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At last ... a real chance to transform childcare in Scotland

Every woman in ­Scotland should welcome the commitment to a "transformative expansion" in childcare as indicated in the Scottish Government's White Paper on Independence.

This is the kind of commitment we have been seeking from our ­Scottish policy-makers since at least the devolution settlement.

Progress to date has been limited to incremental revision of existing provision. What is ­significant about the White Paper is the emphasis on a '"transformative" approach.

The current Scottish ­Government has already stated its desire to support more women into the formal labour market. A recognition of the role childcare plays in supporting the development of the Scottish economy appears to be what is driving the current agenda.

If that is the case, the plan laid out in the White Paper should be embraced as a signal that the role women play in influencing Scotland's economic performance is a central feature of the Scottish Government's approach to economic policy-making.

Any policy initiative that moves us closer towards a system of universal childcare provision is not just an innovation in social policy, but should be viewed as a crucial element in a strategy to promote sustainable economic growth.

In the short run, investment in supporting childcare serves as a stimulus to growth. The childcare sector is labour intensive, and so investment in this sector has a ­positive impact on employment.

In the medium term, there are benefits via a positive impact on female labour force ­participation, as mothers are more likely to ­participate when affordable, quality childcare is available.

The highest rates of employment of mothers are in Scandinavia, where public investment in childcare is high. If Scotland could replicate this, tens of thousands more women would be in work in Scotland.

A higher female employment rate increases economic growth and productivity and has a ­positive impact on fertility, making it more likely that population growth will be above replacement rate. It can also act in reducing the gender pay gap. Therefore, additional investment in childcare provision would more than pay for itself in the medium term.

In the long run, there is a return via the positive impact on children, on their education, health, ­behaviour and future earnings. This, in turn, means, other things being equal, a positive impact on participation in the labour market, economic growth and productivity, reductions in poverty and income inequality, greater cohesion and increase in healthy life expectancy.

And it will result in reductions in the kinds of expenditures incurred to provide services to socially excluded people who have not had a good start in life.

The gains of investment are ­greatest for the most deprived ­children. In addition to the ­educational gains, which in turn leads to gains in earnings, there are also behavioural gains, such as reduced likelihood of risky ­behaviours that are detrimental to health, and increased civic and social engagement. Of course, pre-school care and early education must be of high quality to obtain these desirable impacts.

The current political and economic environment in Scotland provides an opportunity to rethink how ­childcare is delivered and funded. If we accept the substantial economic and social benefits from the ­provision of good-quality ­childcare and view it as public investment rather than public expenditure, then there is a very strong economic case for providing comprehensive childcare free at the point of use.

Irrespective of the outcome of the September 2014 referendum, it is imperative that the gains made in recognising the role of women in Scotland's economy and the economic benefits of investing in childcare remain high on the ­political agenda.

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