10/03/2012 17:50 GMT

SNP's Alex Salmond In Nursery Education Pledge

Scotland will have the best package of free nursery education in the UK, First Minister Alex Salmond announced today.

Mr Salmond said his Scottish Government would introduce a legal guarantee of more than 600 hours of free nursery education for every three and four-year-old, as well as for two-year-olds who are in care.

The Scottish National Party leader also pledged money for sports facilities and to create volunteering opportunities for out of work young people.

He told his party's spring conference in Glasgow that with the limited powers Scotland already had under devolution, the Scottish Government had "made Scotland a better place".

But he said that if the country left the United Kingdom and became independent, more could be achieved.

"A little independence has been good for Scotland," Mr Salmond said.

"But real independence will be even better."

The First Minister argued: "With a measure of independence on health, on education, and on law and order we have made Scotland a better place

"Think what we could do with Scottish control of the economy."

Mr Salmond made the remarks as he addressed a packed hall at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre. His speech was heard by more than 600 people who were in the room, with party members also watching in four overspill rooms.

He portrayed independence as a "message of hope for this nation" and hit out at the "negativity" of the unionist parties.

He also contrasted the situation in Scotland with that south of the border.

Mr Salmond highlighted free university education in Scotland, the retention of the educational maintenance allowance, free prescriptions and 1,000 more police on the beat.

However he said England was facing the loss of 16,000 police officers, adding: "The contrast is clear - more bobbies on the beat in Scotland or cuts to coppers under Cameron."

On nursery education he said the SNP in power had already increased free pre-school provision from 412 hours a year to 475 hours, with this benefiting 100,000 children a year.

But he said his administration would go further, telling the conference that the Children's Bill to be introduced to Holyrood next year would include a "statutory guarantee of over 600 hours of free nursery education for every Scottish three and four-year-old and for every looked after two-year-old in our land".

In England parents can receive 570 hours of free nursery provision, spread over 38 weeks of the year.

The new measures to be introduced by the Scottish Government would provide a greater number of hours, but could also provide more flexibility, with the free provision available over more weeks of the year.

Mr Salmond hailed it as "the best package of free nursery education on offer anywhere in the UK".

And he added: "For every young mum or dad juggling work and parenthood our message is clear - the SNP is here for you and your family."

Mr Salmond also announced a new legacy initiative linked to the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.

A £10 million fund will be used to bring "sports facilities across Scotland into the 21st century" with the First Minister adding: "Our aim is to inspire Scots young and old to seize the opportunity presented by the Games and its legacy to become a better nation."

Young people who are out of work could also benefit from volunteering opportunities at the Commonwealth Games.

The most recent figures showed more than 100,000 16 to 24-year-olds in Scotland were unemployed.

To try to help them Mr Salmond revealed details of a £5 million package to ensure 2,500 young people are "given the right support to help them towards the world of work".

He said the new scheme would "engage young people in volunteering opportunities in the international and national events Scotland will have the privilege to host over the next three years" such as the Games and the Ryder Cup, which is also coming to Scotland in 2014.

The First Minister said this showed his Government's "unwavering" commitment to helping young people.

With the SNP administration also planning to hold the independence referendum in 2014, Mr Salmond told the conference: "Home rule with independence beats Tory rule from Westminster any time and any day."

The union with England, Mr Salmond said, was "long past its sell by date" as he argued independence was "fundamentally better".

He continued: "With the people of Scotland in charge, speaking our own voice, reflecting our own values and priorities, we will make our country better.

"That is our message of hope for this nation."

While the referendum on independence may still be some two and a half years away, Scots will go to the polls in local government elections in less than two months times.

And the SNP leader urged voters to use them to "call 'time's up' on Labour's local fiefdoms".

With the fight for control of Glasgow City Council set to be hotly contested between the Nationalists and Labour, Mr Salmond added: "If there is any place that needs relief from a Labour Party that has lost its way, it is this city of Glasgow.

"Scotland can flourish and Glasgow will flourish, with the SNP."

He also pledged that every SNP-led council elected in May would introduce a living wage, paying workers at least £7.20 an hour.

All employees in the Scottish Government, its agencies and the NHS in Scotland already receive this.

And Mr Salmond said that with councils adopting it "thousands more of our lowest paid workers will receive fair pay".

Labour however claimed the Nationalists had been "caught out" on childcare, claiming the party had made the same promise in their 2007 election manifesto.

Labour MSP Neil Bibby hit out: "Alex Salmond has been caught out. He made this exact promise five years ago and the only two places close to delivering it are Glasgow and East Renfrewshire's Labour councils.

"Why should parents believe him this time round?"

Meanwhile Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont said Mr Salmond had made a "fantasy speech designed to get applause in the hall" but said it failed to address "the real, big issues in Scotland".

Ms Lamont said: "He has the powers to create jobs, but chooses not to use them, so 400 women a day lose their job. He has powers to tackle child poverty, chooses not to use them, so more children live in poverty. He has the powers to get more young people into college, but cuts college budgets, so they can't."

She added: "If Alex Salmond thinks devolution is a stepping stone to leaving the UK, he's got another think coming. Home rule and independence are two opposing concepts. One means we are part of the UK, and the other means we aren't."