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Seòmar agus comataidhean

Education, Children and Young People Committee

Meeting date: Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Agenda: Interests, Decision on Taking Business in Private, Subordinate Legislation, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Report


Subordinate Legislation

Provision of Early Learning and Childcare (Specified Children) (Scotland) Amendment (No 2) Order 2021 [Draft]

The Convener

Under the third item on the agenda, the committee will hear evidence from the Minister for Children and Young People and her officials on the draft Provision of Early Learning and Childcare (Specified Children) (Scotland) Amendment (No 2) Order 2021.

I welcome the minister to the committee. She is accompanied by Joanne Mackenzie, team leader for targeted children and family wellbeing at the Scottish Government, and by Claire Cullen, a lawyer in the school education branch of the Scottish Government’s legal directorate.

I invite Ms Haughey to speak to the draft instrument.

The Minister for Children and Young People (Clare Haughey)

Thank you, convener. This is my first opportunity to speak to the committee. I welcome you, Ms Stewart and the new committee members to your roles.

This amending order will increase the income thresholds for families with a two-year-old who is eligible for funded early learning and childcare because they get a joint working tax credit and child tax credit or a universal credit award. Without the amendment, the relevant order specifies that a two-year-old is eligible for funded ELC if their parent is in receipt of child tax credit and working tax credit, with an annual income that does not exceed £7,320, or if their parent is in receipt of universal credit, with an income that does not exceed £610 per month. The amending order will increase the income threshold to £7,500 per year for households in receipt of both child tax credit and working tax credit. The universal credit income threshold will increase to £625 per month.

We are making the change to reflect changes at a United Kingdom level. The UK Government has increased the national living wage from £8.72 to £8.91 per hour and has reduced the age at which a person receives that living wage from 25 years of age to 23. Those changes mean that it is no longer possible for a parent of a two-year-old who is 23 or older to meet the criteria for those who are on combined working tax credit and child tax credit or on universal credit.

The purpose of the order is to protect eligibility for two-year-olds whom we would expect to be eligible for funded ELC as a result of their parents or carers being in receipt of those affected qualifying benefits. We estimate that, if we chose not to make any changes to the income thresholds, about 1,000 two-year-olds would no longer be eligible, despite there being no significant difference in the household circumstances of their families.

It is important to be clear that no two-year-old who currently receives funded ELC will be affected by the changes. Once a child has met the eligibility criteria, they will remain eligible, despite any subsequent change in circumstances.

In relation to any child who became eligible after the change to the national living wage in April 2021 and who has applied for a place to start in August, which is the next start date for children with a birthday between 1 March and 31 August, we wrote to all local authorities in June to request that they use their discretionary powers to allow for the increase in the national living wage.

As the purpose of the amendment is to maintain eligibility, we do not anticipate a significant increase in the number of two-year-olds becoming newly eligible for the provision, and we do not expect there to be a significant impact on local authorities’ ability to fund the provision within the current financial settlement. As such, there is no evidence that additional funding is required to support implementation of the amendment.

However, the impact on uptake will be closely monitored by the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities through the appropriate mechanism—the ELC finance working group—and appropriate arrangements will be made if uptake is significantly above the level that is expected and local authority costs increase as a result.

We will monitor future increases to the national living wage, and we expect that it will be necessary to uprate thresholds annually to keep pace with the standard of living. We have agreed with COSLA that the current amendment is, and future amendments will be, necessary to maintain a similar profile of eligible children.

I am happy to respond to any questions that the committee has.

Willie Rennie

Thank you for that explanation, minister. I have no problem with the proposed changes, which I support. However, you will know that uptake of the provision is particularly low across the country, with only about one third of eligible two-year-olds accessing the service. What efforts are being made to increase uptake? There is little point in changing the criteria unless we can deal with the bigger problem of the general low uptake.

Clare Haughey

That is an important question. We are very aware of that issue. We are working across Scotland to ensure that all families know the benefits of the offer and are able to access it. That includes working with the UK Government to address data-sharing issues so that councils in Scotland can target information at eligible families. We are working across agencies to improve access of information to families, to help them to make informed decisions about ELC provision. We are also working with councils and Who Cares? Scotland to make the most of the extension to funded ELC to two-year-olds with a care-experienced parent. In addition, we are exploring further ways of engaging with the professionals who work closely with those families—for example, family nurse practitioners, health visitors and social care workers—to ensure that they inform families of their eligibility and encourage them, when appropriate and when those families wish to, to take up the offer of ELC.

You mentioned data sharing with the UK Government. How is that going? Are there any issues that we should be made aware of? Such issues could be a direct impediment to the delivery of the benefit.

Clare Haughey

We have been working closely with the UK Government on data sharing so that local authorities can access the data to target families and provide them with information about the provision.

I would be happy to pass over to Joanna Mackenzie, who can update you more fully on the work that is being done, if that would be all right with you, convener.

It is a critical issue, so a short response from Joanna would be good.

Joanna Mackenzie (Scottish Government)

Your predecessor committee, the Education and Skills Committee, was aware that we were working with the UK Government on the issue and that we had been hoping to bring draft UK regulations to the committee’s attention last year. However, the work has been impacted by the pandemic and other issues.

We are working with the UK Government on the draft consultation document, which we expect to go out in the next few weeks. Those draft regulations will allow the legal gateway for local authorities to receive information from the Department for Work and Pensions and HM Revenue and Customs on the specific families in their area that meet the eligibility criteria. Work is being done at the same time on the mechanism for how we will do that. There are therefore two parts: the legal gateway and the mechanism. The work is on-going and both should happen at the same time—at some point next year, we hope.

The Convener

We look forward to getting updates on that, because it is a critical part of the process.

Minister, I have one final question. Is there a reason why the legislation has to be reviewed annually? Why are the changes not automatic when the national living wage goes up? Help me to understand that.

Clare Haughey

That is a question that I asked myself, Mr Kerr. The simplest answer is that we do not know what the increases to the national living wage will be year on year, and we want to ensure that we maintain eligibility for the families who are currently eligible for the ELC offer. That is why there are to be yearly reviews.

Okay. So changes cannot happen automatically, whatever the rate is. I have two colleagues who want to come in. I will bring Willie Rennie in, then Oliver Mundell.

Willie Rennie

Minister, your earlier answer was helpful, but is part of the problem not the structure for the provision of the service? You will find that the centres are—[Inaudible.]—and sometimes not in every community, so people have to travel quite some distance to access the local nursery or early learning facility. That might be particularly challenging for people who are on low incomes. Have there been any discussions with COSLA and councils about making sure that there is a greater number of centres so that people can access a centre that is more local to them?

Clare Haughey

Convener, I missed part of the start of that question, but I hope that I can answer Mr Rennie fully. If not, I am more than happy to write to the committee with an update on the work that we are doing with COSLA.

As Mr Rennie will be aware, there has been a huge expansion of the ELC estate right across the country. In just about all local authorities, additional building work has been done. We are certainly keen to encourage and promote the ELC offer to eligible two-year-olds, and we will continue to do that through all the avenues that we can. We work closely with COSLA on that and on other issues relating to ELC.

If I have not answered Mr Rennie’s question fully, I am more than happy to come back to the committee.

Oliver Mundell (Dumfriesshire) (Con)

I had not intended to ask a question, but I was confused by the comments about data sharing. I know that those issues have been kicking about for a while, and I understand them. However, if we put those issues to one side, the number of two-year-olds who are registering has fallen since the programme was introduced, so fewer two-year-olds are benefiting now than when the programme started. Does the minister have an explanation for that?

Also, I hear from local ELC providers that they are actively discouraged from engaging directly with families and that they have to wait for the local authority and others to identify them. They cannot go out into their own communities and publicise the offer. Is that correct?

Clare Haughey

That is certainly not something that I recognise. Local authorities and the Scottish Government have worked very closely on the matter, and we are certainly keen that any carers or parents who are keen to take up the offer are aware of it—that is important—and can make an informed choice about whether they access that offer. Obviously, it will not be suitable for or wanted by every family, but we need to make sure that people are aware of it, and we will continue to work hard to do that. If Mr Mundell has concerns about specific areas, I am keen for him to write to me so that we can try to address those with our COSLA and local authority colleagues.

We are keen to ensure that any child who is eligible for the ELC offer can take it up if appropriate, and we will continue to work hard to promote that through all channels and avenues that we can.

The Convener

Thank you, minister. I thank colleagues who have contributed thus far. If anyone else wishes to say anything, this is the moment to say so. If not, I will proceed.

I thank the minister and her officials for their evidence this morning.

Under our next item, I invite the minister to move the motion.

Motion moved,

That the Education, Children and Young People Committee recommends that the Provision of Early Learning and Childcare (Specified Children) (Scotland) Amendment (No. 2) Order 2021 be approved.—[Clare Haughey]

As members have no comments, would the minister like to wind up?

I do not have anything further to add, other than to thank the committee for its questions this morning.

Motion agreed to.

The Convener

We will now have a two-minute suspension to allow the minister and her officials, whom we thank again, to leave.

09:46 Meeting suspended.  

09:49 On resuming—  

Registration of Independent Schools (Scotland) Amendment Regulations 2021 (SSI 2021/251)

The Convener

Under the next item, the committee must consider another piece of subordinate legislation. The regulations are being considered under the negative procedure.

As members have no comments to make on the regulations, are we agreed that the committee does not wish to make any recommendations in relation to the instrument?

Members indicated agreement.