Too many of Shetland’s working parents are missing out on the benefits of a childcare voucher scheme, councillors were told this week.
Only 23 people – or 11.1 per cent of those who responded to an SIC survey – have made use of the initiative. That means a further 185 respondents are not getting the tax relief on their child care payments.
And of those 185, some 68 admitted they had never heard of the scheme, which offers a saving of over £1,800 a year.
Eighty-two people said a lack of accessible childcare affected the amount of hours they could work. Nineteen said either they, or their partner, had to stop work and 80 were forced to work reduced hours to be at home to look after their children.
Over 66 per cent said childcare was too expensive, while others found it either “fairly difficult” or “very difficult” to access childcare for under-threes.
The findings were highlighted in a council report before Wednesday’s education and families committee, where members agreed to put forward a new three-year childcare strategy for the isles.
The strategy aims to make good quality childcare more accessible for all families with children up to the age of 14 who need it.
It will unite public, private and voluntary sectors, opening up public buildings such as schools for flexible childcare provision.
Children’s resources manager Martha Nicolson said one of the aims was to level out the cost to parents.
Bill Manson said the question working couples faced over how to get the right level of childcare was particularly acute in rural areas. He said it was often not available at all in rural areas, which posed a problem for people in far flung places on low incomes.
He added the private sector faced problems operating in rural parts, as it struggled to find enough people in the scattered communities to take up the service.
“Don’t use waiting lists as any gauge of need, because if there is no waiting list you can’t join it,” he said.
But Jonathan Wills said he was concerned the message was not getting through to parents they could benefit from the voucher scheme.
“Only 11 per cent of people are benefiting from the childcare voucher scheme,” he said.
“Childcare matters to the entire economy because unless you get it right people are not able to get back to work.”
David Sandison admitted the press “can be useful” when chairwoman Betty Fullerton pointed out the media were present at the meeting, and may help raise the scheme’s profile.
But he wondered whether the council was ambitious enough in bringing the scheme forward, and called for “measurable strong commitments” within an “action plan”.
“In terms of the strategy, it’s very good. It’s great to see this, and it really is needed, as it’s such an important sector in terms of our economy,” he said. “It’s vital to the wellbeing of children and families in Shetland.”
Wednesday’s meeting came less than a year after the voucher scheme was promoted in the isles. It works by having your employer charge a portion of your wages every week into childcare vouchers, which mean you benefit from the tax and national insurance contributions that would otherwise have been paid on that part of your income.
Both parents can join up and benefit even if they have just one child.