A government scheme providing 30 hours of free care has been branded an ‘absolute joke’ as people struggle to register
The government’s Childcare Choices programme is descending into chaos ahead of this week’s deadline for parents to take full advantage of the benefits. Under the scheme, launched in April, parents of three and four-year-old children in England are entitled to 30 hours a week of free care — up from 15 hours now. They must sign up by Thursday to be eligible for the extra free hours during the coming school term.
Separately, parents of children aged up to 12 can get tax relief on childcare costs. For every £8 paid, the government adds £2, up to a maximum of £2,000 a year for each child — the equivalent of 20% tax relief.
But the scheme has been plagued with IT problems, prompting concerns among parents that they may lose out on hundreds of pounds.
Many parents and childcare providers have told Money they have yet to receive the access codes they need to register in time to qualify for the extra 15 hours. Others complain that the codes they have received do not work.
HM Revenue & Customs said last week it had begun a compensation scheme for parents unable to apply for tax relief on childcare fees. They will be able to apply directly to HMRC rather than through the childcare website.
However, the Department for Education admitted it had no policy in place to help parents in England who miss this week’s deadline to register for an extra 15 hours of free childcare for three and four-year-olds. It said: “Parents should speak to their preferred provider to see what options there are.”
Last week Nicky Morgan, chairwoman of the Treasury select committee, wrote to Jon Thompson, permanent secretary at HMRC, to demand answers. “It’s concerning that some parents have struggled to apply for childcare funding due to technical issues with the government’s childcare service website,” said Morgan.
“Thousands of parents are still unable to apply for the childcare to which they are entitled in the way that the government has envisaged.”
Helen Galletley, 38, a retail store manager from Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, is relying on receiving 30 free hours of childcare for her son Jacob so she and her wife, also Helen, 41, can both go to work.
After battling with the Childcare Choices website for several weeks, Galletley has yet to be able to register. She risks losing a total of £840 for the coming term if she misses Thursday’s deadline.
Galletley started her application after Jacob turned three in July. She entered her government gateway identity number and password — used for filing tax returns and other HMRC services — and a code was sent to her mobile phone.
But when she entered the code in her online application on August 3, the system told her it did not match any records — that is, it could not find her details. She called the helpline (0300 123 4097).
“I was told there was a technical problem with my application and they would raise the issue with the technical team,” Galletley said. “I asked for someone to call me back to update me. I’m still waiting for that call back.”
A few days later, she was told her application was “stuck” in the system. A third time she asked that someone senior call her back — to no avail.
“If I do not receive the access code before the August 31 deadline for registering, I will not get the additional 15 hours free for this term,” she said. “This will cost me £840. The people on the helpline just tell me that there’s no timescale to fix the problem.”
Childcare providers have reported similar concerns. One, Sarah Firth, from Letchworth in Hertfordshire, said even after parents had received codes they could not find her on the system. She has tried since April to get the problem solved, calling multiple times.
On one occasion, she was cut off after being told the service was experiencing high levels of calls.
If I do not receive the access code by August 31, it will cost me £840Helen Galletley, 38, retail store manager
“Part of my trouble is I can only call when I am child-free, which is rarely. I’m a childminder and a mother of two young children. It’s cost me a fortune in calls.”
These are far from the only problems reported to Money. The site frequently crashes, causing delays and the need to re-register, and some providers have not received payments made by parents.
Emma Appleby, a childminder from Norfolk, said: “It has taken the Childcare Choices team seven months to change my address and in that time they refused to talk to me as their records were showing my old address. They finally amended it this week and were happy to talk to me. And today I received seven copies of the same letter.”
Sofi Sullivan, a childminder from Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire, said: “This month, parents have not been able to pay us using the scheme. They have had to pay us direct and then we have had to invoice HMRC for them to be reimbursed the tax relief. It’s an absolute joke.”
The new system replaces the childcare voucher scheme through which employees could claim up to £930 in tax and national insurance contributions relief per year, per parent (depending on their tax bracket) via their employers for children up to the age of 15.
That programme closes next April, but parents already enrolled can continue to use it if they prefer to remain in the old system.
Tax relief for working families These benefits are available to parents who are in work and each earning less than £100,000 a year.