As of yesterday, Tax-Free Childcare (TFC) opened to parents whose youngest child is under nine, or turned nine on 15 January.
Previous to this, only parents of children aged six and under have benefitted from the scheme, which went live last April.
TFC will open to all remaining eligible families with children under the age of 12, or under 17 for disabled children, on 14 February – slightly earlier than previously stated.
In November, HMRC announced that full rollout of TFC had been pushed back to March 2018. It is thought the delay was to enable further improvements to be made to the HMRC Childcare Service website, which has suffered from numerous technical glitches.
Originally all eligible parents were expected to be able to benefit from Tax-Free Childcare by the end of last year.
According to HMRC, more than 325,000 customers have successfully applied through the Childcare Service for the 30 hours and Tax-Free Childcare. Of these, more than 170,000 have a Tax-Free Childcare account.
However, early years organisations are reporting that parents and childcare providers are still experiencing problems with the Childcare Service, such as not being able to apply for Tax-Free Childcare or reconfirm eligibility.
According to the National Day Nurseries Association problems, as reported by their members, include:
- Parents being given more than one code for the 30 hours;
- Parents not being able to reconfirm their eligibility for the schemes because of difficulties with the website and helpline;
- Nurseries having to chase parents to reconfirm their eligibility even though this should be done by HMRC and local authorities.
NDNA says that the experience is a very stressful one for both parents and nurseries, with parents worrying that they will fall out of eligibility because they are unable to reconfirm due to technical difficulties, and nurseries being left with ‘unbelievable levels of admin’, receiving no additional money to cover the hours of additional administration.
However, HMRC told Nursery World that nurseries can claim money back for time spent on the phone to the Childcare Service if they've made a complaint. A spokesperson confirmed that if a provider called the helpline to complain about the level of service they have received and the time spent on the phone, they would be told to make a complaint, which would then be assessed and a decision made about compensation.
Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of NDNA, said, ‘Since the Childcare Service website – which parents and providers must register on for both Tax-Free Childcare and 30 hours funded childcare places - went live it has proved extremely problematic.
‘We have heard from many members that these issues were not just confined to teething troubles in the run up to 30 hours places starting in September when hundreds of parents were unable to get an eligibility code. It is causing ongoing problems.
‘Too many nurseries are saying that they have parents who are struggling both to register and reconfirm their eligibility, something they must do every three months.
'We also had member nurseries who had taken months to be able to register – for one nursery in London it took more than a year before HMRC was able to resolve a simple issue.
‘Our members say that this whole system is causing them a huge amount of administration even when the system goes well.
‘NDNA has been flagging up these issues on a regular basis with HMRC and attends the implementation advisory forum meetings regularly. Despite reassurances from HMRC, these complaints are too commonplace and we are sure this is the tip of the iceberg.
‘It is just not good enough and needs to be resolved urgently.’
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said, ‘It’s incredibly disappointing that the long-running problems with the Government’s Childcare Service still haven’t been resolved.
‘This is an IT system meant to support a flagship Government policy and yet, more than eight months after its launch, we are still hearing reports of parents who cannot do the simplest things – from applying or re-applying for the Tax-Free childcare and 30 hours schemes, to simply accessing their online accounts.
‘This is understandably causing much anger and frustration, something not helped by the Government’s insistence that all is fine with the website despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary.
‘The Government must get a grip on this problem once and for all, and ensure that the system it is asking parents to use is actually fit for purpose.’
A Government spokesperson said, 'More than 325,000 parents have successfully opened a childcare account so far, which will cut thousands of pounds off bills for millions of households and support parents to return to or remain in work.
'30 hours is being delivered successfully all over the country to thousands of parents. In its first term around 202,800 children were in a 30 hours place, with over 305,000 already signed up to access the offer for the current January term.
'The vast majority of parents apply without any issues but we aim to resolve any problems as soon as possible. We have also introduced improvements to the service, including increasing the number of helpline staff, so parents and providers can access support over the phone more quickly.'