Labour accuses Government of having a ‘childcare pledge without a plan’

Labour has accused the Conservatives of having a “childcare pledge without a plan”, as it said families are still struggling to access places ahead of the Government’s expansion of funded childcare.

The party pointed to an analysis of Ofsted data that suggests the number of childcare places fell by more than 1,000 between March and December last year, ahead of an anticipated increase in demand for places.

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 the Conservatives’ “blotched” childcare pledge.

Her plea came as the first phase of the Government’s expanded offer of funded childcare for working families in England came into effect.

As part of a staggered rollout of the policy, which started on Monday, working parents of two-year-olds are now able to access 15 hours of Government-funded childcare.

This will be extended to working parents of all children older than nine months from September this year, before the full rollout of 30 hours a week to all eligible families a year later.

The party has published a dossier about “childcare chaos” which includes testimonials from parents and nurseries across England.

Some parents complained of high costs and extra fees to pay, while others reported 18 month waiting lists at some nurseries, the dossier found.

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

Preschool age child playing with plastic building blocks
Labour pointed to an analysis of Ofsted data that suggests the number of childcare places fell by more than 1,000 between March and December last year (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

In March last year, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced that eligible families of children as young as nine months old in England would be able to claim 30 hours of free childcare a week by September 2025.

The dossier from Labour said: “The Conservatives’ childcare pledge without a plan announced at the 2023 Budget 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.”

The Education Secretary said last week that the Government was “on track” to deliver the first phase of its rollout to 150,000 parents of two-year-olds.

Gillian Keegan warned that the Labour Party could put the expansion plan “at risk” if it wins the forthcoming general election, as she added that cancelling the policy would be “disastrous” for parents.

Her comments came after Labour suggested it would review the Government’s expanded offer of funded childcare if it gets into power.

Asked by BBC Newsnight last week whether Labour is planning to go back to the drawing board on the childcare expansion plan, Ms Phillipson said the system “does require reform”.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance (EYA), 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 pre-schools 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.”

Joeli Brearley, founder of the Pregnant Then Screwed (PTS) charity, said: “The Government seems to be in denial about falling childcare places.

“This research proves what we’ve been saying all along – we are increasing demand, whilst supply dwindles. Ultimately this means some families will not be able to access the new entitlements.

“The thing is, we need a credible plan, and right now there isn’t a single political party who has that.”

Ms Keegan said: “On the day that the Conservative Government is delivering the biggest ever expansion in childcare provision, Labour still have nothing to offer.

“This is simply a desperate attempt to distract from the fact that they would pull out the rug from tens of thousands of hardworking families adding on average £6,900 to the costs of childcare.

“Families across the country are now facing uncertainty caused by Labour. Keir Starmer should provide clarity for families who are making decisions about their futures.”