Mr Salmond said that an annual 600 hours of free childcare provision would be offered to every two-year-old from a workless household (around 8,400 children, or 15 per cent of all two-year-olds) by August this year.
By August 2015 the provision will extend to 27 per cent of all two-year-olds, as entitlement is widened to families receiving certain welfare benefits, the Government said.
The First Minister said that the extension of childcare provision would ensure that, by August 2015, Scotland would deliver 80 million hours of childcare to pre-school children, the greatest amount in the UK.
However, Mr Salmond warned that his government’s long-term commitment to transform childcare by making 600 hours of free childcare available to approximately 50 per cent of two-year-olds could only be funded in an independent Scotland, as revenue from proposed cuts to services such as Trident would otherwise go to the UK Government.
Opposition parties, meanwhile, said SNP ministers had the devolved powers to bring in the expansion immediately and accused the government of playing catch-up to Westminster.
Free school meals
Every child in the first three years of primary school in Scotland will receive a free school meal from January 2015 as part of a £114 million two-year package for young people. The Scottish government has said the move will save families £330 per child per year.
Pressure has been growing on the Scottish First Minister after the UK Government announced a £600 million plan in September to provide all children in England with a free meal in the first three years of primary school.
Organisations that have campaigned for free school meals include the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) Scotland, Shelter Scotland, the Poverty Alliance and trade unions.
GMB Scotland, the union for school support staff and the largest union for catering staff in Scotland, welcomed the announcement. Alex McLuckie, the union’s senior organiser for the public sector, said, ‘There is so much good in this announcement. It will help tackle poverty and social exclusion and help remove the stigma some attach to free school meals.
‘This announcement will be well received by our members who currently provide healthy meals for pupils. It is a pleasant change to see money being invested in the service rather than bearing the brunt of the cut backs in budgets.’
Today’s announcements come in a week of new support for children and young people in Scotland. Yesterday, the Scottish Government announced that hundreds of Scotland’s most vulnerable young people would be given greater rights to continuing their care placements into early adulthood from next year.