Minister refuses to guarantee key Tory pledge over free childcare will be met

Gillian Keegan has refused to guarantee that Rishi Sunak’s pledge to expand childcare provision will be met on time as she is “not in control of all the bits”.

The education secretary said she was “really confident” parents would be able to access an expansion of free childcare provision, but stressed she could not offer an iron-clad guarantee.

It comes weeks after The Independent reported that the planned expansion was “doomed to fail” because of the mass closure of nurseries and childminders.

Under the plans, announced by chancellor Jeremy Hunt last March, eligible families of children as young as nine months will be able to claim 30 hours of free childcare a week by 2025.

Jeremy Hunt used his March budget to announce the government’s expansion of childcare (James Manning/PA) (PA Wire)
Jeremy Hunt used his March budget to announce the government’s expansion of childcare (James Manning/PA) (PA Wire)

The prime minister last month admitted that his flagship pledge to expand free chidcare in England has hit trouble, but insisted all eligible children in England would be able to benefit from the offer - being phased in from the spring. But on Sunday Ms Keegan said that while she was “confident” about the scheme, she could not guarantee it would go ahead as planned.

The announcement was seen as an attempt by the Tories to get ahead of Labour on what is likely to be a key battleground topic in the general election this year.

As part of a staggered rollout of the policy, 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.

Guaranteeing something in the future is something that you can never do

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan

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

Ministers have already admitted parents could miss out on funded hours at their preferred childcare setting in the spring if there is limited capacity.

More than 100,000 parents of two-year-olds in England have already registered for codes to access the 15 hours per week of Government-funded childcare which starts in April.

In December, The Independent reported that, 3,320 of the 62,300 nurseries and childminders for under-fives in England had shut their doors in 2023 alone, leaving 17,800 fewer childcare places available.

Experts said the decline means the government’s plan to offer 30 hours of free childcare for under-fives from 2025 will be impossible to implement as they struggle to recruit and retain workers. Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, told The Independent the Tories’ “expansion plans are doomed to fail unless the government properly listens to and engages with the sector”.

And Mss Keegan told Sky News’ Sunday Morning with Trevor Phillips programme that she was focused on ensuring there was the workforce and investment available to “grow the places” for childcare that “I know parents are absolutely desperate for”.

Asked whether she could guarantee that parents of nine-month olds will be able to access state-funded childcare in September, she replied: “You know what you cannot do is guarantee something in the future that you are not in control of all the bits.”

Pressed on why she was not offering a guarantee on the pledge, the senior Tory said: “Guaranteeing something in the future is something that you can never do.

“All you can do is put all the plans in place and then react if you need to.

“I am really confident that all the things that we have done will mean that every parent who wants to have a place is going to have a place.

“What you are asking me is to personally guarantee something on behalf of tens of thousands of businesses that are working out there to grow the capacity and to make sure that we have got the people in place.”

Bridget Phillipson, Labour’s shadow education secretary, called the response “another broken Tory promise”.

Ahead of the Chancellor’s childcare announcement last year, Labour had been heavily hinting it was prepared to expand childcare provision if it wins the next election.

Ms Phillipson tweeted: “The Education Secretary has made it clear.

“There are no guarantees that parents will receive their new childcare hours.

“This was a pledge without a plan — another broken Tory promise.”

Nurseries, pre-schools and childminders in England say they are being inundated with calls and emails from families who want to take up funded places.

On Friday, the Department for Education announced a trial of £1,000 sign-on bonuses for new recruits and returners into the early years sector in 20 local authorities as part of efforts to increase capacity in the system.

But parents who want to take up the new funded places on offer this year are facing long waiting lists in some areas of the country as providers are full.