Sunak rejects claim nurseries do not have capacity for free childcare plan

Rishi Sunak has dismissed claims nurseries do not have capacity to deliver on a major expansion of free care as concerns were put to him about whether the sector could cope with the influx of children.

The prime minister used a series of interviews to answer doubts over the free childcare policy, which is starting this week with the rollout of 15 hours of free childcare available for working parents of two-year-olds.

Asked directly if everyone who wanted a nursery place would be able to get one if the staff members were not there, Sunak declined to make a firm commitment but said it “took time to build capacity in the sector”.

He pointed to campaigns to encourage more people to work in the sector, including trials of a £1,000 sign-on bonus for early years staff and a move to “cut lots of the red tape involved in being a childminder.”

“We said, look, this is a really big change and we need to take the time to get it right, to give time for the sector to grow and expand and actually that’s why we’re doing it in a methodical way,” he told BBC Radio Tees.

“And, if you look, that is working. Staffing levels in the sector have increased and more people are at work in the sector and the number of places has also increased over the past year as well.”

A year on since the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, announced the childcare policy in last spring’s budget, the early years sector has been warning of a deepening crisis, with many nurseries facing closure as they struggle to balance their books.

Labour is also under pressure to clarify whether it would keep the free hours childcare system, after the party refused to commit to the plan beyond the next election.

The education secretary, Gillian Keegan, was accused on Tuesday by a BBC Breakfast presenter of not telling the truth when she sought to claim that Labour would bring the scheme to a halt.

“The thing that could most impact this system rollout would be if Labour got into power because they have said they will not continue with free childcare,” said Keegan. She was interrupted by the BBC’s Sally Nugent, who told her: “That’s not true” and added that Labour had said they would go into a consultation on the policy.

Speaking on the same channel, the frontbench Labour MP Pat McFadden said Labour had commissioned Sir David Bell, the former chief inspector of Ofsted, to come up with a deliverability plan.

“We want to make sure that people’s entitlement is matched with an actual available place,” said McFadden.

“We’re not proposing to take anyone’s entitlement away, I want to be very very clear about that,” he said, adding that an election was due to take place and Labour wanted Bell to report in time.

Earlier, the prime minister was challenged for attempting to laugh off questions about when the election would take place as he was pressed repeatedly to say the date when he was interviewed by different local radio shows.

When asked by a BBC Radio Tees presenter why he was laughing, Sunak replied: “Because there’s a way that we’ve announced general elections, and it would be done in a formal and official way.”

There had been an expectation that Sunak was planning for an election in October or November. However, there has been speculation in recent days that he could call an election in June or July as a means of closing down a leadership challenge should his party experience disastrous results in next month’s local elections.

The Guardian