Labour vows to expand 30 hours’ free childcare offer

By Patrick Daly, PA Political Correspondent

A Labour plan to provide 30 hours per week of free care to all children aged between two and four could save parents as much as £5,000 per year.

Leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow education secretary Angela Rayner will use a visit to Leeds on Saturday to announce proposals to provide 30 hours’ publicly-funded childcare every week for all pre-school children over the age of two.

It comes on top of a £1 billion investment programme to reverse Conservative cuts in order to open 1,000 extra Sure Start centres in England to support young families.

According to party-commissioned analysis from the independent House of Commons Library, Labour’s election childcare offer has the potential to save the average parent of a two-year-old more than £5,000 every year.

Angela Rayner (Victoria Jones/PA)

Currently, parents of three- to four-year-olds are entitled to 15 hours per week of free childcare, with 30 hours available to those meeting strict criteria.

But Labour says a government led by Mr Corbyn would lower the age of access by a year and expand the professional care offer in a move that would benefit close to 900,000 children by the end of a five-year Parliament.

The move would give a financial boost to parents whose children are only eligible for 15 hours currently, according to the Commons Library, putting an additional £2,500 back into their pockets.

The extra care provision will be funded by a package of measures, according to a party spokesman, including raising tax on the top 5% of earners and reversing past Tory “tax giveaways”.

Mr Corbyn will make the announcement while on a visit to an early arts project in the Yorkshire city on day four of the General Election campaign.

“Parents are struggling to afford the childcare support they need, while many children are going hungry and growing up homeless,” he is expected to say.

“Labour will open a Sure Start centre in every community and fund 30 hours’ free childcare for all two- to four-year-olds to unlock the potential of every child.”

Mr Corbyn said the party will unlock children’s potential (Jacob King/PA)

The cost of childcare has risen three times faster than wages in the West Midlands and the South West and twice as fast in the rest of England, according to Labour analysis of Office for National Statistics (ONS) data.

The party says cuts to Sure Start budgets – axed by £978 million between 2010-2018, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies – has held children back from poorer backgrounds in terms of their learning.

Sure Start services include healthcare advice, supporting children when learning to speak and assisting with young learning and playing.

A report from the education committee, Tackling Disadvantage in the Early Years, found that the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and more advantaged counterparts was already evident when children begin school aged five.

Young pupils from less fortunate backgrounds can start school with a gap the equivalent of 4.3 months of learning, said the MPs’ 2019 report, with the gap doubling to 9.5 months at the end of primary school.

Shadow cabinet minister Ms Rayner is due to tell parents in Leeds: “Investment in the early years can transform the lives of children and their families across this country, just as the last Labour government transformed mine.

“The Tories have slashed funding for Sure Start leading to a loss of 1,000 centres, while their so-called free childcare offer locks out those families most in need of support.

“Labour will make high-quality early years education and access to Sure Start Plus a right for all families, in a country for the many, not the few.”

Under Labour, access to Sure Start centres will not be means tested, making the services available universally.

Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, the public services trade union, said the creation of 1,000 new Sure Start centres could have a “life-changing impact”.

“Restoring the network of Sure Start centres will offer a lifeline by providing education and health services to those families most in need, after years of cuts left them in tatters,” said Mr Prentis.