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The Treasury Committee has called on HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) to improve the quality of its Childcare Service website because its poor performance is causing parents stress.
The committee’s report on the scheme has found that the website, which aims to enable parents to apply for two newly introduced government benefits – tax-free childcare and 30 hours’ free childcare – lacks proper information, and continually crashed last summer.
The website was launched in April 2017, but parents reported repeated technical problems with it, including failed logins and misplaced applications.
The committee initially looked into the issue last summer because it was concerned that parents were struggling to apply for funding due to technical difficulties with the site.
The Treasury Committee was told by HMRC permanent secretary Jon Thompson that between April and August 2017, for a period of 107 days, “the website was down for 160 hours”. This included 15 breakdowns in May, including five consecutive days.
“At one point, the website was down for 15 hours in a row, and that day it had been down for a total of 17 hours,” the report said.
The new benefits are aimed at making it easier for parents to return to work by helping them with childcare costs.
But with the website failing repeatedly throughout the summer of 2017, it caused “stress and inconvenience to thousands”, the report said, adding that uptake of the benefits was 90% lower than first expected.
“Having to close a system for repeated maintenance so soon after it has gone live is unacceptable,” the committee report said. “The government should launch websites only when they are satisfied they are able to cope with the workload expected of them.
“If beta testing phases are necessary, government should plan these so that problems can be resolved prior to full launch.”
As well as problems with downtime, the committee also found that the digital-by-default service lacks proper information.
“The committee received evidence that low take-up can be explained by low awareness among parents of the scheme’s existence,” the report said. It said the system is confusing to use, because parents “are unable to register or reconfirm”, which is causing them stress.
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One-third of nurseries are also struggling with the system, the National Day Nurseries Association said in evidence to the committee.
“One nursery took over a year to register, so their parents were unable to use tax-free childcare to pay for their childcare,” the association told the committee. “Other settings have taken many months to register. Some local authority areas had difficulties with their online provider portals and a further few were complaining of late payments.
“A further issue raised was the inadequate information about tax-free childcare. For instance, the government’s guidance website does not explicitly say that only one parent can open an account per child; but this is the case.”
The committee pointed out that there is a childcare calculator on Gov.uk that allows parents to calculate how much childcare each family can get – but it does not include Universal Credit.
“The government should ensure that its online childcare calculator can take account of Universal Credit entitlements,” the report said.
Back in 2015, the Childcare Service failed its initial assessment by the Government Digital Service (GDS). All new digital services go through a standard assessment – run by GDS at the time, although relaxation of the GDS controls process now means departments can conduct their own assessments.
The August 2015 assessment was intended to establish early progress on developing the tax-free childcare system. GDS assessors highlighted several areas for improvement, and said the HMRC team “did not present an end-to-end service” and lacked certain key skills required for development.
However, a subsequent report in October 2016, as the service passed from the initial “alpha” stage to testing with users in a “private beta”, said it had made successful progress.