Childcare places ‘fall by 1,000’ as Labour accuses ministers of ‘botched’ expansion

The number of childcare places has dropped by more than 1,000, even as demand is expected to soar with the introduction of free hours for two-year-olds, according to Labour.

This month sees the rollout of what the government has billed as the biggest ever expansion in childcare.

Ministers have promised working parents that by next year they will be given 30 free hours from the end of maternity leave until the day their child starts school.

The first stage, however, will see parents of two-year-olds receive 15 free hours.

But Labour has accused the Conservatives of having a “childcare pledge without a plan” as it warned that families are still struggling to enrol their children.

A new analysis of Ofsted data suggests childcare places fell by more than 1,000 between March and December last year, the party said, out of a total of 1.2 million.

Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, is calling on the chancellor to guarantee that eligible parents will not lose out on places as a result of a “botched” plan.

The 15 hours will be extended to working parents of all children older than nine months in September, before the full rollout of 30 hours a week a year later.

Labour also published a dossier about “childcare chaos”, which includes testimonials from parents and nurseries across England who complained of high costs, extra fees and waiting lists at some nurseries of up to 18 months.

One nursery warned that it could be “forced to go bust” under the government's expanded offer.

The Independent ran its own investigation, showing some parents were to face a hike in fees despite the introduction of free hours.

The childcare pledge was the central plank of chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s Budget last year.

Ministers insist it will boost the economy by helping thousands of parents back into the workforce.

The dossier from Labour said: “The Conservatives’ childcare pledge without a plan… is threatening to crash the childcare system just like the Conservatives crashed the economy.”

Ms Phillipson said: “After 14 years of Tory failure, it will be Labour who get on with the job and finally deliver the much-needed childcare for parents.

“That is why we have commissioned respected former Ofsted inspector Sir David Bell to lead a review on early education and childcare to guarantee early years entitlements for parents.

“Only Labour will reform our childcare system and deliver the accessible, affordable early years education that will give children the best start in life.”

Childcare places have fallen by more than 1,000 (PA)
Childcare places have fallen by more than 1,000 (PA)

Education secretary Gillian Keegan has hit back at Labour, saying the party would put the expansion plan “at risk” if it wins the general election.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said: “If there is one thing that the first phase of the entitlement expansion has shown, it's that simply promising ‘more free childcare’ is meaningless if you're not willing to invest in the infrastructure needed to deliver it.”

He added that many nurseries, childminders and preschools have had “no choice” but to limit the number of new funded places they offer.

Mr Leitch said: “It's completely unsurprising, therefore, that many parents accessing a place for the first time have found it difficult, if not impossible, to do so.”

He added: “Ministers have made a big promise to parents.

“Only by providing the support that the sector needs will they be able to keep it.”