The SCOTTISH Government has been accused of hitting families with “a hammer blow” after announcing the delayed expansion of free childcare provision will not be completed until August 2021.

The expansion of early learning and childcare (ELC) to at least 1,140 hours was intended to be in place by August 2020 but plans were put on hold to allow councils to concentrate on responding to the pandemic.

But Children’s Minister Maree Todd has confirmed the policy will be rolled out in full by August 2021, one year later than intended.

She said: “I’m very pleased that we now have a new date for the full implementation of expanded ELC, and that children will benefit from more high quality funded childcare.

“We took the difficult decision in August to pause the statutory roll-out to allow local authorities to focus on responding to the pandemic and providing critical childcare, which was crucial to supporting key workers.”

Ms Todd added: “The pandemic has had an obvious impact on construction and recruitment plans across the country, however local authorities have worked exceptionally hard and continued to make good progress in very challenging circumstances, and the majority of children receiving funded ELC are already receiving 1,140 hours.

“We were always clear that the suspension of the statutory duty on local authorities to provide 1,140 hours was a pause, not a stop. We will continue to work with partners over the coming months to deliver this transformational policy that will benefit families across the country.”

But the Scottish Tories have criticised the delays and accused ministers of turning the policy into a “postcode lottery”.

Conservative spokesperson for children and young people, Alison Harris, said: “Despite what they say, the SNP have made dismal progress on delivering 1,140 hours of funded childcare. They have turned what was meant to be a positive flagship policy into a postcode lottery.

“The SNP were already running months - if not years - behind way before the pandemic hit in delivering the necessary infrastructure.”

She added: “Many hard-working parents are being turned away from childcare. The private nursery sector has been financially on its knees and ignored for some time.

“This appalling delay is a hammer blow to many families desperate to return to work but who are now unable to so. The SNP has let down a generation of school age children and now runs the risk of doing the same with nursery age families too.”

The August 2021 date has been agreed in consultation with council leaders through Cosla, the umbrella organisation for Scottish local authorities.

Cosla’s children and young people’s spokesperson, Stephen McCabe, said: “Local government remains committed to increasing the number of funded early learning and childcare hours, recognising the transformational effect for Scotland’s families, ensuring that children have access to the highest quality learning and care, and providing significant savings to parents and carers.

“Despite the massive challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly on infrastructure projects and our recruitment programmes, all councils are delivering more that the current 600 hours entitlement to some or all families.”

He added: “We are pleased that we have jointly agreed a new date of August 2021 for the reinstatement of the statutory duty for 1,140 hours. “We look forward to working with all our partners, including the Scottish Government, to ensure Scotland’s children and families can benefit from almost doubling funded hours of ELC and to support the recovery from the impact of coronavirus on our communities."