UNIVERSAL free school meals will be rolled out to children in P6 and P7, the FM has announced, as part of a package of measures to tackle poverty.

As part of his first Programme for Government, Humza Yousaf addditionally pledged to remove income thresholds for the Best Start Foods programme by February, meaning a further 20,000 pregnant mothers and children will benefit from financial support for milk and healthy food.

The Best Start Grant and Best Start Foods are payments that help towards the costs of being pregnant or looking after a child.

The FM also confirmed more than £400 million would be invested in the Scottish Child Payment (SCP) to help more than 300,000 children across the country and committed to an accelerated rollout of free childcare for two-year-olds.

The extended rollout of universal free school meals will start with those children in receipt of SCP.

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Yousaf said the SCP had already lifted 90,000 children out of poverty and it’s “true legacy will last a lifetime”.

Tackling poverty is not “straightforward”, the FM said, but added that it was “absolutely essential”.

He said: “Tackling poverty isn’t straightforward, given the restrictions of devolution, especially in the face of a cost-of-living crisis and a challenging budget settlement.

“But it is absolutely essential.

“Whether it is faith, your humanism, an ingrained sense of social justice, we must all surely unite in saying that in 2023, with the abundance of wealth we have as a society, it is morally indefensible that people in our country, frankly on our planet, go to sleep hungry.”

The First Minister said the rollout of free childcare to two-year-olds would also be accelerated, as well as providing funding for six councils to pilot care for children between nine months and two-years-old.

Staff in the private, voluntary and independent childcare sector will also be paid a minimum of £12 per hour from April.

Yousaf added: “We know one of the biggest challenges the sector faces is recruitment.

“So I can confirm today we will provide funding so staff in the private, voluntary and independent sector, who deliver funded early learning and childcare, are paid a minimum of £12 an hour from April of next year.

“High quality early education and childcare is a perfect example of a policy that is both anti-poverty and pro-growth. I am proud that Scotland has the most generous childcare offer in the UK, and I am committed to ensuring we stay ahead and provide families with the crucial support they need.”

Fresh data from campaign group Pregnant then Screwed has revealed more than one in 10 parents in Scotland have been forced out of work due to childcare issues - either due to availability or high costs.

The group welcomed the announcements around childcare, but bosses are eager to know how they will be funded. 

Carole Erskine, head of policy and campaigns in Scotland, said: "Providing funding to increase the hourly rate for staff in the private, third and independent sector goes some way to address the inequalities between pay levels between the public and third sector.

"We now need the Scottish Government to ensure that all providers in this sector receive the funding they require to continue operating without fear of further budget pressures.

"This means that the sustainable hourly rate paid by local authorities to partnerships nurseries should be linked to inflation and increased on annual basis.

"Today’s announcements are a positive start to addressing issues in our childcare sector in Scotland, ow we need to see further detail and how this will be funded."

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Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association, added: “While the First Minister’s childcare announcement today sounds like great news for young children and their families, it’s crucial that the private and voluntary nursery sector are able to deliver this.

“Early learning and childcare providers consistently report that the biggest barrier to improving pay is the low funding rates they receive and currently only three councils are on target to increase their hourly funding rates in line with spiralling costs.

"The Scottish Government will need to significantly boost childcare funding to enable providers to pay their staff £12 per hour from April."