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FREE CHILDCARE: Durham County Council reviews called to review arrangements

FREE CHILDCARE: Durham County Council reviews called to review arrangements

Fears of overcharging at children’s nurseries have been downplayed by county chiefs.

Earlier this year (January 28) regulators urged local authorities to ensure ‘free must mean free’ in relation to government-guaranteed childcare provision.

But following this, bosses in County Durham have attempted to reassure families that processes are in place to prevent them being hit with unnecessary bills.

Richard Crane, head of education and skills at Durham County Council, said: “Although we receive occasional informal requests from parents to check their costs, we have not received any formal complaints regarding incorrect charges for early years provisions.

“Our funding team carries out regular audits with our early years providers which includes checking the invoicing for early years entitlement.

“Our team examines copies of invoices to confirm the FFE [flexible funded entitlement] is shown as free, which eliminates the possibility of a ‘top up’.

“Early education funding is also discussed regularly at meetings for the early years sector, where we provide guidance on what the acceptable additional charges are, and how to break down the costs.

“Through this, we can ensure that parents are not over or wrongly charged for nursery care provisions.”

The county council’s statement to parents was prompted by a probe by the  Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman.

It followed the realisation by a father in Leicestershire who was charged about £900 in ‘top up fees’ for childcare which should have been free.

Last year (April 2020) rules giving working parents up to 30 hours free childcare per week for three- and four-year-olds were relaxed to try and ensure pandemic restrictions did not affect access to nursery provision.

Michael King, the 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.”

Words: James Harrison, Local Democracy Reporter

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