Ministers delay childcare voucher closure after appeals by DUP

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Ministers have announced a six-month delay on plans to end a system of childcare vouchers after representations by the DUP.

Education Secretary Damian Hinds made the concession at the end of a Commons debate called by Labour, after a question from DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly.

Employer-backed childcare vouchers are being phased out and replaced by a new system of tax-free childcare.

However, MPs heard that the take-up of tax-free childcare has been well below expectations, with nearly £1 billion earmarked for childcare returned to the Treasury.

The DUP, whose 10 MPs usually back the Government in major votes, has in the past opposed the abolition of the vouchers.

Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s leader at Westminster, could be seen talking with Tory chief whip Julian Smith moments before Mr Hinds made the announcement.

Emma Little-Pengelly
DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly (Parliament TV)

Belfast South MP Ms Little-Pengelly said: “Could the Secretary of State agree with me that, given the concerns raised across this House in relation to the April closure of the childcare voucher scheme, that there should be a delay on the closure of that scheme, to allow for the concerns to be addressed?”

Mr Hinds replied: “I have heard the concerns that have been raised about this and the timing, and I can confirm that we will be able to keep the voucher scheme open for a further six months to new entrants, following representations that she has made.”

Ms Little-Pengelly later asked if the minister could confirm the delay “will be used to address concerns and issues raised” in the Commons.

Mr Hinds said he had “already confirmed” that “we would have this period in order to reflect concerns”.

Labour’s move to oppose the changes was defeated by 314 votes to 285, majority 29.

The proposal on childcare vouchers was one of four policies which Labour pushed to a vote.

Much of the debate focussed on plans to introduce a means test for families on Universal Credit to receive free school meals.

All families on Universal Credit are currently able to claim free school meals, as part of a package of measures to help the transition to the new benefits system.

In England the net earnings threshold will be £7,400 whereas in Northern Ireland it will be £14,000, MPs heard.

Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner accused the Government of “pulling the rug” from underneath hundreds of thousands of poorer families with the changes.

She added: “The current system would help over a million more children than under the plans we would vote on today.”

But a number of Tory MPs accused Ms Rayner of “scaremongering”, with the Government’s proposals set to see 50,000 more children benefit from free school meals by 2022 compared to the old benefits system.

Tory former leader Iain Duncan Smith, who led the Universal Credit reforms, said: “Transitional protection was designed to protect those moving from tax credits into Universal Credit so they did not, if it happened to be the case, lose any money in the transition.

“It was not about increasing, to the degree that she’s talking about, the number of those who’d receive free school meals.”

The Government won the vote on this policy by 312 votes to 254, majority 58.

Ministers also won votes on proposed changes to free childcare and further changes to Universal Credit.