Jeremy Hunt Insists Government “On Track” for Free Childcare Expansion

*By Becky Morton, Political Reporter*

By Becky Morton, Political Reporter

Jeremy Hunt, the government's representative, has adamantly stated that the planned expansion of free childcare in April is right on schedule. Despite this assurance, the chancellor expressed some uncertainty, stating he could not provide an "absolute guarantee" that all necessary places would be available in time. Starting in April, working parents in England with two-year-olds are promised 15 hours of free care a week.

The Labour party has criticized the government's commitment, labeling it as a "botched pledge without a plan" and claiming that it is falling apart. The government's strategy involves gradually rolling out the expansion of free childcare. Currently, parents of three and four-year-olds can access 30 hours of free childcare. This will be extended to 15 hours for children aged nine months and older starting in September. By September 2025, the government aims to provide 30 hours of free childcare to all children under five.

Despite these ambitious plans, nurseries and early years providers are voicing concerns about their ability to meet the demand for the scheme. The sector argues that years of underfunding have led to a crisis in recruitment and retention, resulting in a shortage of staff to implement the policy. Additionally, nurseries have faced delays in receiving confirmation of payment rates for offering free hours. Some parents have also reported difficulties in finding local nurseries with available places for free hours.

In response to questions about whether all necessary places will be ready by April, Hunt emphasized that this initiative represents the most significant expansion of childcare in a generation. He acknowledged the potential need to hire 40,000 more staff in the sector, which is why the implementation is being phased in. While he stopped short of providing an absolute guarantee, Hunt expressed confidence in the program's delivery by April.

Labour's shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, criticized Hunt for rushing out the commitment without a solid plan. She warned that working parents may face challenges accessing the promised places in the coming weeks and months. Phillipson has demanded assurances from the chancellor that the free childcare pledge will be fulfilled as planned, without parents encountering additional charges.

When asked about Labour's approach if they were to come into power, Phillipson emphasized the importance of avoiding the mistakes made by the Conservatives and ensuring a well-thought-out plan for implementation. She highlighted a review of early years commissioned by her party, led by former Ofsted chief inspector Sir David Bell, which aims to improve standards and increase the availability of childcare places.

Purnima Tanuku, the chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association, called on the chancellor to address the significant challenges faced by early years providers. She emphasized the need for sustainable funding rates and the removal of business rates to enable nurseries to plan for a viable future and effectively deliver the expanded childcare offer to parents.

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