Childcare in the spotlight at the Senedd

Published 19/01/2024   |   Reading Time minutes

While considerable strides have been made in childcare provision and early education in Wales, the persisting challenge of ensuring straightforward, equitable access to high-quality and affordable childcare remains a pressing concern.

That’s the view of Oxfam Cymru and the Make Care Fair Coalition following their recent research. In it they say that childcare costs are ‘forcing Welsh parents into poverty and putting them off having more children’.

Given these findings, it is no surprise that entitlement to free and subsidised early years childcare will again be the focus of debate in the Senedd when two petitions on this topic are discussed on 31 January. This debate will follow on from the Equality and Social Justice Committee’s launch of its follow up inquiry into Childcare at the beginning of the year.

The current childcare system in Wales is complex. We also know there are plans for more free provision to be delivered to different groups of children in different ways through the expansion of both the Childcare Offer and Flying Start childcare. With access to this childcare depending on eligibility, it can make it difficult for parents and carers to understand and navigate their entitlements. Our new Frequently Asked Questions document aims to explain more about the current position and what’s changing.

Why is childcare in the spotlight?

Childcare costs in the UK are some of the highest in the world and rising, taking up a high percentage of household incomes. The Coram Family and Childcare Survey 2023 surveyed local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales and says:

As soaring price rises and cost of living pressures start to bite, the high cost of childcare has become unmanageable for families. Many are left in the paradoxical situation where they cannot afford not to work, but childcare costs mean that they also cannot afford to work.

Welsh local authorities have legal duties to make sure there is enough childcare in their areas and to provide information, advice and assistance relating to childcare to parents and carers. Yet the Coram survey found that:

In Wales, there are still some gaps in availability, with no local authorities reporting enough childcare right across the borough for disabled children, parents working atypical hours and families living in rural areas.

Our publication on Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) in Wales: An introduction said:

[…] increasing accessibility, affordability and most importantly raising quality, can be a daunting task when public budgets are tight. As a result, policy makers face difficult decisions in prioritising resources between targeted and universal services, and between policy options that primarily support child development and those designed to enhance parental employability.

Our follow up publication on ECEC Policy Development found a range of motivating factors for delivering quality free childcare including the benefits for the child’s own development alongside the aim of getting more parents, particularly women, back to work. Longer term, the aim is for this to positively impact labour market participation and employment rates, help to tackle the gender pay gap, promote gender equality, reduce the ‘motherhood penalty and overall to deliver economic benefits.

What have Senedd Committees been looking into?

Senedd Committees have been looking at different aspects of childcare:

  • In 2022, the Equality and Social Justice Committee (ESJ) published a report on childcare and parental employment. It’s follow up inquiry has just been launched, and will start taking evidence towards the end of February.
  • Welsh Government did not agree with the recommendation in the ESJ Committee’s 2023 report on child poverty that it should fund expanded childcare provision in Wales using the extra money it will get from increased childcare spending in England as a result of the Barnett Formula. The Welsh Government’s position was restated to the Children, Young People and Education Committee (CYPE) during its scrutiny of the Draft Budget 2024-25.
  • Since May 2023, the CYPE Committeehas been looking into childcare and education access for disabled children and young people. It has looked at a range of areas, including “the barriers for schools and childcare providers in offering accessible provision”. Its conclusions are expected in the coming months, but it has already set out in detail the impact that a lack of accessible childcare can have on a parent / carers’ ability to work.


The two Senedd petitions that will be discussed in Plenary later this month call on Welsh Government to:

In response the Deputy Minister for Social Services, Julie Morgan MS, has said that:

The Childcare Offer is available to eligible families of 3- to 4-year-old children and provides support for 48 weeks per year, compared to England’s 38 week Offer.”

The Deputy Minister also said:

You will be aware of the written statement which the First Minister issued in August, about the significant pressures Welsh Government is currently facing, consequently we are not currently in a position to confirm any new developments to childcare and how we will support families with childcare costs in the future.

Comparisons have been made between the free childcare offers in Wales and England. This follows a commitment by the UK Government in 2023 to provide free childcare to children of eligible working parents from the age of 9 months by 2025.

There is concern about how this commitment will be delivered with analysis suggesting the ‘nursery sector risks being damaged by large corporate takeovers’. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests the ‘15-hour free entitlement has delivered fairly underwhelming results’ in England in terms of children’s outcomes and getting parents back to work. Referring to research it says:

[…] many families were already using (and paying for) childcare even before the entitlements were brought in. For these families, this means that the free entitlement functioned as a transfer (saving them money they would otherwise have spent on childcare fees), but did not necessarily substantially change their childcare decisions – and so it may not be surprising to find that the entitlement itself did not have major effects on parents’ or children’s outcomes.

The First Minister has rejected comparisons with England, saying:

[…] what we see is an attempt in England to catch up with services that are already available here in Wales. It's quite certainly not the other way around.

Further information

This Frequently Asked Questions document provides an overview of childcare entitlement in Wales and England, and also signposts to other sources of information and support.

Article by Isabel Lang and Sian Thomas, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament

Senedd Research acknowledges the parliamentary fellowship provided to Isabel Lang by the Economic and Social Research Council.