Plans for the full rollout of tax-free childcare in the UK have been delayed until March 2018 – five years after it was first announced – while parents grapple with technical difficulties on the official website they need to use to access the scheme.
In a written statement, ministers said they would be staggering applications by age of child even though all parents were supposed to be able to join the scheme by the end of 2017.
Under the scheme, the government will put in 20p for every 80p parents pay in childcare, up to the value of £2,000 a year.
The government opened its Childcare Choices website in April 2017 and parents have had to use it to register for both the tax-free childcare scheme and another scheme offering free childcare to parents of three- and four-year-olds from September.
Both were key planks of the government’s efforts to make childcare more affordable, with the tax-free childcare proposal announced by the then Childcare Minister, Liz Truss, in March 2013. But the technical problems have meant some families have been unable to discover if they are eligible for the money-saving schemes.
A statement from Treasury spokesman Lord Bates said the government had “acted quickly” to address the problems, which reached a peak in the summer. But he added that the service would now be “gradually” opened up to parents of older children, as his department continued to improve the system.
“This means we can manage the volume of applications going through the services, so parents continue to receive a better experience and prompt eligibility responses when they apply,” he said.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said given the problems with the website, it was not surprising that the full rollout of the scheme was being delayed.
“That said, with many families still struggling with the cost of childcare, parents who had hoped to benefit from the scheme by the end of the year will be understandably disappointed by this delay,” he said, calling on the government to invest “what is needed to deliver and maintain an IT system that both parents and childcare providers are able to use and rely on”.
Purnima Tanuku of the National Day Nurseries Association said the announcement meant the scheme would not be open to as many families as planned. “This means that some parents will be missing out on the benefits of the scheme for a few weeks, which is disappointing for them,” she said.
“However we feel this is a sensible approach in order to avoid repeating the chaos we saw in the summer when parents were registering on the same website for their child’s 30 hours funded childcare place.”