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Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman rules that parents should not be charged top-up fees for free childcare.
The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman is urging councils to have better oversight of nurseries offering free early years places, after a nursery chain was found to be charging Leicestershire parents a ‘top-up fee’.
Government guidance states that the free places must be free, but the Ombudsman said Kiddi Caru nursery in Market Harborough charged parents the difference between the amount Leicestershire County Council paid the chain for the places, and the amount they charged private customers. The response came to a parent complaining that he was paying an extra £1.08 per hour for the 30 hours a week that should have been free. Over the space of a year, the man estimated he had been overcharged by around £900.
The Ombudsman’s investigation found Leicestershire County Council did not have sufficient oversight of the way the nursery charged parents when administering the free early years places. The Ombudsman said it had failed to identify any problems with the nursery’s invoices or charges, to work with the nursery to ensure its invoices were clear, transparent and itemised, and to identify the nursery’s charging policy does not comply with government guidance.
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.”
The Early Years Alliance said it understood that the 30 hours policy was meant to be free, but added that the problem was that it was underfunded by government, meaning nurseries were having to deliver places at “an often substantial loss, simply because government refuses to fund its flagship childcare policy adequately”. It called for the government to invest more in the sector.