Free childcare plans at risk, MPs warn

In a report, the Commons Public Account Committee (PAC) has cautioned that plans to offer pre-schoolers in England 30 hours of free childcare may be jeopardised if not enough childminders and nurseries can offer places.

The current entitlement of 15 hours of free child care to three and four-year-olds is set to be doubled in 2017. However, MPs warn there is a risk that providers will opt out of the offer over fears they will be left out of pocket.

The Committee outlined ‘unacceptable variations’ in information available to parents about access to free childcare and reported that some parents had claimed nurseries and childminders were only offering the entitlement on the condition that parents subsidise the additional hours.

The report maintained that overall, the Department for Education (DfE) had made ‘significant progress’ in ensuring young children benefit from 15 hours of free childcare, with 94 per cent of three-year-olds and 99 per cent of four-year-olds taking up funded places in 2015.

However, the PAC report argued: "Private and voluntary providers report that the amount they currently get paid for providing free childcare is not enough to cover their costs and they therefore rely on charging parents for additional hours or other sources of income to meet them.

"There is a risk that providers, who can choose whether or not to offer parents 'free' childcare, will choose not to offer the new entitlement of a further 15 hours because doing so would reduce their opportunity to charge parents for hours outside of the entitlement."

It recommends that the DfE should pilot the scheme before rolling it out nationally, to determine whether nurseries and childminders will be able to meet demand.

The PAC also said: "The department does not know how local authorities use the centrally retained funding or what they do to manage their childcare markets to ensure there are enough places to meet demand.”

It warned: "Parents are unsure what their rights to free childcare are or who to complain to when needed. When the department introduces the new entitlement with different eligibility criteria, this confusion is likely to increase."

Committee chairwoman Meg Hillier said: "Parents need to be able to access a sufficient number of providers, of sufficient quality. The government must implement measures to assure this.

"We are particularly concerned that the economic realities of providing childcare will deter providers from offering the extended provision.

"Evidence suggests this would most affect families from disadvantaged areas, which is doubly concerning given the already disappointing take-up of funded places for disadvantaged two-year-olds."