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Parents are worried their children will miss out on a 30-hour ‘free’ nursery place in September because families keep hitting brick walls when it comes to applying for it as a result of IT glitches on a government website.
The HMRC’s Childcare Service website has been plagued by technical difficulties and for parents trying to navigate it they have faced errors including false statements that they are ineligible for the '30 hours' scheme and some are even informed that their child does not exist.
With some parents who applied via the Childcare Service website finding themselves locked out of their own Tax-Free Childcare accounts and unable to use the website to pay nurseries, Nicky Morgan the former education secretary and now chair of the Treasury Committee has written to the chief executive of the HMRC to demand answers.
In her letter to the HMRC’s Jon Thompson, Ms Morgan stated: ‘There have recently been reports of problems with the HMRC-run Childcare Service website, through which parents access the Government’s Tax-Free Childcare and 30 hours free childcare schemes. There are also reports of customers struggling to access help in solving the problems they encounter.’
31 August deadline
All three and four-year-olds in England already receive 15 hours 'free' childcare a week and if their parents are living and working in England, these children may be entitled to 30 hours ‘free’ childcare being rolled out by the Government from 1 September. But as 31 August is the deadline when childcare settings are required to pass on parents' 30-hour eligibility codes to their local authorities for validation, parents and nurseries are increasingly concerned families will miss out on a '30 hour' place for their child in September. This is because only when a local authority verifies a parents' eligibility code can a childcare provider offer a 30-hours place.
Parents facing problems with the childcare service have been asked to phone the HMRC’s childcare helpline on 0300 123 4097. But Nicky Morgan said: "It's concerning that some parents have struggled to apply for childcare funding, due to technical issues with the Government's childcare service website. To make matters worse, it appears that the childcare service helpline, for parents suffering problems with the website, is also experiencing technical difficulties."
Nicky Morgan has demanded the HMRC give detail on how many users have completed an application for a Childcare Service account, how many received error messages, how many complaints about the website were made, how many hours the website has been down since it went live on 24 April and the amount of compensation paid to families who couldn’t use the website to pay childcare providers.
Her letter comes in response to and just weeks after an emergency debate on 30 hours ‘free’ childcare in the House of Commons, in which the newly-appointed children and families minister Robert Goodwill said technical glitches in the website’s software had been ‘ironed out.’
Mr Goodwill said: ‘The Childcare Service is a complex IT system that checks parents' eligibility in real time by interfacing with other Government IT systems.
‘The vast majority of parents will receive an instant eligibility response. However, there will be a delay for some parents whose eligibility is not immediately clear, for example some self-employed people.
‘The service has also experienced technical issues, which has meant it has been unavailable to parents on a small number of occasions. HMRC, which has developed the service, has been working hard to resolve these issues and as a result the customer experience has improved.’
Persistent 'teething troubles'
National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) chief executive Purnima Tanuku said: “It’s very welcome that Nicky Morgan is asking questions of HMRC on the problems with the Childcare Service website and helpline.
“What started out as ‘teething troubles’ is persisting months after launch, with parents and childcare providers growing increasingly frustrated. With the roll out of the government’s 30 hour funded childcare places from 1 September, some parents are getting worried that they won’t even be able to access their places in time because they are being let down by the IT system. HMRC must ensure they resolve problems with the website as a matter of urgency and reassure parents and providers.”
An HMRC spokesman said: "We know that some parents and childcare providers have experienced difficulties accessing the service, and we are sorry about the inconvenience. We've now made significant improvements based on customer feedback, and on average more than 2,000 parents are applying successfully every single day. We continue to make updates to improve the customer experience and ensure everyone can easily access their account.”
Neil Leitch, the chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance said: “The Government has claimed that working families could benefit from thousands of pounds of savings as a result of the tax-free childcare and the 30-hour offers, but of course, for that to happen, the IT system underpinning both schemes has to actually work.
"Indeed, the recent 30-hour pilot evaluation report explicitly stated that the effective implementation of the childcare service system was vital for the policy to have any chance of succeeding."