THE Scottish Parliament resumed yesterday after summer recess as MSPs from across Scotland descended to debate, discuss and determine how to serve the people we represent.

Representing our constituents well requires every MSP to spend much of the week in Edinburgh. For MSPs from beyond Edinburgh, that means splitting our time between there and our homes in our constituencies.

This year was a little bit different for me. In the past, I’ve only ever had to pack for one. But this year, I had to pack for at least two – though it felt like packing for a small army. My baby is still a little too young to be left behind in the Highlands, so I brought her with me. This is what it means to have a baby in tow: extra clothes, a buggy and enough nappies to sink a (toy-sized) battleship.

Like parents across Scotland, I’m learning how to juggle two full-time jobs: parenting and being an MSP. It has an impact on everything. Walking out the door with the baby’s breakfast on my shoulder. Interrupted by baby giggles halfway through a virtual meeting. Finding Duplo in my handbag when rummaging around for a notepad. It verges on embarrassing, but is also quite funny.

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What isn’t funny is the affordability and accessibility of childcare provision. I’ve only been juggling parenting and full-time work for a few months; others have been doing it for years. I don’t know how they do it; I’ve concluded that it requires superhero strengths to make it work.

The UK has some of the highest childcare costs in the world, with net childcare costs representing almost a third (29%) of income, compared to an OECD average of 10%. That means that childcare costs are essentially a barrier to becoming financially secure or having a sustainable income.

That is consistent with survey data published by the Scottish Government which found that three-fifths of parents report having difficulties affording childcare, with 16% reporting significant difficulties.

That’s why it was so welcome to hear the First Minister outline his proposal, in yesterday’s Programme for Government, to expand and invest in childcare provision.

He promised to fund six early adopted council areas to increase access to childcare for children of nine months through to the end of primary school.

He also agreed to accelerate the next phase of the expansion of childcare for families with two-year-olds. That was part of a commitment to simplify the process of managing childcare so that parents have more control over their childcare choices.

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Of course, none of this is possible if there isn’t further investment in childcare workers themselves. The First Minister has promised to recruit and retain more childminders so that there are 1000 more childminders by the end of this parliament. He also committed to providing further funding so that staff in the Private, Voluntary and Independent (PVI) sector are paid a minimum of £12 an hour from April of next year.

These commitments are critical. They are fundamental to all efforts to reduce poverty, support women and boost our economy. In the First Minister’s words, getting childcare provision right is a policy that is both pro-economic growth and anti-poverty.

Women are more likely to be (though not always) the primary carer. In 2021, 39% of women with dependent children in Scotland worked part-time, compared with only 6% of men with dependent children. That means that efforts to expand access to affordable and flexible childcare will reduce women’s poverty and enable women’s employment.

Maternity leave terms often force women back into the workplace earlier in Scotland than in many other countries. On a league table of 24 European countries, the UK lags behind at 22, in terms of terms, conditions and rates of maternity leave. Only Ireland and Slovakia came in lower.

Some employers of course might have better terms and conditions of maternity leave, in excess of the statutory minimum, but that is not a universal legal right. With the cost of living, low flat rates of maternity pay and the high costs of care, we leave new mothers struggling against the odds.

As MSPs walked to the Scottish Parliament Chamber to hear the First Minister’s speech, they passed a stall operated by One Parent Families Scotland (OPFS). In their own words: “Single parents are unique in combining the role of sole carer and breadwinner for their children – not being able to pool your resources with another adult comes with risks of real hardship.” A survey by OPFS found that 21% of single parents said they could no longer afford childcare – at all.

That plunges families into deeper poverty. The Scottish Child Payment is of course designed to support children in poverty – but prevention is better than cure. That starts with supporting parents.

We often look to Scandinavian countries for excellent social policies. We see excellent childcare going hand in hand with economic prosperity, low gender pay gaps and excellent outcomes. Which comes first – the childcare provision or the economic prosperity? Well, I would strongly argue, you can’t have one or the other. You need both.

Unicef has found that Luxembourg, Iceland, Sweden and Norway offer some of the best childcare policies – a combination of affordability, quality of care, generous parental leave and maximum choice. Norway spends a high percentage of public income on childhood education and care.

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Public funding for kindergarten has increased significantly over the last 15 years, allowing the sector to expand rapidly. In turn, participation in the workforce by mothers has steadily increased and the gender pay gap is low by international standards.

There are parents who would much rather care for their children full-time. Their ambitions are jeopardised by high costs of living and the inability to make ends meet on one wage. With many people still not paid the living wage, there is great pressure on both parents to work full-time. It’s outrageous that the UK Government should cap child benefit for only two children, as though parenting a third or fourth child is of any less value than a first or second child.

So many of the tools to support parents and children are within the grasp of governments. Employment rights (including parental leave and pay) and welfare support (including child benefit) are reserved – so it’s up to the UK Government to act. I fear we’ll be waiting a long time to see any action. In contrast, the First Minister’s announcement on childcare reflects the Scottish Government’s priorities.

Children and families matter. They matter to all of society. We want to see them flourish, not struggle. That starts by focusing on the services and care that they need the most.

We have a long way to go – but yesterday was another important step along the way.