02/03/2014 19:22 GMT | Updated 02/05/2014 06:59 BST

Scotland's Children's Bill Paves Way for Childcare Transformation

Last month Scotland took a big step towards a shared ambition to make our country among the best in the world to grow up.

The Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill, passed by Parliament, is a landmark piece of legislation to deliver greater support for children and families through a range of measures, including improvements to how we help our most vulnerable young people in care.

The legislation will also give every primary one-to-three pupil the option of a free school lunch from next January - helping us to improve child health and increase attainment while saving parents around £330 a year for each child.

The most imminent reform will be in August - when around 120,000 three- and four-year-old children, as well as around 8,400 vulnerable two-year-olds including those from workless or job-seeking households, will receive 600 hours of annual funded early learning and childcare.

Amounting to around 16 hours a week, this will give families much-needed assistance, particularly in these difficult economic times.

Scottish families still spend around a quarter of their household income on childcare compared to an average of 12% across OECD nations.

The additional 600 hours for vulnerable two-year-olds will be worth up to £2,262 per child per year and make a real difference in reducing this cost burden for families and removing barriers to work.

For parents with young children, a lack of affordable, quality and flexible childcare can be a significant challenge if they want to work either part- or full-time.

Indeed, the day after the CYP Bill was passed, the latest Growing up in Scotland study report highlighted the importance of widening the availability of and access to affordable childcare to support more opportunities for education or training as well as employment.

And the following day a report published by the IPPR, recommended moves towards more affordable childcare for mothers with young children and low-skilled or lone parents to help them enter or re-enter employment, as well as helping mothers already in work to increase their hours.

These aims are driving our commitment to sustainable, progressive expansion of childcare, with funded provision being extended further in August next year, to more than a quarter of all two-year olds.

And beyond the increased provision this year and next, the Scottish Government has made it clear that we want to go much further - to deliver nothing short of a transformation in childcare.

In Scotland's Future: Your Guide to an Independent Scotland we have outlined, for the first time ever in the UK, a government blueprint for achieving universal childcare.

In the first budget of an independent Scotland, we would extend 600 hours funded childcare to half of all two-year-olds and, by the end of the first Parliament, almost double provision to 1,140 hours for these two-year-olds and all three- and four-year-olds. Ultimately we want to make that provision - broadly matching the time older children spend in school - available to all children from the age of one.

But such a transformation can only be sustained through the powers and resources available with independence.

Improving access to childcare can reduce a significant barrier that parents face to labour market participation. And increasing labour market participation will provide a positive boost for the Scottish economy and tax revenues.

However, currently under devolution, any funding for expansion in childcare provision is met from existing budgets. And the vast majority of any higher tax revenues following any expansion in economic activity flow to Westminster.

As an illustration, it is estimated that increasing receipts from the four main taxes collected in Scotland by 1% and reducing core welfare spending by 1% boosts public finances by £350 million. Yet even after the forthcoming changes to devolution powers, just £45 million of this would return directly to Holyrood.

That's why we are limited in how far and fast we can go. But let it not be said that the transformation we seek can't be achieved. This can be done, with independence.

By gaining access to both sides of the balance sheet - and so the opportunity to retain and re-invest higher revenues from improved economic activity back into expanding childcare provision -we can deliver sustainable, transformational universal childcare.

So, this August families across the country will have new opportunities through the increased childcare options available to them. Just a month later, on 18th September, they will also have the opportunity to vote for independence for Scotland and the transformation in childcare provision and the economic and social benefits that will follow.