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Call for more transparency on childcare fee "top-ups"

By Rachel Lawlerchild doodling free childcare top up fee

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has called on local authorities to have better oversight of the charging practices of childcare providers following an investigation into “top-up” fees.

The Ombudsman found that Leicestershire County Council did not have sufficient oversight of how providers were handling fees associated with the government’s funded childcare offers, following a parent complaint.

Top-up fees
The parent contacted the Ombudsman and reported being charged an extra £1.08 per hour for the 30 hours childcare offer.

After an investigation, the Ombudsman said that the county council had “failed to identify problems” when auditing the setting and should have worked with the provider to “ensure its invoices were clear, transparent and itemised”.

Free to parents
Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said: “While I acknowledge local authorities - and the early years sector - are struggling financially, the government's intentions have always been that these places are provided free of charge to parents, and it is up to local authorities to administer them accordingly.

“Guidance states that councils should work with providers to ensure invoices are clear, transparent and itemised. Free must mean free, but in this case it was not possible for the man to see how the invoice was calculated or whether his daughter was receiving her entitlement free of charge.

“We are concerned that local authorities may not be delivering on the government’s pledge to parents, so I would urge other councils across the country to check their processes to ensure providers in their area are not making the same errors.”

Clear invoices and receipts  
The Ombudsman said that the local authority should apologise to the parent and “take whatever action needed to ensure the man and any other parents who have been charged a top-up fee by the nursery receive their money back”.

It added that the authority would need to ensure that all parents using the nursery to access funded hours should receive “clear, transparent and itemised invoices and receipts”.

Severe underfunding
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Alliance, commented: “While we fully support the principle of 'free' childcare and early education, and recognise the valuable role that it plays in supporting families across the country, the fact is that this policy has been severely underfunded for several years now, and this is putting many early years providers in an impossible position.

"Parents rightly do not expect to pay for something they have been told is free, but equally, it cannot be right that nurseries, pre-schools and childminders are expected to deliver these places at an often substantial loss, simply because government refuses to fund its flagship childcare policy adequately.

"If government is truly committed to ensuring that parents can access genuinely free early years places, then it needs to invest what is needed into the sector. With the additional financial impact of Covid on providers, this is more vital, and more urgent, than ever."