Primark was. I explained that it was in the city centre—a 15-minute bus journey away. To them, that seemed like the ends of the earth; it was bad enough that I was from Fife. They were completely isolated in their own community, and there were no shops nearby where they could buy fresh food. There was just a boarded-up bookies, an overpriced corner shop, a local church and the Cranhill Beacon, which is beside junction 11 as you enter Glasgow on the M8.

I know from my experience how crucial positive relationships can be to young people, so it would, particularly given the Government’s commitment to closing the attainment gap, be remiss not to consider the early years as the starting block for eradicating educational inequality later in life. Curriculum for excellence is a 3 to 18 system that joins up the early years right through to the senior phase, and it also encourages partnership working to enrich children’s learning and widen their understanding.

One of the strongest ways for a teacher to engage their classes is the use of outside speakers. I know that my classes benefited from that, even if it just provided them with a break from listening to me. In 2010, I invited Dr Harry Burns, then the chief medical officer for Scotland, to speak to my senior class. Dr Burns spoke about the importance of wellness and nurture in a child’s development, and about how babies process stress. When a child is born, it cries. That is stress. The parent or carer picks up the baby and the stress is relieved; the baby learns how to cope from a very young age. However, that is not the case for babies who grow up in chaotic households where no one picks up the baby. The baby cries and cries; the baby is stressed, and that stress is not relieved. Years later, the child will go to school and be given a simple instruction—even just to sit down or to take out a pencil, for example. That child does not have the resilience to deal with stress in the same way that other children will. Early intervention and opportunities to develop social skills are, therefore, crucial in ensuring the best start in life for Scotland’s children.

This time last year, the Scottish Government announced £1 million to be earmarked for early years education staff development. That built on the progress that had already been established by getting it right for every child and curriculum for excellence. Crucially, it gave a renewed focus on age 0 to 3 as the period of a child’s development that shapes their future opportunities.

In my constituency, the Ladybird family nurture centre in Glenrothes is a great example of committed professionals applying their expertise to ensure the best start for young people. My friend Nicola works there as an early years officer, supporting families and young children. The nursery is a real community. I visited its summer fête recently; it was great to see how one nursery with just over 100 learners creates opportunities and chances for young people right from their early years. There is free swimming for children, parents and carers, football coaching for under 5s, and there is even a forest kindergarten that encourages children to learn from the outdoors. Ladybird is open 52 weeks of the year, so it also provides holiday support to families in the Glenrothes area.

Getting it right for every child starts from birth. It starts with targeted support to those who need it most and recognition from Government that not all children have the same opportunities to succeed in life. From the baby box, to a grant for mothers on low incomes, to the commitment to double the amount of free childcare by 2020, the Scottish Government is absolutely determined to ensure the best start in life for all of Scotland’s children.

16:13  

Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

The Scottish Green Party fought the election campaign on a range of pledges. One of them was to help parents, schools and care providers to give children in Scotland a better start in life, so we welcome the motion for the debate, which outlines several measures to do that. In my time today, I want to focus on two issues: early interventions to support children’s mental health, and programmes to help low-income families to access financial support.

Research suggests that 20 per cent of children in any given year, and about 10 per cent at any one time, have a mental health problem. As we have heard, mental health difficulties early on can have an impact throughout the life course, and some studies estimate that about 50 per cent of mental illness in adult life starts before the age of 15. I therefore warmly welcome the news that the new 10-year mental health strategy will contain a renewed focus on early identification of child mental health issues, which the Scottish Greens called for during the election.

A key part of the strategy should be to provide schools-based interventions that can quickly address emerging mental health problems. Barnardo’s Scotland reports that schools-based programmes to prevent conduct disorder through social and emotional learning programmes are some of the most cost effective, with gains worth almost £50 for every £1 that we spend. Schools-based interventions will also be key in tackling stigma and social pressure on children. We have highlighted that previously, and I was pleased to see it in the Government’s motion.

Where early years support has not worked, we must ensure that our children and young people can access the appropriate help. Although there have been some improvements, there are still long waits for treatment in some areas of the country. Between January and March this year in my region of Lothian, 66 per cent of young people waited 18 weeks or less for child and adolescent mental health services, compared to a national average of 84 per cent and almost 100 per cent in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. I ask the minister and the Government to examine why there are such large regional disparities in access to mental health support for young people.

I move on to measures to help low-income families. The Government’s proposed benefit uptake campaign is a good start, but more can be done to help families, in particular, to access financial support. To that end, I lodged an amendment to the motion to urge the Government to consider the Green manifesto pledge on there being national roll-out of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde’s healthier, wealthier children initiative. The project trains health workers and midwives to assist families to maximise their income. Among other types of help, it does that by helping them to access support to apply for benefits to which they are entitled but often do not claim because of a lack of understanding about benefits or a hesitancy to approach the benefit authorities.

Aileen Campbell rose—

Alison Johnstone

I have only four minutes, minister.

The healthier, wealthier children campaign has been an outstanding success. Between its launch in October 2010 and May 2016, a total of just more than 11,000 referrals to money advice services were made across the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde area, with a total annual financial gain of £11.6 million. Some families gained as much as £3,400, which obviously has a massive impact on their quality of life.

Child welfare academics from the University of Edinburgh have recently argued that extending such approaches could help to address child poverty across Scotland. Although my amendment was not selected, I urge the Government to consider national roll-out of the scheme. Alongside the other measures that are referred to in the motion, it would be a small change that would have a huge positive impact for some of the most financially vulnerable people in our society.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you very much for keeping to your time, Ms Johnstone. I call Rona Mackay.

16:17  

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

I am sure that all parties in this chamber agree that Scotland’s children need the best start in life, but what do we mean by the best start? We mean a loving family, a warm home, enough to eat, stimulation to learn and to play, and the space to grow. As we all know, life is not like that for every child. Many, although happily not the majority, have the odds stacked against them from the day that they are born.

During my time on the children’s panel, I saw babies and toddlers from hostile homes, where they were neglected, ignored and sometimes abused, thrive when they were placed in a loving environment. We know that if children are cared for at the earliest stage they can thrive, but there are still too many children living in poverty and I welcome the Government’s initiative to counter that.

Using our new powers, we will create a maternity and early years allowance that will support new mothers and their children at key stages of a child’s early life. The family nurse partnership programme will be extended, providing targeted support for vulnerable young mothers and improving outcomes for them and their children. The baby box, pregnant women receiving vitamins, and more good-quality free childcare will make a huge difference.

However, the issue comes back to public education. It needs all the effort that we can give as a Government to get the message across that to be responsible parents means recognising that there are no-go areas. A huge proportion of children in the hearings system come from a background of parental addiction. It is estimated that one in 100 babies—possibly more—are born with a condition called foetal alcohol syndrome, which damages their brain and affects them to varying degrees throughout their life. That is another reason why our minimum unit pricing policy is so important, and it was good to hear the First Minister’s response on that during question time today. Of course, the policy is not a magic bullet that will change the culture of drinking overnight, but if it protects even one baby against that condition, it will be worth it.

It is important to stress the invaluable work on giving Scotland’s children the best start in life that is done by our partnership agencies, such as Home-Start, which focuses on the effect that life at home has on a child from birth, and the value of improving the interaction between parents and their children. Free childcare is crucial to helping families to cope, but at the end of the day most children will return home, which is often where the changes need to be made—and they need to be made sooner rather than later in a child’s life.

Home-Start volunteers go into homes and work with the whole family. Sometimes they work with great parents who would usually cope, but are struggling to deal with postnatal depression or an accident that has left them unable to cope. Often, however, Home-Start works with families where parenting is the real challenge. Its volunteers can be positive role models for parents, helping them to understand the value of playing with their children, which is so crucial for development. They can be matched to a family at birth or matched with a mother antenatally, and the support is not time limited.

Third sector agencies such as Barnardo’s and the Aberlour Child Care Trust are world renowned for the care and guidance that they give to children in need. If we are to reduce the attainment gap, which is our Government’s defining mission, we must provide children with the care and support that they need, whether they are in mainstream or additional-support-for-learning schools. Those organisations are calling on all parties to work together to improve the lives of those who are most in need in our society, by giving every child, no matter their background, the best possible start in life. How can we put a price on the work that those organisations do? Quite simply, we cannot. The importance of children being supported in their own homes, where possible, cannot be overstated, and that is what those agencies do incredibly well.

I started this speech by saying that I was confident that all parties in the Parliament wanted the best for Scotland’s children. I believe that all parties should be as one when it comes to children’s welfare, strengthening child protection measures and wanting the best for our children. Party politics should play no part in that. Our children are our future, and they deserve nothing less.

16:21  

Mary Fee (West Scotland) (Lab)

Our debate today must be the re-ignition that our Parliament needs in its continued battle against poverty, deprivation and inequality. Children are not created poor or unequal, only born into the “giant evils” in society: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. The words are shocking. However, the five “giant evils”, as William Beveridge labelled them, continue to haunt too many children and families nearly 75 years after the Beveridge report was published. In our new session, we must work together to create a fairer, more equal and healthier country.

The proposals behind the Government motion are most welcome. Tackling health inequalities at birth is a leap in the right direction. The promotion of good prenatal health will greatly benefit many pregnant women, who may not consider nor be able to afford such regular supplies of vitamins.

The baby box gives each newborn the same start in life, although socioeconomic factors may impact later. The SNP’s pledge to increase the number of health visitors by 500 is welcome, and I look forward to working with the Government to ensure that its promise is kept in an appropriate timescale. Increasing childcare for vulnerable two, three and four-year-olds will tackle the poverty that high childcare costs can result in.

However, I wonder when we will start to discuss increasing access to childcare for one-year-olds, as the Family and Childcare Trust’s “Childcare Survey 2016” shows that the average nursery cost in Scotland for children under two is greater than the cost for over-twos. If our ambition is for all children to have the best start in life, to tackle poverty and inequality and of course to encourage parents back into the workplace, we must start the discussion soon, if not now.

The Labour amendment seeks to add to the Government motion. We know that childcare should be part of our national infrastructure and that it brings huge benefits to our economy. We also know that its cost places a heavy burden and can lock too many parents out of employment.

Since 2011, when I was first elected, we have often discussed the need for flexible childcare that meets the needs of a diverse and flexible workforce. When I have been issuing surveys in my local area or campaigning, many parents have told me that they cannot find the right childcare for their family, due to cost, opening hours or availability. As the Labour amendment states, nurseries often have waiting lists for access to funded places. To properly give every child the best start, especially before reaching school age, the Government must find solutions to those problems.

A recent study by Save the Children shows that more than 7,000 pre-school children have problems with speech and language development. The charity claims that the biggest issue affecting child development is speech, and that children from the poorest families

“are twice as likely to have delays or difficulties than those from more affluent homes.”

The poor mental health of a parent or child has a massive detrimental impact on development and a holistic approach to mental health can help to tackle health inequalities. Barnardo’s Scotland warns us that

“increasing need and rising demand is likely to continue the pressure on specialist services.”

Those young people may themselves go on to be parents some day and, to help the next generation of children and effectively tackle health inequalities, more must be achieved now to help today’s generation of young people.

Finally, the legacy paper by the Health and Sport Committee of the fourth session of the Scottish Parliament discussed health inequalities in the early years. We know that many of the root causes of health inequalities are outwith the control of the NHS and, with new powers and a strong Parliament, much of that control lies in our hands. Together, we can make strides to tackle society’s “giant evils”.

16:25  

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

Before I start, I declare an interest as a former convener of Together, the Scottish Alliance for Children’s Rights.

Nelson Mandela said:

“There can be no keener reflection of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

I congratulate the Scottish Government on lodging its motion; we will support it. The motion is in the spirit of the ambition—shared across the chamber—to make Scotland the best country in the world in which to grow up. There is recognition in this debate that that journey begins in gestation and that a healthy pregnancy is demonstrably linked to life outcomes. It is easy to forget that, as recently as the last century, childbirth was the leading cause of death for women in this country—as it still is in the developing world—and that is because pregnancy and childbirth are hard. As a country, we have made great strides in the primary care that is given to babies in distress; the 8,000 babies each year that require extra support are given amazing care in our neonatal units. Would that that were so for mothers.

Although we welcome the Government’s provision for vitamins and additional grants, once again I say that we are failing by being complacent about maternal mental health—I thank the minister for taking my intervention on the issue. Every year, 8,000 mothers suffer with underlying mental health concerns following birth. As I said in my intervention, it is not acceptable that 71 per cent of Scottish health boards do not have a workforce adequately trained to deal with post-partum depression, which happens on the same scale as the number of babies who receive extra care.

In the previous parliamentary session, it was a victory that we united as parties across the chamber to recognise that the first 1,001 days of life are key to life chances and life outcomes. Many of the determining factors are visible to us and have exercised us in debates in this chamber, particularly about the nearly a quarter of children in this country who are in poverty. There are also invisible challenges, such as attachment disorder and loss, particularly for our looked-after children—a generation of children that represents the challenge that this chamber faces.

The baby box and similar ideas are fantastic initiatives that we happily support, but they are window dressing against the deeper challenges that our society faces. We will forever fail in our efforts to tackle domestic violence while it is still legal to use any form of violence in the home, including physical punishment. Similarly, we will forever fail in our efforts to reduce violence in our communities if we legitimise the tool of violence in our homes. John Carnochan, whom the minister referenced, also supports that point of view.

To achieve the lofty aims that we have set ourselves, we must give justice to children and young people when their rights are violated. Justice can only happen with the full incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law. Only then can we ensure that the voices of children are heard at the centre of public decision making, and move towards the stated and shared goal of making Scotland the best place in the world in which to grow up. What we do for mothers and for children at birth and in the early years not only shapes who they become as individuals, but shapes our society. As Mandela said, how we treat our children defines us as a country. People around the world look at us, and we must ask ourselves what it is that we would wish them to see in the soul of our nation.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Gil Paterson will be the last member to speak in the open part of the debate. We will then move to winding-up speeches, and I ask all members who took part in the debate to be in the chamber for the winding-up speeches.

16:29  

Gil Paterson (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)

As this is my first speech in this session of the Parliament, I welcome all the new members in the chamber. I hope that they progress well. I have been impressed so far. I am not one for singling people out, but one member has already singled me out and I am pleased to return the compliment. My former staff member Rona Mackay is now the MSP for Strathkelvin and Bearsden. She is a member of a strong and larger intake of women in session 5, which is a great example to girls across Scotland and proof that if they want to be the best, they can be.

One thing that is important if someone is to make the best of themselves is education, particularly in the early years. Access to high-quality childcare gives our youngest people the best start in education and can help parents to return to work. Since 2007, the SNP Government has increased free early learning and childcare by almost half—there has been a 45 per cent increase from 412 hours under Labour to 600 hours now. Every year since the availability of free early learning and childcare was expanded, approximately 120,000 children aged 3 and 4 and their families have benefited.

I will touch on a few of the announcements that were highlighted by the minister that will particularly benefit my constituents. During the election, I was pleased to hear the First Minister announce that all new parents will be entitled to a baby box containing essential items for a child’s first weeks. The idea has been adapted from the successful Finnish model. It is not about reinventing the wheel or coming up with the next new expensive idea; the baby box has a proven record in tackling deprivation, improving health and supporting parents. I am pleased that, once again, the SNP Government has taken successful ideas from abroad and has adapted them for Scotland. Equally, the Government is maintaining its position as a listening Government by bringing parents on board with the policy and gathering their views to shape the box’s contents and the best way in which to deliver it.

At my surgeries, one of the hardships that I regularly see is the plight of young mothers who are looking for the best for their children. They usually have little or no income and are much dependent on their immediate family, although their love for their children is very much present. I am pleased that the Government will use its new social security powers to introduce a maternity and early years allowance. Many of the mothers that I come across have more than one child, and the reintroduction of the grant of £300 for a second child and subsequent children is a welcome announcement. That will go far to assist many of my constituents.

When you meet mothers who had their first child at a young age, you realise how important the support mechanisms that they had were to their own development as well as to that of their children. One such mechanism for many mothers in my constituency is the family nurse partnership, which was mentioned by Gail Ross and touched on by Rona Mackay. It works remarkably well and I am really proud of it. The family has to volunteer for the partnership. Let us say, for example, that a mother presents with an addiction to alcohol. With input and help from the family nurse partnership there are immediate benefits while the baby is in the womb and no alcohol is being used. We find that children whose mothers have alcohol carry through their whole life issues that threaten their life and health, whereas 40 per cent of the time—the success rate is 40 per cent—there are no issues at all. That benefits the child for the whole of its life; it also benefits the health service, because it saves thousands of pounds over that child’s lifetime. Another side benefit is that, for the first time, budgeting takes place in the home, which helps the whole family. In addition, it introduces families to how to cook healthy meals. It is an all-round great policy, and it certainly works for many of the mothers in my constituency.

We all want Scotland to be the very best place in the world to grow up. By investing in the early years, we can ensure that all children have the best start in life and are able to succeed. Hopefully, in 20 or so years’ time, they will benefit from having had that best start in their early years. The best outcome would be to have 129 of those children right here in this Parliament making decisions for the next group of young people.

I commend the minister’s motion to Parliament.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Iain Gray to wind up for Labour.

16:36  

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

I welcome the ministers to their new jobs although, of course, Aileen Campbell is continuing the passion for ensuring the best start in life for all our children that she demonstrated in her previous role. The Government has treated this issue not as a matter that falls within the responsibility of a single portfolio but as one that cuts across health, welfare, education and, on occasion, even more widely, which has been a strength.

Aileen Campbell—rightly—focused on very early interventions. The abolitionist, social justice campaigner and writer in the United States Frederick Douglass wrote:

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

That is true, but we are not always the best at acknowledging or acting on that. Of course, to say that it is easier to build strong children is not to say that it is easy. It requires constant focus and effort from Government and, indeed, from us all. The Government motion outlines a significant number of interventions and policies that it has introduced to try to ensure the best start in life for our children, and we certainly welcome those.

We have heard excellent speeches in the course of the afternoon. Elaine Smith provided a masterclass on how to deal with a debate when the issue of most importance to her did not appear in the motion. She ensured that large sections of the debate were dominated by breastfeeding—and rightly so. She explained, as she has done so often before, why breastfeeding is so important. She was backed up ably by Ruth Maguire, who made a contribution on the topic, too. The minister said that the Government wants to protect, promote and support breastfeeding. To add my tuppenceworth, I suggest that she might want to look at the implications for mothers trying to breastfeed in Lothian of NHS Lothian’s reluctance to deal with tongue-tied babies, which is an issue that a number of my constituents have raised with me.

Jeremy Balfour made the strong point that we must ensure that all children, including disabled children, get the best start possible. That cannot mean the same thing for everyone; we must provide the support and help that children need. That was a powerful point.

Brian Whittle made it clear that the best start in life is not just about childcare and health services but is about providing the widest possible opportunities for children and young people. Initiatives that the Scottish Government supports such as the daily mile and Sistema Scotland’s work in a number of our cities to use music to provide young people with a better start in life are examples of that.

Mary Fee and Jenny Gilruth spoke passionately about the corrosive impact of poverty on children. Jenny Gilruth’s speech was marred only by her failure to acknowledge that the previous Labour Government lifted 200,000 children in Scotland out of poverty. If we could repeat that now, it would be very worth while.

The minister said that we need to challenge and debate our approach to providing children with the best start in life. Our amendment is lodged in that spirit. It is an addendum: it does not remove any of the Government motion, which we support, but it provides some challenges. In particular, it provides a challenge on our approach to childcare.

We have to base our approach to childcare on the reality on the ground. This morning, there was a press release from the fair funding for our kids campaign, which has been campaigning for two full years and trying to explain the reality of the provision of free pre-school years and the difficulty that many parents experience in availing themselves of that right, for which we have legislated in the Parliament. That group has met the First Minister and other ministers on a number of occasions, but no action has been taken to address the issue that it raises. As the group points out, that could mean 8,000 families facing problems with childcare in the coming year.

The concerns that the fair funding for our kids group expresses were reflected in the childcare alliance’s report on the future for childcare in Scotland. The alliance is an important group of third sector organisations that work with children. Those organisations are clear that they support free pre-school hours and their expansion, as we do, but they are also clear that that is not enough and that we need to produce a plan to move towards all-age, year-round, flexible, wraparound childcare, which might not all be free but should all be affordable. That is the way in which the one quarter of women at home who want to work but cannot because they cannot afford childcare, to whom Daniel Johnson referred, will be freed to make their contribution not only to their families but to the economy.

The Government motion is welcome. Our addendum provides some challenge in a way that should be entirely acceptable to the Government, and I hope that it will be able to support it.

16:42  

Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

As other members have mentioned, the early years of a child’s life are critical to shaping their health and opportunities. As a country, we stand or fall on the wellbeing of our children. Quite simply, they are our future.

I am pleased to have a chance to contribute to the debate on that crucial issue. I will focus on children’s health in particular. All members want to make progress on that, but securing a healthier start in life for Scotland’s children requires more than high-level assertions and financial commitments: it requires a proper open-minded and dedicated approach to providing what is needed on the front line.

On mental health, on which Liz Smith and others have touched, it is welcome that there appears to be much common ground across the chamber. However, we must not let consensus breed complacency. It is astonishing that half of all diagnosable mental health problems start before the age of 14 and three quarters start by the age of 21.

It is concerning that the waiting times figures for child and adolescent mental health services in Scotland are below the Scottish Government’s target of 90 per cent being seen within 18 weeks. That reflects an increase in demand and I have significant concerns about the pressure that that will place on CAMHS, which will, in turn, impact on the services that can be provided, as the parameters in which CAMHS have to work are necessarily narrowed. That tells us that there is still an awful lot of progress to be made.

It is clear that mental health problems can arise early in a child’s life and it is vital that we respond by intervening to prevent such problems from developing in the first place. To do that, we must be active and accurate in our interventions. With that in mind, I have highlighted in my amendment the Scottish children’s services coalition’s call for a wholesale review of child and adolescent mental health services to ensure that funding is used as effectively as possible. Such a review would get to the heart of ensuring that high-level financial commitments translate into tangible improvements. It would be particularly influential if it were accompanied by a commitment to back up any findings with investment in mental health services. We Scottish Conservatives have repeatedly called for an additional £300 million to be invested in mental health, as a whole, over the course of this session of Parliament. Such funding could be used to improve capacity and staffing, among other benefits, for CAMHS.

The point is that we need a holistic approach to improving outcomes—one that involves identifying how we can make the most progress and backing that up with investment in multiple areas. It seems that one such area should be social prescribing. As the Scottish Association for Mental Health has set out, it is vital that we increase dedicated support in primary care settings. That can mean, for example, general practitioners directing mental health patients towards local community projects or gatherings of people with similar interests. Such improvements can, and should, play one role among many in a comprehensive programme of reform in mental health.

Turning to physical health, I think that we all agree that children’s health must be safeguarded all the way from the pre-birth stage. Of course, as Alex Cole-Hamilton stated, the best start in life involves working to improve the health of pregnant mothers too.

As the British Medical Association has pointed out, of the 53,000 babies born in Scotland every year, approximately 8,000, or 15 per cent, are admitted to neonatal or special care units, principally due to premature birth and low birth weight. The BMA says that, in 2013, 33.8 per cent of babies born in the most deprived areas of Scotland were under weight, compared with just 9.4 per cent in the least deprived areas. That is a huge difference.

Again, it is good to see broad support here, but high-level commitments have to be followed through on the ground and delivered effectively. To highlight one area, it is paramount that every member of staff in neonatal services has continued access to the professional training that they need. Unfortunately, recent events at St John’s hospital in Livingston have highlighted that some nurses can struggle to access all the training they need on an on-going basis, which is compounded by all-too-familiar reports of staff shortages and excess reliance on overtime from a core of staff

When the teams that provide care to newborns, including premature babies, are afflicted by such problems, it is absolutely not good enough to delay taking action. We need the Scottish Government to set out how it is directing investment towards training schemes, so that no nurses—or indeed any members of staff—find that they have fallen behind. Each and every newborn deserves to be cared for by a team of fully qualified staff who are confident that the service they provide is first class.

I look forward to working with the Scottish Government to deliver the healthy start to life that every child deserves, and hope that it can give assurances in the areas of mental health and neonatal care that I have set out.

Of course, health services are not the whole story when it comes to giving children the best start in life. I would like to touch briefly on a few other areas as we near the end of today’s debate.

On childcare, it appears to me that the questions are where to prioritise and how best to allocate support so that parents have meaningful access to free childcare. On that, the SNP talks a good game but parents’ actual experiences tell a different story. We Scottish Conservatives believe that the way to deliver childcare that matches parents’ needs is to take an approach that allows choice, accommodates diversity, embraces competition and provides equality of opportunity. To put it simply, we need proposals that build flexibility into the system so that every entitlement promised to parents can actually be redeemed by them.

My Scottish Conservative colleagues and I have set out this afternoon why we believe that reform is needed if we are truly to deliver the best start in life for Scotland’s children. The underlying principle is that headline commitments must be matched with practical programmes that actually deliver improved outcomes for children.

The principles of the Scottish Government’s motion are sound, and we have sympathy with them. However, it is apparent that further details on how those commitments are to be funded are needed, particularly on the grant proposals. We are happy to discuss the options but, in our view, the details simply are not yet clear enough. It is a similar story with the amendment that was lodged by Daniel Johnson—we support the principles but we cannot support calls, for example for breakfast clubs, that appear to be uncosted. Having said that, I look forward to working with colleagues across the chamber to produce, refine and deliver practical proposals that will give each child the best start in life.

It is perhaps useful to finish a speech on starting life by looking at the other side of the coin—namely, the end of life. It has been estimated that 80 per cent of NHS funding is spent on the last two years of people’s lives, so now is the time to put more into the first two years of people’s lives so that each child is genuinely given the best start in life.

16:50  

The Minister for Childcare and Early Years (Mark McDonald)

On the whole, it has been a fairly consensual and constructive debate, and that was the general intention when my colleague Aileen Campbell and I thought about what sort of debate we wanted to have in Parliament today. We recognise that, on the issue of giving children the best start in life, there is far more that unites members across the chamber than divides us.

In my ministerial portfolio, I am extremely lucky in two respects. First, it is an extremely exciting area to be working in. Secondly, I start from a position in which I am building on the significant amount of fantastic work that was done by Ms Campbell when she held the portfolio. It is a great pleasure to be able to work alongside her in this debate, which highlights the fact that we will be working in a very cross-cutting way across Government in how we approach the issues that affect Scotland’s children and in making sure that they get the best start in life.

In summing up the debate, I will begin—for reasons that will be obvious to those who have taken part in it—on the topic of breastfeeding. I say to Elaine Smith that there was no slight intended in the way in which the motion was drafted. Breastfeeding is a priority area for the Government, and it is an issue that I have had a close interest in in my work in Parliament. I put on record my tribute to the work of my constituent Donna Scott, who—this deals with the subject of Liam Kerr’s intervention—submitted a petition to the Public Petitions Committee that resulted in the development of a donor milk bank for Scotland, which those women who want their children to receive breast milk but who are unable to breastfeed can access. That is an example of some of the development that has been taking place since Elaine Smith’s pioneering bill—for which I pay tribute to her—went through Parliament.

Daniel Johnson made a very important point when he spoke about the return-to-work agenda. I totally agree that we must ensure that those women, or indeed fathers, who want to be stay-at-home parents—given that I am married to one, I should make it clear that that is an absolutely valid choice; I would not suggest otherwise—can exercise that choice freely. For too many people, the decision to be a stay-at-home parent is not a choice that they exercise but something that they are forced into as a result of the cost of accessing childcare. We pay close attention to that.

Daniel Johnson made a very fair point about how we use language and how we can encourage fathers to play more of an active role. My colleague Mr Doris was right to point out that we are in the year of the dad—recently, I had a very good visit to the dynamic dads of Midlothian Sure Start, where I learned about the approach that is being taken there to encourage fathers to play more of an active role in the early years of their child’s life. One change in the use of language that would be helpful would be to stop talking about whether dad is doing the babysitting, which is something that really gets Mrs McDonald’s goat. That word is used all too often—it is not “babysitting”; it is looking after your kids. That is the kind of language that we should encourage, to ensure that parents take a more equal approach to bringing up children.

A number of members made points about flexibility. Donald Cameron said that the Conservative agenda was about choice and competition. For us, the agenda here is about quality. Quality must be the focus when it comes to the expansion of childcare that we want to deliver. We want to build flexibility into the system, but we recognise that there will obviously be limitations to how flexible it is possible to be if we want to maintain quality and availability across a range of local authority areas.

Daniel Johnson

I take the minister’s point about flexibility and quality, and I agree with him, but the key point is that childcare needs to be delivered in such a way that it is built around the way in which parents actually work. Very often, despite the Government’s best efforts, childcare does not quite match the working practices of parents. How would the minister respond to that?

Mark McDonald

We absolutely want a system that is flexible and accessible for all, but we will not compromise on quality, which is the point that I was making. We accept what has been said, but we want quality to be at the heart of our expansion plans, because we know that high-quality provision will be required to make a difference for our youngest children.

From January next year, we will commence a programme of delivery model trials for early learning and childcare that will help us to learn what works best and why. Those trials will be supported by £1 million of funding and will form part of our response to the independent adviser on poverty and inequality’s report “Shifting the Curve”, which highlighted the need for high-quality provision as a key element of our plans.

As part of our on-going work to develop the trials, we published yesterday a summary analysis of responses that were received to our trials discussion paper, which was published alongside “Shifting the Curve” on 20 January. The paper sought the views of stakeholders and partners on the scope and design of the trials, and we will announce more details later in the summer about the process for securing a delivery partner to develop and manage the trials. We continue to take forward work on what we will deliver.

Bob Doris highlighted kinship carers. I was delighted to speak at a Mentor UK event on Tuesday about how we take forward the kinship care agenda and particularly the stipulations in the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014, which my colleague Aileen Campbell piloted through Parliament. Mentor UK is developing a kinship care website that will be a valuable resource for kinship carers in Scotland.

Mr Doris raised a couple of specific queries. If he wants to write to me, I will be more than happy to meet him to discuss matters in more detail, rather than touching only briefly on them in summing up.

My colleague Gail Ross made a vital point about the importance of attachment and of recognising parents’ role. The Government wants to expand early years childcare and learning, but we also want to support parents in their role in giving children the best start in life. A number of members across the chamber highlighted the critical impact on a child’s development and life of what happens at the very beginning—going back even to the point of conception and pregnancy—and in the early years. We want parents to be key partners in that.

We launched a national parenting strategy that had 80 commitments—78 have been fully delivered and the delivery of the remaining two is under way. We recognise the support that is required for parents. We want to build on the programmes that we have developed, such as play, talk, read, which encourages parents to play with their children, to talk to and with their children and to read to and with their children, because we recognise that that is vital to children’s early brain development, their literacy and their vocabulary. A growing up in Scotland report contained positive news of an improvement in three-year-olds’ vocabulary skills, but we recognise the points that have been made about the disparities that continue to exist and the work that needs to be done to address them.

Jenny Gilruth made an important point about play and interaction. She also talked about what was number 1 in the charts at various times—she said that, when the SNP came to office, Rihanna’s “Umbrella” was apparently at number 1, which seems appropriate today. Jenny Gilruth highlighted the opportunities from play and the exceptional work that Sir Harry Burns has done in helping us to understand more about how early intervention and the early years approach can benefit young people.

I echo entirely the tribute that Rona Mackay paid to Home-Start. Last week, I had a good visit to Home-Start Aberdeen, where I spoke to volunteers. Home-Start Aberdeen is taking a range of approaches to encourage parents to consider healthy eating and diet for themselves and their children; to support parents and families who might be affected by mental health issues, which I will discuss at the end of my speech; and to ensure that parents are aware of the financial support that is available, which relates to the work that has been done by the early years collaborative test of change to ensure that parents maximise household budgets.

It is appropriate to finish on mental health, which was raised a number of times across the chamber. In the previous parliamentary session, I led a debate on the healthy start, healthy Scotland campaign, which the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Scotland launched. Maternal mental health and its impacts are important to me.

That is why—to refer to the cross-cutting agenda that I spoke about—I will work closely with my colleague Maureen Watt, who is the dedicated Minister for Mental Health. The Government is developing a strategy on mental health. I say to the Conservatives that, rather than putting that work on hold to undertake a review, it would be better to feed into that strategy suggestions and approaches that could be taken forward.

Generally speaking, the debate has been good and constructive. Because the Conservative amendment would remove the reference to the early years grant, we will not be able to support it. Unfortunately, we cannot support the Labour amendment, not because it makes an uncosted commitment in relation to breakfast clubs but because we do not believe in applying that approach on a universal basis when we should allow local authorities the flexibility to determine their priorities on the wraparound approach. Labour came very close to getting our support but, unfortunately, we have a disagreement with it on that one area. I hope that the Government motion will receive support at decision time. We will continue to work to give our children the best start in life.