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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, July 23, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Virtual) 23 July 2020

Agenda: Progress Towards Reopening Schools, Childcare


Contents


Childcare

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

The next item of business is a statement by Maree Todd, on childcare. The minister will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

The Minister for Children and Young People (Maree Todd)

I am grateful for the Parliament’s time in making this statement today. Saturday was Mandela day, and I was reminded of his famous quote:

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

I am proud that, in Scotland, we are prioritising our children’s wellbeing and the wellbeing of those who work most closely with them.

I reiterate the First Minister’s message from her daily press briefings: the safety of the people in Scotland is our first priority. As Minister for Children and Young People, it is my responsibility to ensure that all children and their families, and all those who work with children and families, are, above anything else, kept safe. I feel that responsibility keenly as I look at my own community and my own family.

I say “thank you” to all the children and families for everything that you have done during this crisis. I also give specific thanks to the childcare workforce, many of whom have worked throughout the emergency response period. Thank you—there is no job more important than ensuring that our children are safe, loved and nurtured.

From 3 June, when childminders and outdoor settings were able to open, to last Wednesday, 15 July, when all registered childcare services were able to reopen, formal childcare options have been opening up across Scotland. Care Inspectorate records show that 942 childcare services and 2,110 childminders were open yesterday, and thousands of families are now able to access formal childcare for the first time since lockdown.

That is fantastic news for many people across the country, but I know that this will also be an anxious time for some. The evidence tells us that our youngest children, in particular, are much less likely to catch Covid and become ill, and there is very limited evidence that children transmit the virus. That fact underpins our decisions to relax restrictions for children and young people. However, we must be ever mindful that the risks remain—the virus is here, and we have no vaccine. There is a fine line between effective suppression and community transmission.

It is therefore essential for our precious childcare workforce, in particular, that public health measures are front and centre while we reopen services. The message remains largely the same as the guidance that we published on 15 June: measures should be taken to enhance hand hygiene and cleaning practice; limit children’s interactions; maximise the use of outdoor spaces; ensure physical distance between adults in the childcare setting, including parents at drop-off and pick-up times; and actively engage with test and protect. Those measures will ensure the safety and wellbeing of staff, children, families and the wider community.

On 30 July, working closely with the childcare sector, we will publish a suite of guidance for the sector that will come into effect in August. Alongside that guidance, we will publish the scientific evidence and public health advice that has helped to inform our decisions. That updated advice indicates that we can remove the need for consistent bubbles of up to eight children and ease the current restrictions on blended care. I know that that will be welcome news for the sector and for members in the Parliament.

However, that will not be a return to normal childcare arrangements, and we will all have to think very carefully about how we manage children’s interactions. We are all still living through a global pandemic, and evidence of a resurgence in the virus around the world and closer to home underlines how fragile our progress to date has been. The virus must therefore continue to be suppressed.

To be clear, until new guidance is published and the dates are confirmed, the current guidance remains in place. While no one wants to keep any of the current measures in place for any longer than is necessary, I underline to providers that those measures do not stop them welcoming back their children with open arms and a warm hug.

We know—and the evidence shows—that keeping a high-quality experience at the centre of childcare is what makes the difference for children and what creates such a rewarding profession. Now more than ever, that golden thread of quality is just as important, although perhaps it now needs to have a core of steel. Quality relationships, quality interactions and quality practice are woven through our children’s experiences in childcare in Scotland, and quality remains our focus.

We know that childcare providers have been really worried about their on-going sustainability and being able to keep going for the children they care for, their families and their staff. The past few months have shown us what a vital role the childcare sector plays in Scotland’s overall economic recovery as well as in enabling us to achieve our ambition of improving outcomes for children.

Together, national and local government and sector representatives have been looking carefully at measures to support the childcare sector during this challenging time. We are also pressing the United Kingdom Government for more action at a UK level. On Tuesday this week, the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture and I wrote jointly to our counterparts in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Education to emphasise the childcare sector’s importance to economic recovery. In particular, we urged them to influence the Chancellor of the Exchequer to consider tax-free childcare to support parents.

We recognise that childcare is a varied sector that includes a large number of small businesses, social enterprises, third sector organisations and self-employed workers. We depend on that vibrant variety to give children and families what they need, so we must support all parts of the system.

On 16 July, the Deputy First Minister announced £11.2 million for a transitional support fund for private and third sector childcare providers, to help them to address the impact of the pandemic response. Providers will be able to find out more about that fund, which will be for all private and third sector childcare providers, not just those that deliver funded early learning and childcare, by the end of July. We have also worked in partnership with the Scottish Childminding Association to establish a workforce support fund to help childminders who face short-term financial difficulties. That fund opened for applications on 16 July.

The Scottish and UK Governments introduced a range of measures to support businesses through the closure period, including the coronavirus job retention scheme, the self-employment income support scheme and the bounce back loan scheme. The Scottish Government and local authorities guaranteed that payments for the statutory early learning and childcare entitlement would continue for the duration of closures, thereby ensuring that millions of pounds continued to be paid to providers.

The Scottish Government remains absolutely committed to making Scotland the best place in the world to grow up in. Covid-19 will not stop that. In 2014, we made a commitment to deliver the most ambitious childcare offer anywhere in the UK, and, in March this year, Audit Scotland said that we were on track to deliver that.

When the scale of the national emergency became clear, we took the extremely difficult decision to take away the legal duty on local authorities to deliver the ELC expansion from this August. The Parliament approved that step on 1 April. Local authorities have had to focus on managing their local response to Covid-19, and I am grateful for their incredible efforts, along with those of their partners in the private and third sectors.

That decision weighs heavily on me, as I know it does on many members, but I have made it clear from the outset that we have not stopped the expansion. Councils have continued to develop their ELC offer even over recent months, and I am delighted that many councils are telling us that they have the capacity to deliver more than the minimum of 600 hours. It is such welcome news to hear that councils in some parts of the country are able to provide 1,140 hours to eligible children from August. As restrictions ease, more will be able to do so.

We are determined to return to our commitment to the expansion of childcare for all children, and we will work with local government and providers to deliver on that as quickly as possible.

We are confident that the careful reopening of childcare that we are setting out ensures that all children, as well as the adults working with them, will be safe and will feel safe, allowing them to make the most of their time together.

Our public health measures are key to keeping children and staff safe and healthy, while the experiences that children have ensure that their development flourishes, and all those who work in the sector can fully embrace the work that they love so much.

I was so reassured to hear this in a wonderful video from the Lullaby Lane nursery in Bearsden, where the message was clear:

“Things may be a little different when you return, but the fun and love will remain.”

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

I thank the minister for circulating her statement in advance. The new guidance on bubbles and blended care will be welcome news to many people watching these proceedings.

The minister will be aware of the huge strength of feeling on the issue of childcare. Our inboxes are full of letters from parents who have illustrated the very direct link, out there in the real world, between childcare and their ability to go back to work.

Covid has been impactful—no one disagrees with that—but it has been clear to Parliament for some time that the Government’s plans to expand childcare have been making painfully slow progress and that they were not on track long before the current crisis hit. There was very little in today’s announcement to fill parents with any confidence that the minister’s commitments to childcare will be delivered any time soon.

How many of our 32 local authorities have committed to still offer 1,140 hours of childcare from August? Many nurseries in the private, voluntary and independent sector have confirmed that they have the capacity to deliver 1,140 hours, so why are councils—which have inevitably used their childcare budgets for Covid—not being supported to deliver those hours with the capacity that we already have?

Given that the policy was a national one, why have we, in effect, created a postcode lottery in childcare in this country, whereby someone’s ability to participate in the workplace is now dictated by who they pay their council tax to? Surely that must be unacceptable to the minister, as it is to the many thousands of parents who have made their voices loudly heard on the issue.

Maree Todd

The decision about the delivery of 1,140 hours was not made out of choice. The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic across many aspects of our lives have been and will continue to be challenging. The delays to building work and recruitment to support the delivery of 1,140 hours have meant that, out of fairness, we could not expect all local authorities to be in a position to deliver a duty to provide 1,140 hours.

That is not a uniform position, however, and the “postcode lottery” to which the member refers is a result of the point at which the pandemic disrupted our delivery. Back in March, not everyone was ready to deliver 1,140 hours, because we had committed to delivering it in August.

Comfortingly, the Audit Scotland report that was published in March confirmed that we were on track to deliver in August. That is what gives me confidence that we will get back on track as soon as we possibly can. I am committed, the Government is committed and local authorities are committed to delivery. The passion of everyone in the sector to deliver that commitment is entirely undimmed but, at this moment in time, we cannot reasonably assess when delivery will be achievable. We have committed to reviewing readiness later in the year, and we will reintroduce the duty to deliver 1,140 hours as early as we possibly can.

Regarding the number of local authorities that are able to commit to providing 1,140 hours of childcare, of course that is a changing picture. As the operational guidance for childcare is reviewed, the impact on capacity will change. Thus far, two local authorities are committed to delivering in August, but I expect that to change if we are able to ease restrictions further. I urge people to look out for updates from the Government and their local authority about what the offer is likely to be.

With regard to the financial importance of the childcare sector, we have been totally committed to quality—it is the golden thread that runs through everything that we say about the expansion to 1,140 hours—but everybody understands the economic imperative to get childcare fully operational to enable people to work. It is therefore disappointing that the chancellor did not mention that issue at all when he made his grand announcements about economic recovery. Further, unlike the Scottish Government, he has not put in place any scheme to support the sector, nor has he put in place a scheme to support parents in meeting childcare costs. As I said in my statement, my colleague Fiona Hyslop and I have written to the UK Government this week to request that the chancellor put such schemes in place quickly.

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

I thank the minister for providing early sight of her statement.

Women at work face a perfect storm. There was a pre-existing gender employment gap, women are more likely than men to be employed in jobs that are affected by the crisis and, statistically, they spend more time looking after children who have been forced to stay at home. If the Scottish Government does not urgently come up with a plan to deliver the required childcare alongside good-quality, secure jobs, women will be the worst affected when the furlough scheme ends.

What the minister has outlined is not that plan and it does not remotely rise to meet the imperative of the jobs crisis that we face. We need something much more than a joint letter to the chancellor. A delay to the implementation of 1,140 hours of childcare for all young children might be understandable, but the minister has previously suggested a delay of a year, which is unacceptable. Will she therefore give us a timetable now and resource her own pledge to bring in the 1,140 hours for all as soon as possible and long before next August?

Maree Todd

I assure the member that we will bring in the 1,140 hours commitment for all as soon as we can. I hope that he understands that it is my wish to do that as much as it is the wish of everybody in the Parliament, but a number of challenges are involved in doing that. For the past four months, local authorities have rightly focused on responding to the emergency situation that we have found ourselves in. They have also had to put in place critical key worker childcare to ensure that front-line workers were able to respond to the emergency situation. A suite of interventions by our local authority partners has been required.

In addition, the public health guidance and the operational guidance impact on capacity, so we might not be able to have quite so many children in each setting as we had originally planned. However, as I said, the guidance is expected to be updated at the end of the month, and I hope that that will relieve the capacity challenge.

The next challenge is that very few local authorities have been able to progress with recruitment. There are also staff who are unable to attend their work at the moment because of shielding. Finally, we have the very obvious challenge that construction was halted because of the pandemic and has been able to restart only recently.

Everybody agrees that pausing the expansion was unavoidable, but we are totally committed to resolving those challenges and to getting back on track with the 1,140 hours. Nobody is keener on that happening than I am, and I expect it to happen very soon.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Forgive me, but those were long answers. Twelve members want to ask questions and I have less than 12 minutes, so we need to move things along a little. In the interests of everyone getting the chance to ask their questions, I ask for crisp questions and answers.

Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

In her statement, the minister said that, on 30 July, the Government will publish guidance that will come into effect in August. She said that bubbles and certain restrictions on blended care would be removed. School begins in 19 days. Can she clarify whether parents will be able to use a childminder? Will a childminder be able to take children to local authority and independent nurseries? Will children be able to go to after-school clubs?

Maree Todd

I understand why Alison Johnstone asked that question but, at this moment, I am unable to give clarity. I would love to be able to give clarity about what the exact arrangements will be when schools open, but she will understand that we are reviewing scientific advice regularly and, in collaboration with the sector, we must also write new operational guidance.

When schools open, it is our intention to remove bubbles and the restriction on blended childcare, and we will be able to do so if we continue to make progress against the virus. However, the decision on whether that is possible will not be made until next week’s Cabinet meeting, and its decision will not be announced until 30 July.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

The decision by Scottish ministers to cancel childcare for key workers before children are due to return to school means that, for just one week, key workers will need to find alternative childcare at short notice and childcare providers will have to change their arrangements. Is that not a short-sighted rule? Would it not be wiser to extend childcare for one more week, so that there can be a smooth transition to school?

Maree Todd

I am grateful for the question, because it gives me the opportunity to state again how grateful we are for the national effort to care for those children—without critical childcare, Scotland could not have responded to the Covid-19 pandemic in the way that we did.

As formal and informal childcare options have opened up and schools prepare to reopen, we can wind down that critical childcare provision. On the assumption that schools will reopen as currently planned, we have agreed with local government colleagues that, from the week commencing 3 August, local authorities will no longer be required to provide critical childcare. However, they might do so beyond that point. I anticipate that there will be a period in which local authorities will need to transition to accommodate the start of school, but I would not expect them to leave critical workers with no access to childcare.

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

I was pleased to hear the minister quote the wonderful Lullaby Lane nursery in my constituency.

Does the minister consider that the £11.2 million transitional support fund will give providers sufficient support to respond to the changes that are needed to ensure that childcare is carried out safely?

Maree Todd

The Scottish Government is aware that, in order to give staff and parents confidence, the Scottish childcare sector has been working extremely hard to ensure that its settings have put in place measures ahead of their safe reopening. The transitional support fund will help childcare providers in the private and third sectors—including out-of-school care providers—to meet the extra costs incurred in complying with public health guidance in response to coronavirus. The size of grant will vary according to the size of the childcare setting, because we acknowledge that additional costs vary across settings. We will be able to set out more information on that next week, by 31 July.

Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

The minister has confirmed that the commitment to provide 1,140 hours of childcare will be far from uniform across Scotland and—[Inaudible.]—very different levels of provision for parents in different councils areas. To give parents some hope, will the minister confirm what percentage of the infrastructure—the facilities and the staffing—that is required to deliver 1,140 hours is in place? How many local authorities have indicated to her that they can reach the 1,140 hours level this year if, as she suggests, delivery increases after restrictions are eased?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I hope that the minister got all that.

Maree Todd

It sounded a little bit like the member was under water, but I hope that I will be able to respond.

The Audit Scotland report that was published in March confirmed that we were on track to deliver in August. We know that more than 50,000 children were already benefiting from more than 600 hours of childcare, so we were well on the way to delivering what was required for August. Unfortunately, it has not been possible to continue with the data collection that would have given us assurance on what stage different councils were at. Of course, as I explained in an earlier answer, councils have incurred extra costs and have diverted some of the money for the provision of 1,140 hours towards critical childcare. A period of assessment of readiness is required, council by council, before we can recommit to a universal statutory duty of providing 1,140 hours.

As well as Stirling Council and Angus Council, which are absolutely committed to providing 1,140 hours, a number of other local authorities are keen to deliver. For example, North Lanarkshire Council, which covers a large number of children, has made it clear that it should be able to deliver 1,140 hours in September, should we continue to make progress against the virus and should restrictions be lifted. Glasgow City Council, which is another large local authority that covers many children, is also near to delivering on the commitment.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Eight questioners are left, and the session is supposed to finish in four minutes’ time. I do not want them to miss out, so I ask for short questions and answers, please. I cannot let the session run on for ever.

Annabelle Ewing (Cowdenbeath) (SNP)

I return to the important issue of blended placements. The minister will be aware that the current restrictions mean that some playgroups, such as Aberdour playgroup in my constituency, might have to close their doors permanently. Although I very much welcome the indication that new guidance is coming, what specific considerations will be given to the range of circumstances in which blended placements will be permitted and, crucially, from what date will such placements be permitted? Otherwise, playgroups such as the one in my constituency simply cannot make plans in time to keep their doors open.

Maree Todd

The Deputy First Minister confirmed last week—and I have reiterated today—that the latest expert guidance gives us confidence that we will be able to ease the restrictions on blended childcare from August. The importance of the arrangements in providing flexibility for families and in offering children a range of experiences is well understood. They are also important to providers, because they support business models. We have not imposed restrictions lightly. To counter the risk of virus transmission, it will remain important that we all limit our range of contacts. If the virus continues to be suppressed, we will ease the current restrictions, but we need to be mindful that the virus is still out there.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

Parents are receiving conflicting information about the resumption of breakfast and after-school club provision. Different schools are saying different things about whether they are able to recommence in whole, and some are saying that such provision cannot restart at all. Given the chaotic and confused current situation, will the minister set out what she will do to improve it?

Maree Todd

We are assessing the situation regularly. The current priority is to resume schooling. From what we know about coronavirus, the risk increases in accordance with the number of interactions that we have. The risk of the virus becoming out of control is greater the more interactions we have, which is the reason for limiting the number of interactions. As time goes on, we will be making careful assessments of how and when we can remove those restrictions, and next week is absolutely key in that regard. However, it is not the case that we do not understand just how important such matters are in supporting children and their families as they return to school.

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

Given the importance of ensuring safety within ELC settings and that children have a good early learning experience, can the minister confirm that the work that was done in providing for the reopening of the ELC settings has been undertaken with the principles of both getting it right for every child and realising the ambition in mind?

Maree Todd

I thank the member for his important question. We know that there will be challenges in returning to services after the turbulent break. In line with realising the ambition, our focus has to be on supporting children when they are in childcare and ELC settings to form a secure and emotionally resilient attachment base, which will stand them in good stead as they grow and develop.

Nurturing and attached relationships are absolutely essential to creating the conditions for children to flourish in early learning and childcare. Additionally, all children have a right to play, learn and access experiences that meet their physical, social, emotional and cultural needs, as well as a right to associate with their peers. In line with Scotland’s commitment to getting it right for every child, children also have the right to the best possible health, with their best interests the top priority in all the decisions and actions that affect them. Of course, adults also have fundamental rights in relation to their health and wellbeing. Those important rights and considerations are all being factored into the development of a framework for reopening and delivering ELC services.

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

We know that councils have been paying for key worker childcare hubs from the original 1,140 hours budget. Will councils be reimbursed for that, to make sure that they have full funding for the 1,140 hours roll-out?

Maree Todd

We are in the process of reassessing the readiness of councils to deliver 1,140 hours. As I have mentioned many times, we are looking at buildings, staffing and partner providers. Councils may well want to revisit their delivery plans and consider partner providers. We undoubtedly will be having negotiations about finances as time goes on, and we are in regular contact with our local authority colleagues about the costs associated with the pandemic.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

During the pandemic, many employers have been quite flexible and have allowed staff who are parents to work at home. Should we expect employers to continue that flexibility, or is there a danger that some of them may draw back on that approach?

Maree Todd

Access to flexible working is highly important and benefits all workers. It is especially beneficial for workers with childcare responsibilities—particularly women, who are still regarded as the main carers in a household, as a number of members have said. Although the legal powers governing homeworking are currently reserved to Westminster, we are committed to working with employers directly through their representative bodies to explore ways of promoting and supporting flexible working. Our approach to fair work is underpinned by the fair work convention framework, which defines fair work as

“work that offers effective voice, opportunity, security, fulfilment and respect”.

The principle of security includes

“giving opportunities for hours of work that can align with family life and caring commitments.”

Mark McDonald (Aberdeen Donside) (Ind)

I have been contacted by constituents who operate businesses that provide music and movement classes for nought to five-year-olds. Those classes are not covered by statutory ELC provision but are nonetheless important to children and their families. What steps will the Government take in the guidance to offer those businesses some assurance about their ability to resume offering classes? Many of them use community facilities, some of which may not yet have reopened under the existing guidance.

Maree Todd

I thank the member for raising that important issue. I would appreciate it if he could write to me with details of the businesses involved and of the challenges that they face, so that I can give him a fuller answer.

There is no doubt that the rich experiences that those businesses offer children help them to fulfil their potential and contribute to making Scotland the best place in the world to grow up in. We are keen to support those businesses and to get them up and running.

There are a number of challenges. Indoor operation is challenging—we have heard questions about the use of changing rooms. I am keen to hear details of the particular businesses that the member is concerned about, and I will see what I can do to offer guidance and support.

Dr Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

Has the minister been encouraged by the operation of those outdoor nurseries that opened earlier in the summer, and has their experience informed the reopening of indoor services?

Maree Todd

Outdoor nurseries, by their very nature, offer a model of childcare that reduces the likelihood of virus transmission. Children in those settings are outdoors for the full time that they attend, going inside only in the most extreme weather. The risk of spreading the virus is therefore far less than in indoor environments.

Throughout the pandemic, many outdoor nurseries have been acting as emergency childcare hubs and have shared how they have adapted their practice to further mitigate the spread of infection while providing high-quality experiences for children. We have consulted outdoor nurseries during the development of our guidance on reopening, and we are encouraging greater use of outdoor play and learning in all early learning and childcare settings. Increased time outdoors will reduce the opportunity for infection while giving children positive, nature-based experiences that will greatly benefit their physical and mental development.

Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

Children, parents and the economy need good, affordable childcare. Parents simply cannot work without it. However, none of the 25 recommendations made by the advisory group on economic recovery, which is led by Benny Higgins, relates specifically to childcare. Does the minister accept that an economic recovery requires the Scottish Government to have a childcare strategy? If so, can the minister explain why the advisory group made no specific recommendations on childcare, and can she tell us whether it was asked to do so?

Maree Todd

I assure the member that the Government absolutely recognises the economic importance of childcare. It is clear for all to see. We have recognised how important it is, and we are supporting the childcare sector with a transitional fund that will help childcare providers in the private and third sectors, including out-of-school care providers, to meet the extra costs that they have incurred in complying with public health guidance in response to the coronavirus. Those grants will be used to support childcare settings in implementing the cleaning measures and everything else that will be required, and they will allow them to invest in any additional necessary equipment. That will reduce the risk of those costs being handed on to parents. As I mentioned earlier, we are very keen to see the UK Government act through the tax regime both to support the childcare sector and to support parents and families to access affordable childcare.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I thank the minister and members. I let questions run on because it is an important area. That concludes the ministerial statement and questions.

Meeting closed at 15:34.