Rishi Sunak at a Busy Bees nursery in Harrogate. Sunak doesn’t feel the pinch of the childcare crisis (Flickr/ Number 10)

A much-heralded government scheme designed to give parents free childcare is in chaos. The first stage of the plan is being implemented now.

It is supposed to give two-year-old children 15 hours of free care a week. It’s to be followed in increments until all children over nine months old have provision paid for. When the policy was announced, Tory education secretary Gillian Keegan proclaimed it “the largest ever investment, and biggest ever expansion, in childcare in England’s history”. 

But thousands of parents have told campaigning charity Pregnant Then Screwed that stage one of the plan is already on the verge of collapse. Not only is the scheme, which relies on voucher codes, impossible to navigate, they also report that several major providers are refusing to take part in it. Vouchers for the scheme were supposed to be available from the beginning of the year.

They are designed to be logged with a provider months in advance of its beginning on 1 April. But system failure means many parents are still without codes and are ringing government childcare “hotlines” that rarely answer. Danielle Long, from Norwich, explains, “The first time I called, I was on hold for four hours, only to be hung up on.

“I called the following day and waited another three hours. I can’t express my frustration at the usability of this system.” 

And, if a parent finally gets a code, they face a new battle—finding a nursery or similar that will accept them. Some childcare providers now say they will restrict the number of children using the vouchers or refuse them entirely. That’s because the voucher doesn’t cover the whole cost of each placement. 

Just 55 percent of parents have found a provider that is part of the new scheme. Georgina from Northamptonshire has three children, and also uses a separate government scheme that pays for up to 30 free hours of care for three-and-four-year-olds.  

She reports that at the beginning of January her nursery told her that it was pulling out of all the government-funded schemes. “[They] dropped the bombshell that they ‘cannot afford to continually take a hit on the deficit between our daily rate and what we are receiving from the government’.” 

The nursery made the decision despite parents paying a “top-up fee” for each child. “Therefore, they are opting out of the 15 and 30-hour government funding from April,” Georgia said. “This means by May, my monthly outgoing on childcare alone will be close to £2,000. For context, our mortgage is £1,300 per month.” 

Providers going out of business is making the problem worse. The number of nurseries and childminders in England fell 5 percent between 2022 and 2023, according to the department for education. That comes on the back of a 31 percent fall in the number of childminders between 2018 and 2023.  

The childcare crisis is one of both affordability and availability. It is a symptom of a system reliant on unorganised planning and private ownership. For millions of women, it is now the most important obstacle they face—and one that fills them with fury. Lack of provision means they are effectively shut out of the workplace.

That’s a sign of a society that devalues and restricts women’s lives. The rule of the free market too plays a crucial role.  Successive governments have encouraged private sector nurseries to replace state ones. And they’ve used vouchers as part of a market mechanism where providers are allowed to set their own prices. 

But properly resourced childcare can never be sustained this way. To end the scandal of blighted lives, astronomical fees and lack of places, childcare should be brought back as a free public service paid for through general taxation.

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