MP raises doubts about government childcare pledge

Childcare debate July 2016A Bristol MP sought government assurances following fears its plan to increase entitlement to free childcare for working families with three- and four-year-olds could fail.

Karin Smyth (Bristol South) called a special Commons debate to raise her concerns about the government’s ability to deliver its pledge to raise from the number of hours free childcare available from 15 to 30 from September 2017.

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She expressed fears about workforce planning, referring to a recent Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report which said the government lacks robust plans to make sure there are enough qualified early years staff, and that the Department for Education does not have a workforce plan for the early years sector.

In the 12 July debate the Labour MP, who is also a member of the PAC, said: “Private and voluntary providers reported to the Committee that the amount they currently get paid for providing free childcare is not enough to cover their costs so they feel they need to charge parents for additional hours or obtain other sources of income to meet them.

“Of course providers can choose whether or not to offer parents “free” childcare, so there is a genuine risk that many of these businesses will simply choose not to offer the new entitlement because doing so would reduce their opportunity to charge parents for hours outside of the entitlement.”

Speaking about the high cost of childcare she said: “Bristol already has some of the most expensive childcare outside of London,” she said, adding that the availability of childcare is an infrastructure issue, citing research showing that 84% of the cost of universal free childcare would be recouped through taxes and reductions in welfare benefits.

She also raised concerns that the quality of information for parents about provision in their area is inconsistent across the country: “The ‘One Big Database’ is a collective effort of Bristol, Bath and North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire – a searchable database of 1000 childcare providers enabling parents can locate those providers nearest to their home or workplace,” she said. “However, it is clear that the quality of information nationwide varies between authorities.”

Childcare Minister Sam Gyimah MP, responding for the government, told Karin Smyth that the 30 hour pledge continues to be a high priority for the government to deliver. He said that a communications campaign will be carried out before the extended entitlement begins in September 2017, alongside a new government website, to help ensure parents can easily access information about the new offer and about local providers. He also said the government will be launching an early years workforce strategy later in the year to explore how the sector can attract and retain people to work in it.