Labour has said it will “move away” from the current system of free childcare hours, but refused to provide details of how it would replace it.
In a keynote speech hosted by the Onward think-tank on Thursday, Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson pledged that an incoming Labour administration would undertake a root-and-branch overhaul of the “broken” childcare system, which she said was failing parents and children across the country.
“I do believe that we need to move away from the system that we have right now – that broken hours model isn’t working,” she said. “What we need is not tinkering, but a bold and ambitious vision of how things can be better.”
However, the Shadow Education Secretary was sparse on the specifics of how Labour would replace the current programme, saying the party “will be looking in the months ahead at what that different model will involve”.
Ms Phillipson said Labour’s fresh vision for childcare would begin with rolling out free breakfast clubs in every primary school – a policy first announced during the Labour Party Conference last year.
She reasoned that the UK was “still some way off” from the next general election in less than two years’ time, and that Labour still had time to draw up a “cost-funded plan” for a new childcare system for England.
“Childcare and family are the politics of the electoral battle ahead,” said Ms Phillipson, as she declared that “Labour is the party of family”.
In response, Tory MPs said Ms Phillipson’s speech showed Labour had “no plan” for fixing England’s childcare system.
Claire Coutinho, the children’s minister, said: “Just yesterday Labour admitted that their childcare ideas are totally uncosted – completely undermining [Sir Keir] Starmer’s fiscal promises. They have no plan for Britain.
“All they are proposing is the same old Labour ideas of more spending and more borrowing. The Conservatives have ensured that every three-and four-year-old gets 15 hours of free childcare, with more support available for working families and the disadvantaged.”
Under the current childcare system, working parents of three-and-four-year-olds in England are entitled to 15 hours free childcare a week for 38 weeks a year.
Many children are entitled to an additional 15 hours, taking the total to 30 hours a week, if their parents work more than 16 hours a week and earn less than £100,000 a year.
Some two-year-olds in England, such as those whose parents receive certain social security payments and some disabled children, are also entitled to 15 hours a week of free childcare for 38 weeks a year.
However, the hours are rarely free in reality, since childcare providers are allowed to charge extra for things such as meals and nappies, with some also setting a minimum number of days a week children must attend the nursery to be eligible.
It means that for most childcare settings in England the cost of providing “free childcare” is significantly higher than the funding received from the Government, placing providers under financial strain or forcing them to hike prices for non-funded hours.
Senior Tory MPs urged Rishi Sunak to cut the cost of childcare in next week’s Budget amid fears that soaring prices are preventing women from returning to the workplace after giving birth.
Childcare in England, which differs from systems in place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, is currently the second-most expensive among developed nations.
However, the Prime Minister is yet to unveil his vision for fixing the current system, and is understood to be reluctant to introduce measures proposed by his predecessor Liz Truss.
Ms Truss had proposed relaxing childcare ratios to allow providers to take on more children, plus increasing the amount of free childcare to up to 50 hours a week.
But speaking on Thursday, Ms Phillipson said “tweaking the system we have will not deliver the ambition or scale of reform we need”.
“More free hours for parents means more underfunded hours for nurseries, more costs piled on to providers struggling to deliver services as they are now, and more need for cross-subsidy,” she said.
“Adding in more free hours could see the Conservatives crash the childcare market, just like they crashed the economy.”
The Shadow Education Secretary added that Labour would look abroad for inspiration, including to Estonia, where childcare is integrated into the education system.
She said the party was unlikely to bring back the Sure Start programme introduced under Tony Blair and cut back during David Cameron’s premiership, claiming it would amount to “simply winding back the clock”.
Charities have urged both parties to draw up fully-funded plans for overhauling the current childcare system, amid fears that skyrocketing costs are pricing parents out of the workforce.
It comes after a survey published by the charity Coram Family and Childcare on Thursday found that just 73 per cent of councils in England and Wales had enough places for the universal 15 hours a week free childcare entitlement for three and four-year-olds, down from 79 per cent last year.
It also found that the average annual cost of a full-time nursery place for a child under two in Britain is now £14,836 a year – up 5.9 per cent in the past year.
A Parliamentary inquiry into the cost of childcare will report findings and recommendations in the autumn.
A Government spokesperson said: “The number of childcare places available to families in England has remained broadly stable since 2015 and standards remain high, with 96% of providers rated good or outstanding.
“We recognise that families and early years providers across the country are facing financial pressures, which is why we have spent more than £20bn over the past five years to support families with the cost of childcare.”