LETTER: Scheme '˜not all it seems'

After celebrating International Women's Day, the issues of women as unpaid carers and the prohibitive costs of childcare for women who want to go back to work have been at the front of my mind.

Sadly, the government’s 30 hours of ‘free’ childcare offer is not all it seems. A scheme that is supposed to give ‘stay at home parents’ the opportunity to go back to work is in fact broken before it has even started. Locally we still await the consultation report from East Sussex County Council, which – with an end of January deadline for returns – was started rather late in the day for assessing and then addressing local needs.

Nurseries report that they do not have sufficient space to support this scheme and there is a lack of qualified staff nationally; but many adults can not afford to pay for the Further Education training courses offered. Local nursery providers indicate that they are unlikely to be able to offer the ‘free’ hours because they currently rely on charging for these hours in order to meet the expenses of their business and they feel it is not unreasonable to want to cover their costs.

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A campaign group for childcare providers has lodged a complaint with the competition watchdog about the Government’s underfunding of the ‘free’ childcare hours. Not only is the sector facing the crisis of underfunding, the funding rate is being fixed for three years, regardless of the increase in the living wage the introduction of pension contributions, the increase in business rates and inflation. They fear it could, even with changes to their business models,lead to the closure of their nurseries and this, in turn, has led to childminders feeling that they will face more pressure to offer the extended entitlement because of the lack of capacity in nurseries, particularly for children under three years old.

The early years’ minister, Caroline Dinenage, has told private nursery owners that they must charge parents for additional services if their viability is threatened. The government recognises that the funding rates they supply are less than the fees that are charged by nurseries outside of the ‘free’ hours and their businesses may find that they have insufficient funds to cover their outgoings once the free hours increase. It is disingenuous of the Conservative minister who has refused to remove the word ‘free’ from the scheme, yet recognises that lobby groups for nurseries are correct when they have pointed out that the word ‘free’ causes confusion and controversy; additional discretionary service charges will not mean it is ‘free’ to parents.

The government sums just don’t add up and both parents and childcare providers could be the losers. This scheme, as it stands, is not going to provide the ‘Sure Start’ that was set up and funded by Labour governments but is now being unravelled by those subsequently in power.

This is an important issue that affects many parents in the Lewes area. With the closure of the YMCA provision Lewes parents are already hard pressed to find affordable child-care.

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East Sussex County Council elections are to be held in May and I am standing to represent Lewes Town. I shall be pursuing this issue robustly on behalf of Lewes and District parents and local childcare providers so that ESCC works towards forging viable plans for when this scheme is due to be rolled out in September.

I am holding open surgeries in the Labour Party Office on Saturday mornings from 9am until 11am if your readers wish to meet with me.

Emily Clarke

ESCC Labour Candidate for Lewes Town

Talbot Terrace, Lewes