Free childcare plans 'in jeopardy'
Plans to offer pre-schoolers in England 30 free hours of childcare may be in jeopardy if not enough childminders and nurseries offer places, MPs warn.
Next year, the current entitlement of three and four-year-olds to 15 hours of free care a week will be doubled.
But there is a risk providers will opt not to offer the extra hours over fears they will be left out of pocket, the Commons Public Accounts Committee says.
The Department for Education (DfE) says it is committed to working families.
The cross-party group of MPs also says there are "unacceptable variations" in information available to parents about access to free childcare in England.
The MPs said some parents reported that nurseries and childminders were only offering the entitlement on the condition that parents pay for additional hours.
Overall, the DfE has made "significant progress" towards ensuring that young children benefit from 15 hours of free early education and childcare, the report says, with 94% of three-year-olds and 99% of four-year-olds taking up funded places in 2015.
Take-up among disadvantaged two-year-olds, though, is lower at 58%.
But the PAC report raises concerns that there will not be enough funded places available once the entitlement is rolled out to 30 hours per week.
It says: "Private and voluntary providers report that the amount they currently get paid for providing free childcare is not enough to cover their costs and they therefore rely on charging parents for additional hours or other sources of income to meet them.
"There is a risk that providers, who can choose whether or not to offer parents 'free' childcare, will choose not to offer the new entitlement of a further 15 hours because doing so would reduce their opportunity to charge parents for hours outside of the entitlement."
The committee says that the DfE should use pilots of the scheme, due to be carried out this year, to check whether nurseries and childminders are able to meet expected demand.
The report also raises concerns that the department has no method for checking how local councils are managing childcare in their areas.
Funding is given to councils for free childcare based on the number of eligible children locally. Local authorities then use their own methods to allocate funding to nurseries and childminders.
They can also keep some funds to pay for central services.
"The department does not know how local authorities use the centrally retained funding or what they do to manage their childcare markets to ensure there are enough places to meet demand," the report says.
It warns: "Parents are unsure what their rights to free childcare are or who to complain to when needed. When the department introduces the new entitlement with different eligibility criteria, this confusion is likely to increase."
Committee chairwoman Meg Hillier said: "Parents need to be able to access a sufficient number of providers, of sufficient quality. The government must implement measures to assure this.
"We are particularly concerned that the economic realities of providing childcare will deter providers from offering the extended provision.
"Evidence suggests this would most affect families from disadvantaged areas, which is doubly concerning given the already disappointing take-up of funded places for disadvantaged two-year-olds."
She said the government must take responsibility for identifying the reasons for this and take remedial action.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said the PAC was "absolutely right" to warn there may not be enough providers willing to deliver the 30-hours of free childcare.
"Independent research commissioned by the Alliance has shown that, even with the increased average rates promised by government, there is still likely to be a significant shortfall in funding when the scheme rolls out in 2017.
"Add to this the fact that many providers simply do not have the capacity to deliver extra childcare places, and it is clear that, without urgent action, many parents who have been promised 30 hours of free childcare may not actually be able to access them next September."
A DfE spokeswoman said: "We are committed to supporting hardworking families and nothing shows this better than our landmark 30 hour free childcare offer.
"We have seen huge demand from local areas to take part in delivering that offer a year early, so we know childcare providers and local authorities want to help hardworking families too - and take up of our existing offer for families of three and four year olds and disadvantaged families with two year olds has continued to increase.
"We will continue to work closely with providers as we get ready to provide this offer across the country in September 2017, backed up by our record investment into the childcare sector."