The MP's letter is in response to the difficulties that many parents have experienced with HMRC’s Childcare Service website, which they must use to apply for the 30 hours and Tax-Free Childcare (TFC), since it went live in April. These have included numerous technical glitches, an inability to verify parents’ or their child’s details and/or salary and parents being locked out of their TFC accounts.
In her letter to the chief executive and permanent secretary of HMRC Jon Thompson, Ms Morgan, says, ‘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.’
She goes on to ask in preparation for any potential Treasury Committee consideration of the matter, that HMRC provide information on the Childcare Service website including, the number of users who have successfully completed an application for a Childcare Service account, the number of users who started an application, but haven't returned to it, the proportion receiving error messages, the number of hours the website has been down since April, how many complaints have been made about the website and the nature of complaints.
Ms Morgan also asks about the average wait time for accessing the helpline and the proportion of abandoned calls, for the number of people who have been unable to access their Childcare Service account and the amount of compensation paid to those unable to use the site to pay childcare providers.
Commenting on the correspondence, Mrs 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.
'I have written to Jon Thompson at HMRC, which runs the website, to ask for further information, such as the duration of outages, the number of complaints, and the number of people who have been unable to access their Childcare Service account.'
Her letter follows an emergency debate on the 30 hours in the House of Commons last month in which the children and families minister Robert Goodwill claimed that glitches in the Childcare Service website’s software had been ‘ironed out.’
He went on to say, ‘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.’
Nursery World has also learnt that HMRC is sending letters to some parents using the Childcare Service inviting them to participate in research into parents’ experiences of using the Service. Parents will be paid £20 for their time.
The letter states that findings from the study, which will be carried out by the IFF, will ‘help HMRC to continue to improve the quality of its service and to help HMRC to better understand its customers’ needs’.
An HMRC spokesperson said, 'Government childcare support will cut thousands of pounds off bills for millions of households, supporting parents to return to or remain in work.
'More than 180,000 parents have successfully applied for a childcare account. 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.
'Parents and providers experiencing difficulties or needing technical support can phone the childcare service helpline on 0300 123 4097.'
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said, ‘It’s simply not acceptable that, despite the Childcare Service website being launched over four months ago, so many parents are still struggling to actually use the system.
‘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.
‘With all the other issues facing the childcare sector at the moment, not least the ongoing concerns about the funding of the 30-hour offer, the least the government could do is invest in an IT system that parents are able to use, and through which providers are able to receive the payments that their businesses rely on. As such, we welcome Nicky Morgan’s intervention on this matter, and hope that the Government will look to resolve the issue as a matter of urgency.’
Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), 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.’