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 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 Ombudsman was contacted by a concerned parent, who said the amount he was charged for his daughter’s care suggested 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 over-charged 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. It had audited the nursery and failed to identify any problems with the nursery’s invoices or charges. It failed to work with the nursery to ensure its invoices were clear, transparent and itemised, and failed 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 Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman’s role is to remedy injustice and share learning from investigations to help improve public, and adult social care, services. In this case the council should apologise to the man and take whatever action needed to ensure the man and any other parents who have been charged a top-up fee by the nursery receive their money back. Parents should be issued with clear statements.
It should also ensure all parents attending the nursery claiming their free early education entitlement receive clear, transparent and itemised invoices and receipts.
The Ombudsman has the power to make recommendations to improve processes for the wider public. In this case the council should review the arrangements for invoicing and charging at all other providers of the free early education entitlement to ensure they comply with the law and government guidance.