A SEVERE shortage of childcare places in Scotland is causing difficulties for working parents who are forced to make complex arrangements and rely on the goodwill of grandparents to ensure their children are looked after.

The Scottish Childcare Report 2013, by the Family and Childcare Trust (Fact) and Children in Scotland, identifies the problem as two-fold: there is too little provision and costs are high. Both accessibility and affordability are a matter of luck. There is a shortage of nursery places, childminders, after-school and breakfast clubs and provision in the school holidays across the country. This has been a long-standing problem in Scotland but the size of the gap has now been revealed, with only one-fifth of local authorities reporting enough childcare for working parents, only one-quarter with sufficient places for 5-11-year-olds and provision for disabled children in particularly short supply in many areas. The information was supplied on the basis of anonymity so the places with the least provision are not identified but are likely to be the more rural areas.

Cost is just as much of a barrier, especially when families are already struggling with rising living costs and flatlining wages. The average charge for nursery care for children under two is £100 a week but in some areas can be up to £235 a week for 25 hours. This means that in some cases, parents cannot afford to pay for the childcare they need to enable them to go out to work.

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It raises the questions of whether parents should receive help with the cost of childcare and whether local authorities should intervene to provide more places, as Fact would like.

For many families, the cost of childcare means work does not pay. This is particularly true for lone parents, most of whom will now have to look for paid work to claim benefit once their youngest child turns five. When making work pay encapsulates the basic premise of the Coalition Government's benefit reforms and the only available jobs are likely to be low-paid and part-time, it is logical to ensure the cost of childcare is not a barrier.

Although the cost of nurseries and childminders for pre-school children has stabilised over the last year after a period when it was rising faster than inflation, the cost of after-school clubs has risen by 3.9%. This illustrates the further problem that good quality childcare cannot be done on the cheap, despite the fact that many people working in the sector are not well paid.

However, the call for local authorities to have a statutory duty to intervene in the childcare market is difficult to justify at a time when frontline services are already under pressure from budget cuts.

Yet good quality childcare has social and educational benefits for children beyond enabling parents to go out to work and this is recognised at both Holyrood and Westminster, But more childcare places are necessary and better-targeted financial support must be provided through childcare tax credits if parents are to go out to work confident their children are being well cared for, wherever they live.