Northern Ireland news

Ministers delay childcare voucher closure after appeals by DUP

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

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.

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."

A spokesperson for Employers For Childcare said she cautiously welcomed the six-month extension.

Aoife Hamilton, Policy and Information Manager for Employers For Childcare said: "Today’s outcome is a culmination of months and months of lobbying not just by Employers For Childcare, but by parents, employers, charities and others throughout the UK”. 

“Our work doesn’t stop here. After today’s Vote, we will continue to work constructively with MPs to secure the long-term provision of Childcare Vouchers as part of a comprehensive package of childcare support for working families.” 

Meanwhile, MPs heard that families on Universal Credit who want to claim free school meals will be means-tested.

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

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