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Labour under pressure to say whether it would keep free hours childcare system

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

A shadow cabinet minister said on Monday that Labour “will not reduce” the number of free childcare hours parents were entitled to in England if it entered government.

But a Labour spokesperson told the Guardian that while the party would not cut back any of the entitlements already introduced, it had not made any commitments about its offer after the election. Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, has written to her opposite number, Bridget Phillipson, pressuring her to clarify.

“Labour has been clear: we will not take away entitlements,” a Labour spokesperson said in a statement on Monday evening.

The shadow minister Nick Thomas-Symonds told Times Radio that morning: “The entitlement that parents have been promised, we will not reduce if we are privileged to form the next Labour government.

“The point that Bridget Phillipson was making, and this is why we are making this point to the government today, is just because you introduce an entitlement doesn’t guarantee that the places are available.

“That is what we are urging the chancellor of the exchequer who announced this scheme last year to do today, actually make the entitlement a reality.”

The education secretary said she was disappointed Phillipson had criticised the scheme and said the Conservatives’ free hours model should be scrapped.

As of 1 April, parents of two-year-olds are eligible for 15 hours of government-funded childcare a week during term time. This will be extended to working parents of all children older than nine months from September.

The government has promised 30 free hours a week to all eligible families from September 2025, well after the next election, which is expected this autumn. Labour has not specified whether it would roll out the 30 free hours or overhaul the system completely.

The government’s plans were announced by Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, as the central offer in the budget last year.

In a letter to Phillipson and the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, Keegan said: “Parents have told me that they are now uncertain whether they should go back to work, grow their families, or take a promotion, because they don’t know if they will still have this childcare provision.

“Will the Labour party commit to supporting our policy of giving working parents 30 hours free childcare a week from when their child is nine months old to when they start school? If not, how would you make up for the 60,000 fewer people in work that our policy will support?”

With Labour leading the Conservatives by 20 points in the polls, childcare has become a major political battleground. Nurseries have warned they could still “go bust” with many facing “no choice” but to limit the number of new funded places they offer. Parents have voiced concern about the uncertainty about the future of the policy.

Phillipson has been critical of the free hours scheme. “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 in a speech to the thinktank Onward last spring. “What we need is not tinkering, but a bold and ambitious vision of how things can be better.”

At the end of March, Phillipson told BBC Two’s Newsnight programme that Labour was not committed to the government’s £4bn plan. The party has commissioned a review of childcare led by the former Ofsted head David Bell and is awaiting its conclusions.

A Labour spokesperson said: “This is yet another pathetic attempt by the Conservatives to distract attention from the chaos that we now see unfolding in our childcare system on the day the new system of entitlements begins.

“The Conservatives have no plan to deliver the entitlements they have offered this year, let alone from 2025, and they still cannot guarantee parents will receive what the chancellor promised them in the 2023 budget.

“Labour has been clear: we will not take away entitlements. We have asked Sir David Bell to lead a review into delivering a more effective childcare system, far from the shambles that the Conservatives have created.”

A Tory source said: “The fact Labour has no plan is a dividing line here.”