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House of Commons Hansard
18 July 2017
Volume 627

  • (Urgent Question) To ask the Secretary of State for Education to make a statement on the process for applying for free childcare hours from September 2017.

  • Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing the urgent question. It gives me an opportunity to highlight the Government’s determination to invest a record amount in childcare, supporting early education and helping parents financially. That amount will total £6 billion annually by 2020.

    My Department is committed to ensuring that three and four-year-olds have access to free early education. All parents, regardless of income and employment status, are entitled to 15 hours of free early education for their three and four-year-olds, and for parents who are working we are providing access to an additional 15 hours of free childcare from September 2017. Parents who want to take up 30 hours of free childcare can apply through the digital childcare service. They can access the application via the Childcare Choices website, which provides information on all the Government’s childcare offers. The application process takes about 20 minutes. I have recently had a walk-through of the service myself; it is straightforward, and the format will be very familiar to parents who have used other Government digital services.

    The childcare service is a complex IT system, which checks parents’ eligibility in real time by interfacing with other Government IT systems. The vast majority of parents will receive an instant eligibility response, but there will be a delay for some parents whose eligibility is not immediately clear—for example, for some self-employed people. The service has also experienced technical issues which have meant that it has been unavailable to parents on a small number of occasions. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which has developed the service, has been working hard to resolve those issues, and as a result the customer experience has improved.

    The application has been open to the parents of under-fours since 21 April, and today my Treasury colleagues will make a written ministerial statement informing the House that the service has been further rolled out to the parents of under-fives, the so-called summer babies. Parents whose application is successful will receive a 30 hours eligibility code to take to their provider in order to claim their childcare place. As of today, more than 145,000 codes have been generated from successful applications. That is an increase of almost 5,000 codes since Friday 14 July and an increase of almost 25,000 since Friday 7 July. Increasing numbers of parents are successfully applying. It is great news that so many families will benefit from 30 hours in September because, as we have seen from our early implementer and early roll-out areas, the support can make a positive difference to the lives of hard-working families.

  • Order. Before we proceed to the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) and to subsequent questioners, I must make it clear that I granted the urgent question because of the narrow and specific focus on the issue of the accessibility, or otherwise, of the Government’s website. This is not an occasion for a general debate about childcare policy. If Members want just—this is not unknown in politics—to score political points and to ask rhetorical questions, that is not what this exchange is about. It will run for 20 minutes and it will focus on the particular issue that the hon. Lady identified in her application.

  • I thank the Minister for his response, but as some may be reading in their end-of-year reports due this week, “Good effort; just not good enough.” The process for applying for free childcare is confusing both for parents and nurseries. As one parent said to me:

    “getting the code was the most complicated process that I have ever endured. I would imagine that many parents would give up!”

    They explained that

    “you get passed from pillar to post between different areas of the website, each asking you for a different password, sent to you by SMS or email. Is this really necessary?”

    As Members will attest, setting up two-factor authentication on our phones was difficult enough, and we have a well-resourced IT department. Who is helping the parents at home who are juggling this with jobs and caring for their young children? As a result, parents have not been able to open accounts to pay their nursery, playgroup or pre-school. Even some of the providers, particularly in the voluntary sector, cannot register.

    The Government’s roll-out of 30 hours of free childcare is welcome, but only if it is of high quality and if parents can access it readily. Therefore, I ask the Minister: why is the Department for Education website still sending parents a holding response when they finally submit an online application? How long is the Department taking to confirm eligibility? What proportion of children eligible for the free childcare have been able to access it? Moreover, with the end of the school term rapidly approaching, how can nurseries plan for the upcoming year if parents cannot provide them with their voucher details? What support can the Government provide to nurseries to plan and budget effectively for an as-yet-unknown number of children who will be joining them on 1 September? Finally, what will the Government do to review the matter and the accessibility of the online registration process so that this does not happen again next year?

  • The hon. Lady asks some reasonable questions. I reassure her that, at the moment, 2,850 parents are registering per weekday and we are on track to reach, we think, about 200,000 by the end of the month. I encourage parents to get on with it. We do not want everyone to leave it until 11.30 pm on 31 August. As I said, the vast majority of cases are processed fairly simply, but because we need to check that the person meets the eligibility criteria on income, sometimes there are complications. I have mentioned self-employed people and people who change jobs, so occasionally it is more complex. I reassure the hon. Lady on the point about people who cannot use the online system. We have an offline process for any parents who experience persistent technical difficulties. I encourage anyone who has those problems to take up the matter.

  • I congratulate the Minister on his new appointment. What resources are being given to those from disadvantaged backgrounds to ensure that they have access to the 30 hours of free childcare?

  • Obviously, disadvantaged children are eligible for free childcare at the age of two and that continues for 15 hours through to the age of four. That additional funding and that additional 15 hours are for people in work. Some of those people may be on low incomes. A person who is working 16 hours at the national minimum wage qualifies. I have already mentioned that there is an offline system for people who may have problems and who cannot use the online system because of sight or other difficulties. However, the evidence so far is that the applications are coming in. They are now being presented to their providers and they will come back to us via the local authorities. May I make the point that some local authorities have been a bit tardy in passing the codes back to us? If anyone goes back over the recess, do ask them whether they are getting on with it, because that is another area where we need to see some improvement.

  • Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. What a shame it is that, when we could be weeks away from a great breakthrough for providers, parents and most importantly children, we are instead discussing a policy that is riddled with holes—and, my word, are there questions to answer!

    Just yesterday the Minister’s colleagues in the Treasury admitted in response to one of my written questions:

    “It is not possible to provide a definitive number of applications not completed due to technical issues”.

    Will the Minister give us his estimate of just how many parents suffered these “technical issues”? What steps are being put in place to fix the system, and what guarantees can he make to parents that, as the August deadline approaches, the system will work for them?

    How many calls has the hotline received? Of the 30,000 people who applied and were rejected, what were the reasons for those rejections and can the Minister guarantee that those rejections were correct and not due to system errors? What about the parents on zero-hours contracts who are simply unable to guarantee that they will work over the minimum weekly hours: how many of them will be refused the childcare they were promised?

    Finally, as the Minister will be aware, there are huge problems with this offer and there are many other questions to answer. As the Minister likes to refer my written questions to those at the national provider, Childcare Works, with implementation weeks away will he accept my request to meet them as soon as possible?

  • In welcoming the hon. Lady to her place, I have to say she is very much not a glass half full person. This is a great childcare offer. Yesterday morning, I was in the city of York, one of the pilot areas, meeting providers and parents who were benefiting, and I heard from people who said, “This is a great offer. It means no longer do I have to pass my husband in the hallway as I go out to my evening job and he comes in from his daytime job.” We heard of eight people in York who are now accessing employment because of the childcare being available. So it is a great offer and I am very proud that it has been delivered. We have ironed out the glitches in the software, and people are registering; as I have said, we are on track for 200,000.

    The hon. Lady asked how many people we expect to register, and the short answer is that we do not know, because it is a voluntary system to which people will opt in. Also, of course, there will be three tranches. It will not all happen with a big bang in September; there will be another tranche of parents who qualify in January and another tranche after Easter. It is great news for working families—something this Government are delivering on.

  • Given the amount of my time that was taken, the amount of time that my constituent had to give up, and indeed the amount of time given by the technical support people in the Minister’s Department, all as a consequence of the fact that my constituent had an apostrophe in her name, can the Minister speculate why on earth we were not told that there was a manual workaround?

  • I have made that clear today. There have been a number of outages, several of which were to fix some of the glitches to which my right hon. Friend draws attention. The most recent one was due to a power supply issue between 6 pm and 10.20 pm last night, 17 July. That has now been fixed and the system is up and running again.

  • I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) on securing this urgent question, and given that this is largely a devolved matter, I will be brief.

    Ensuring affordable, flexible and secure childcare is one of the best ways to narrow the gender pay gap, by helping parents back to work when it suits them, and also to prepare children best for school. In Scotland, the Scottish Government are trialling childcare funding following the child by investing £1 million to make sure that, when we expand free childcare to 1,140 hours, parents have the choice to decide what is best for them and for their children. We are also going further than the UK Government by helping the most vulnerable two-year-olds in Scotland, to ensure that all children can have the best start in life. That is quite a contrast to the issues being faced by parents south of the border. If disadvantaged parents are not able to apply for childcare by the deadline due to the Minister’s website problems, how will they will be supported thereafter?

  • I thank the hon. Gentleman for the party election broadcast on behalf of the Scottish National party. The website is up and running and, as I have said, 2,850 parents per day are registering and getting their confirmation codes; we encourage people to do so as soon as possible, rather than leave it to the last minute. Indeed, I am very pleased that we are now on track. Some 143,000 valid 30 hour contract codes have been generated and we are on track to reach our target of 200,000 by the end of next month.

  • As a mother with three children, I have been through a raft of different child support schemes. There were none initially, which is why I welcome the fact that this support is in place; we must not forget that. Obviously, it is essential that parents have confidence that they can apply. Will the Minister reassure those who are struggling—not just parents but nurseries; I understand the difficulties—that we will help them? I have met people from many nurseries in my constituency. We are relying on them to deliver this service, so can we have assurances that it will work?

  • That is why we ran the scheme through 12 development areas. Indeed, 15,000 children are already enjoying it, including those in the families I met in York yesterday. It really is a good offer. Of course there is flexibility in the system: one can use a childminder, a pre-school playgroup, or a formalised nursery setting and mix and match the hours. So it is a great opportunity. Indeed, the hours can be spread over the holidays; currently, 30 hours a week for 38 weeks are available, but that can be spread over the year for those who wish to cover the holidays as well.

  • The Minister says that 120,000 codes have now been issued and that he expects that to rise to 200,000 by the end of the month, but given that the Government’s own estimate of the number of eligible families is in excess of 390,000, by my maths that means that only just over a quarter of those eligible have now got their codes. Given that we had warning after warning from providers that the scheme would be unaffordable to them and that they worried about there being sufficient places, how are they supposed to plan for September when only just over a quarter of families have registered for this scheme to date?

  • I am afraid that the hon. Lady is making a fundamental error. The total number will come in three tranches: one in September, one in January and one after Easter, as children reach the eligible age. This will be an ongoing system, and therefore—[Interruption.] The children starting in September need to apply by the end of August. There is no rush for parents whose children turn three in time for starting in January. We are on track to deliver 200,000 by 1 September. Subsequent tranches of children will come in after Christmas and Easter.

    A number of concerns have been raised about providers being able to deliver for the funding we have provided, and we have put additional funding in. I am pleased to say that in the city of York, where I was yesterday, despite the fact that some of the private sector providers expressed disquiet, 100% of providers are delivering on the scheme. Indeed, in contrast to the numbers projected, we have 117% delivery.

  • Dorset was one of the pilot areas for 30 hours of free childcare. Will my hon. Friend update the House on the performance of those pilots, specifically in relation to the online system?

  • Those in the pilots did not participate in the online system we have in place now; there was an all manually based system. I can assure the House, however, that 4,000 parents were involved in testing the service and valuable lessons have been learned from Dorset regarding the operation of the service and provision of free places.

  • In light of these additional difficulties in bringing in what is a very welcome policy, what additional support will the Government give to nurseries that are preparing to deliver the scheme? We need to make sure that the resources are there for delivery.

  • As I have said, we increased the funding to allow for it to be delivered; an average funding of £4.94 for each hour is now being provided. That was in direct response to the concerns of some providers about the level of funding, but I have to say that even the providers who said that the funding was not sufficient have now managed to deliver at this price. Indeed, the nursery I visited yesterday said it had surplus places before the pilot scheme was introduced, but is now full, which is great news for it in terms of its overall funding.

  • Small, community-led pre-schools, such as the one in Hedge End in my constituency, are not necessarily groups, and they are worried about the process for them and for local parents. Will my hon. Friend tell us what the Government have done to ensure that all early-years providers are able to deliver the 30 hours for those families and to retain the positivity around this programme?

  • Parents have a choice about where to deploy their 30 hours of care. It can be with a childminder or in a nursery school, but it can also be with one of the many excellent voluntary sector providers, including pre-school playgroups. My wife used to run a pre-school playgroup, so I have been briefed on this issue. It is vital that people have a choice about where to send their children that suits their lifestyle, their work and the logistics of getting their children to that setting.

  • The Minister will know that I was Chair of the then Children, Schools and Families Select Committee when the Labour Government set us on this path, and I am sure that most Labour Members will welcome this good news. I have a vested interest in this subject, having 10 grandchildren and, I hope, more to come. However, many people in my constituency are struggling with access and are not very computer literate. Will he consider enabling the National Day Nurseries Association, which is based in my constituency, and the other marvellous children’s charities to help by being the interlocutors between the Government and our constituents?

  • In the short time that I have had this portfolio, I have met a number of organisations and I particularly look forward to meeting the hon. Gentleman’s own locally based organisations. That is very much on my bucket list. We certainly wish to engage as widely as possible with representatives of providers and of the families who are benefiting from this programme. Also, I have to say that we could not deliver this £6 billion a year of funding without the successful economy that this Conservative Government are delivering.

  • As the parent of a one-year-old, I am very grateful for this scheme as I find my way through the challenges of parenthood. I am sure that many others will feel the same. Will the Minister please tell the House what testing was carried out prior to the launch of the system, and how many parents were involved?

  • As I have said, there were two aspects to the testing. We had pilot areas in which we tested the delivery, working with the providers, and that was very successful, particularly in the city of York and North Yorkshire, where I was yesterday. In relation to the system, we had 4,000 parents involved. Indeed, I had a run-through to demonstrate how the system works. However, there are sometimes complications when people change jobs or when self-employed people’s accounts have not been submitted. In such cases, the telephone service can be used as a back-up.

  • It is clearly important to resolve the problems as quickly as possible. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) asked a number of factual questions, along with some others, which the Minister has not been able to answer directly today. Will he write to all those who have participated in the urgent question by the end of business on Thursday, so that we may have a full understanding of the picture?

  • I will certainly be happy to give updates. As I have said, we have now passed 143,000 valid applications—not 120,000, as the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) suggested earlier—and I would be more than happy to give the right hon. Gentleman ongoing updates on that.

  • I am grateful to the Minister and to colleagues. In a moment, I will call the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) to make an application for leave to propose a debate on a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration under the terms of Standing Order No. 24. The hon. Gentleman has up to three minutes in which to make his application.