Rishi Sunak admits ‘practical issues’ with flagship free childcare pledge amid funding chaos

Rishi Sunak has admitted there are “some practical issues” with his flagship pledge to expand free childcare after widespread concerns about the “chaotic” rollout of the scheme.

The chancellor announced a major extension of free care for this spring in a bid to win back voters – but, as reported by The Independent, problems with staff shortages, funding allocation and IT problems are threatening the timeline of the scheme.

Speaking on Monday, the prime minister insisted the project would go ahead as planned in England despite accepting that there had been issues.

He said: “We are excited about our plans to expand childcare in a way that has never been done in our country before.”

Mr Sunak added: “Now, 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.”

The government’s 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.

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 Jeremy Hunt’s Budget pledge was “doomed to failure”.

Experts in the field, along with the Labour Party, warned that a staffing crisis and long-term underfunding mean that the provision will be impossible to roll out as services struggle to recruit and retain workers.

Charity Pregnant Then Screwed (PTS) warned last week that parents in England have been “in complete chaos” trying to access the scheme. Nurseries have not yet 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 Times also 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 strategy is flashing red all over the board” and “September is going to be an absolute s***show”.

Labour have also 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.”

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.”

Bridget Phillipson said the pledge ‘lies in tatters because there was no plan’ behind it

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