Sunak admits free childcare pledge has hit trouble as government scrambles to save policy

Rishi Sunak has admitted that his flagship pledge to expand free chidcare in England has hit trouble, as the government scrambles to get a grip on the crisis.

A big extension of free care for the spring was announced by chancellor Jeremy Hunt in a bid to win back voters – but, as revealed by The Independent, there are major problems with funding, staff shortages and nursery closures.

There have also been IT flaws which have stopped some parents from accessing the necessary code to apply for the government-funded hours in time for an April deadline.

On Monday the prime minister conceded there were “practical issues” – but insisted the project would go ahead as planned despite widespread concerns about the chaotic rollout.

Labour accused the Sunak government of presiding over a shambles, arguing that the “rolling wave of chaos” meant the election-year promise was now “in tatters”.

In a bid to get the policy back on track, the government announced a last-minute change to the IT process, which means eligible parents will now be sent an automatic code to allow them to get the ball rolling on claiming the funded hours.

But campaigners described the eleventh-hour tweak as “insignificant” – and said it wouldn’t go any way to resolving bigger issues such as staffing and local government funding.

Mr Sunak told broadcasters that he was still “excited” about the rollout. “Many families have been able to sign up and it’s all working fine – but there are some practical issues that certain families are facing,” he conceded.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt during a visit to Busy Bees Battersea Nursery in south London (PA)
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt during a visit to Busy Bees Battersea Nursery in south London (PA)

The new policy enables eligible working parents of two-year-olds to claim 15 hours a week of free childcare for 38 weeks of the year from April onwards. From September 2025, working parents who have children under five will be able to claim 30 hours of free childcare for 38 weeks per year.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, told The Independent: “It was obvious these practical issues Rishi has admitted to would emerge. It was an inevitable consequence of the government’s failure to engage with the early years sector before announcing their policies.”

Mr Leitch, whose organisation represents nurseries, preschools and registered childminders among others, argued the expanded childcare measures are “chaotic” for both parents and early years providers.

“There is nothing that is orderly about the whole initiative,” he added. “We are already starting to hear from numerous parents that they have gone to a nursery and are being told there is a 12 to 18-month waiting list. That does absolutely nothing for that family. It is back to square one.”

On the latest announcement about the code, Mr Leitch added: “These aren’t the big challenges of the policy. The challenges relate to the lack of funding and the staff recruitment and retention crisis within the early years sector.”

Ministers recently unveiled £400m of extra funding for childcare places but providers remain concerned about the lack of trained workers available, given the corresponding increase in staff that the scheme will require.

The Independent has previously revealed how thousands of nurseries have shut their doors because of staff shortages, prompting warnings that Mr Hunt’s Budget pledge was “doomed to failure”. Experts warned that a staffing crisis and long-term underfunding mean the provision will be impossible to roll out.

Education secretary Gillian Keegan and Rishi Sunak have promised expanded childcare (via Reuters)
Education secretary Gillian Keegan and Rishi Sunak have promised expanded childcare (via Reuters)

Charity Pregnant Then Screwed (PTS) have warned that parents have been “in complete chaos” trying to access the scheme. Many nurseries have not been told how much they will be paid for each of the places, with many warning parents they will therefore not be able to immediately honour the government’s free hours pledge.

The government’s new promise to send a code directly to parents comes afterThe Times reported that thousands of families will have to re-enter details into the HMRC IT system in March or risk delays in receiving payments.

The paper said the Department for Education (DfE) also initially miscalculated the cost of the scheme, resulting in delays in childcare providers finding out from councils how much funding they will get.

Whitehall sources said the plan was “flashing red all over the board” and “September is going to be an absolute s***show”.

Save the Children UK said it was “furious” that the childcare rollout is in jeopardy and claimed the government “simply hasn’t put enough money into this scheme”. Meghan Meek-O’Connor, the charity’s senior policy advisor, said there was a £5bn shortfall in the overall funding the sector.

Labour’s Bridget Phillipson said the free childcare pledge ‘lies in tatters’ (PA)
Labour’s Bridget Phillipson said the free childcare pledge ‘lies in tatters’ (PA)

Downing Street said the government remained “confident” the free childcare provision will be expanded as promised, so parents can take up support in April and September as planned.

Asked about the funding problems, Mr Sunak’s official spokesperson said the government had provided sufficient money to local authorities “so it can stay on track, rather than be delayed”.

Labour accused the Tories of “disastrous failure”. Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said Mr Hunt’s childcare promise was “in tatters” because of the “almighty mess” in getting funding to nurseries.

Raising an urgent question in the Commons, Ms Phillipson said the DfE was being led by ministers “without a clue” – arguing the flawed rollout was a “rolling wave of Conservative chaos which wrecks all before it”.

Responding, the junior education minister David Johnston claimed that no parents would miss out on the extra free hours promised. He also insisted that adequate funding was in place for “biggest delivery of childcare ever”, adding: “We’re confident we’re going to deliver the roll out as planned.”

Tory MP Siobhan Baillie, who has campaigned for wider provision, challenged the minister to say how it was working with individual councils “to show there is going to be places available”.

The education minister claimed only a “very small number” of councils were having problems getting enough money out to fund places.

A DfE spokesperson said: “We are rolling out the single largest expansion in childcare in England’s history, ensuring working parents with 30 hours of free childcare a week, starting at nine months old all the way up to their child starting school. We are pleased that thousands of parents have already applied for the expansion starting in April.

“However, a pre-existing feature in the system, where parents reconfirm their eligibility every three months, is impacting a minority of parents when combined with a small number of providers who are asking for codes much earlier than April.

“Parents who can’t reconfirm online until the second half of February or March will therefore automatically receive a letter with a code from HMRC before the middle of February, without needing to take any action.”