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UK Politics

Councils failing to provide childcare, says charity

Parents forced to pay up to £22,000 to private minders as squeezed budgets mean fewer local authority places

The difficulties faced by working parents will be laid bare this week when a new report claims that councils are breaking their legal obligation to offer affordable childcare.

With a shortage of places at nurseries and after-school clubs, and insufficient childminders available, some parents are forced to spend as much as £22,000-a-year on private childcare while they are at work.

The Daycare Trust will use its 10th annual childcare survey to reveal the extent to which the problem is being exacerbated by inaction from local authorities. It comes amid growing concern that some benefits cuts will make it less financially viable for parents to take a job or increase their hours.

According to the Daycare Trust, parents reported a lack of childcarein 60 per cent of areas, up from 58 per cent the previous year. Only 12 per cent of authorities believe there is sufficient childcare for parents who work outside normal office hours.

The situation worsens the older children get, with fewer than one in seven authorities stating there is sufficient childcare for young teenagers [12- to 14-year-olds]. Nearly a quarter of local authorities (23 per cent) admit that there is not enough childcare for 12- to 14-year-olds or disabled children. And a minority have sufficient childcare across their area for under-twos (36 per cent), three- to four-year-olds (42 per cent), and five- to 11-year-olds (28 per cent).

Anand Shukla, acting chief executive of the Daycare Trust, said: "The findings show widespread failure by local authorities to provide adequate childcare. Councils have a duty to ensure that parents can access local childcare. Yet when we see [only] 14 per cent of local authorities confirming they have sufficient childcare in place for 12- to 14-year- olds, and just 11 per cent have enough childcare for disabled children, this legal obligation is clearly not being met."

He added: "It is alarming that such a low number of local authorities have the necessary childcare in place for five- to 11-year-olds. Very few jobs are available for parents who work just during school hours. This lack of wraparound childcare is a huge barrier to employment for many parents, and for lone parents in particular."

The charity is calling on local authorities to prioritise early years and childcare services when finalising their budget decisions for 2011/12 in the coming weeks. The trust also raised concerns about the impact of cuts in benefits on the ability of parents to return to work. From April, the proportion of childcare costs that can be received through the working tax credit is being cut from 80 to 70 per cent. Families with two or more children will lose up to £1,560.

Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, will be questioned by a select committee this week over his proposals for a single universal credit to replace a raft of benefits. It is not yet clear if the Government will include childcare in the new system, which campaigners warn could leave some families worse off after taking on work.

The universal credit would "inevitably mean even less support for childcare costs for those working longer hours", according to Save the Children. And Family Action warned that cuts affecting childcare would undermine incentives for people to look for work.

Anne Begg, the Labour MP and chair of the select committee, said there were also concerns that the government's pledge that the switch to the universal credit in 2013 will not lead to cash losers will be undermined by cuts to benefits before that date.

A government source said: "The informing principle of the universal credit is to make work pay, and our response to the childcare question will embody the best aspects of the universal credit. On top of existing discretionary powers, in due course we will bring forth a solution that gives parents greater flexibility, choice and support than they currently receive. It is vital that we provide strong work incentives, whilst enabling parents to carry out the most crucial job of all – taking care of their children."