Sunak accused of ‘disastrous failure’ in delivering free childcare offer

Rishi Sunak has been accused of “disastrous failure” in delivering his key free childcare pledge amid reports of delays to its rollout.

Setbacks in allocation of funding, staff shortages and IT problems are threatening the timeline of the scheme, the Times reported.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced the reforms for England in the Budget last March to allow some families of children as young as nine months to claim 30 hours of free childcare a week.

Under the plans, working parents of two-year-olds will be able to access 15 hours of free childcare from April. This will be extended to working parents of all children older than nine months from September.

From September 2025, working parents of children under five will be entitled to 30 hours’ free childcare per week.

But nurseries have not yet been informed 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, according to the paper.

There are also doubts about the extension due in September because of a lack of nursery staff.

The newspaper said thousands of families will have to re-enter details into the HMRC IT system in March or risk delays in receiving payments.

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, according to the paper.

The Times quoted unnamed Whitehall sources as saying “the strategy is flashing red all over the board” and “September is going to be an absolute shit show”.

Labour accused the Tories of having no plans to deliver on the offer.

Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said: “First the chaos of crumbling concrete buildings, then the botched budgets for our schools, now the disastrous failure on delivering childcare commitments, with families paying the price.

“Funded hours are no good if families can’t access them – the Conservatives’ promise to parents now lies in tatters because there was no plan behind the pledge in last year’s Budget Statement.

“Only Labour has a plan to transform our early years system and deliver the modern childcare system that gives parents choices and children the best start in life.”

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 re-confirm 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 re-confirm 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.”