Nurseries still in the dark about free childcare policy with weeks to go, minister admits

Some local authorities have yet to confirm funding for childcare providers to deliver on the government’s promised expansion, education secretary Gillian Keegan has said.

Rishi Sunak previously admitted that his pledge to expand free childcare in England has hit trouble, as ministers scramble to get a grip on the roll-out ahead of an April deadline.

As first revealed by The Independent in December, there are major problems with funding, staff shortages and nursery closures.

Ms Keegan admitted she cannot guarantee the pledge to provide more free hours – but said she is leaning on councils in England “very hard” to publish funding rates.

“The vast majority of them have already – but there’s a small number that haven’t and this is causing a bit of friction in the system. I am leaning on them very, very hard,” she told LBC.

Childcare providers have reported being unable to commit to offering places for parents of two-year-olds in April, as they remain in the dark about final funding rates.

Keegan says she is putting pressure on councils to meet the April deadline (PA)
Keegan says she is putting pressure on councils to meet the April deadline (PA)

When challenged on whether she can guarantee that parents will be able to access funding, Ms Keegan said: “I’m very confident in this programme.”

She added: “I’m very confident that your 15 hours for two-year-olds will be available in April. The only reason I say I can’t guarantee is strictly it’s tens and tens of thousands of businesses all across the country who are actually delivering it.”

The new policy enables eligible working parents of two-year-olds to claim 15 hours of free childcare for 38 weeks of the year from April.

And 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.

Mr Sunak admitted last month that there were “practical issues”, after it emerged that IT flaws which have stopped some parents from accessing the necessary code to apply for state-funded hours. Eligible parents will be sent an automatic code.

Meanwhile, Ms Keegan said her husband will give evidence at the public inquiry into the Post Office Horizon IT scandal if requested to do so.

Michael Keegan was formerly UK chief executive of Fujitsu – the tech firm behind the faulty accounting software at the centre of the Post Office Horizon scandal.

Grilled on whether her husband will be giving evidence, Ms Keegan said: “He has said he would give evidence,” before suggesting that he would not be called.

She added: “Actually, the stage of the inquiry that they are at now, they’ve just published a list, I think, of 68 people who they think can answer the questions for the governance and everything that happened, and he’s actually not on that list. So they haven’t asked him. But he would [give evidence], absolutely.”

Asked why her husband has given up his part-time role at the Cabinet Office, she said: “Well, he’s doing a PhD. That’s his main thing. He’s doing a PhD and he’s getting to the sort of final bit of it, and that’s what his passion is.”

Ms Keegan did not give Mr Sunak’s government the top rating when asked to rate its performance.

She said she would rate the government as “good” using Ofsted’s four-point grading scale of outstanding, good, requires improvement, and inadequate. She said: “Often a lot of the things that we’ve delivered nobody ever talks about.”