David Cameron’s promise to give 30 free childcare hours to all preschool-age children may be in jeopardy due to a shortage of places.

A report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said that too few childminders and nurseries may decide to offer the extended hours because they are worried about losing money.

The report says: “Private and voluntary providers report that the amount they currently get paid for providing free childcare is not enough to cover their costs and they therefore rely on charging parents for additional hours or other sources of income to meet them.

“There is a risk that providers, who can choose whether or not to offer parents ‘free’ childcare, will choose not to offer the new entitlement of a further 15 hours because doing so would reduce their opportunity to charge parents for hours outside of the entitlement.”

Funding fears

While the Department for Education (DfE) says it is committed to working families, the PAC report also points out that there are no checks in place to monitor how local councils are managing childcare in their areas.

Each council uses its own method to calculate how it will allocate funding to childminders and nurseries, and the amount that providers receive can vary greatly.  In some areas providers are getting £7.15 an hour for each three- or four-year-old, but others are receiving as little as £2.28 an hour.

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Many childcare providers have raised concerns about being left out of pocket. Some have stated that they will only offer extra free places if parents are willing to pay for additional hours each week. This could spell more financial woes for those parents who are counting on getting 30 free childcare hours so that they can afford to return to work part-time.

‘Significant shortfall’

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, commented that the committee was right to raise concerns. He said: “Independent research commissioned by the alliance has shown that, even with the increased average rates promised by government, there is still likely to be a significant shortfall in funding when the scheme rolls out in 2017.

“Add to this the fact that many providers simply do not have the capacity to deliver extra childcare places, and it is clear that without urgent action many parents who have been promised 30 hours of free childcare may not actually be able to access them next September.”

A Department for Education spokesman commented: “We are committed to supporting hardworking families and nothing shows this better than our landmark 30-hour free childcare offer.

“We will continue to work closely with providers as we get ready to provide this offer across the country in September 2017, backed up by our record investment into the childcare sector.”