A large number of parents have been hit by technical problems which continue to dog the Government's new 'Childcare Service' website, a survey of more than 300 of the site's users reveals with some parents forced to pay twice for childcare and others left facing childminders' fines.
MoneySavingExpert.com revealed last month that parents faced technical problems when using the site to sign up for the new Tax-Free Childcare and 30 hours of free childcare schemes, which began accepting applications in late April.
And despite HM Revenue & Customs which runs the site insisting the glitches have been largely resolved, we continue to hear of parents struggling to log on, use the site or access money they've put into their accounts to pay for childcare, with one mum telling us she's tried 41 times since the start of June. If you're having problems with the website, see full info below on what to try for yourself.
MoneySavingExpert and parenting website Netmums have conducted a joint survey of parents who've used the site and found over two-thirds have encountered technical problems all or most of the time, while just 18% of those who managed to set up an account were able to use it without any problems.
While the survey's only a snapshot based on a small sample, and those who've had problems with the site would have been more likely to complete it, the findings are the first indication of the scale of the problems that have been anecdotally reported for weeks.
We launched the survey to gauge the extent of the problem after HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) repeatedly refused to give any figures for the number of users who've had difficulties. While it's impossible to extrapolate our survey's findings to the wider population, 10,000s are known to have opened accounts via the site and the survey suggests a significant number may have encountered technical problems.
See our Childcare Costs Help guide for more on how the Tax-Free Childcare and 30 hours of free childcare schemes work.
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'I've had to pay twice for childcare and lost the £77 I would have saved'
Since we last reported complaints from parents at the start of this month we're continuing to get a stream of complaints from MoneySavers.
- Jayne Hynes, mum to a three-year-old, says she tried to obtain an eligibility code for the 30 hours of free childcare 41 times in the first 10 days of June. Her problem was only resolved yesterday after a 45-minute phone call with HMRC.
- Katie Stanley emailed us on 7 June: "I have been trying several times a day for the last week but get the same error message saying the site is having technical difficulties. All the time we're waiting we are losing out financially and when it is working I'm worried about future payments and getting charged if I'm late with fees."
- Tina Haigh from east London said: "They wasted a week fobbing me off implying that the problem was with my device/browser. Finally, when they did admit the problem, they promised nine times that the nursery would be paid. Nine times they weren't."
Tina says after putting money into her account and being unable to access it, she was forced to pay her nursery and childminder separately. "So this month not only have I effectively had to pay twice for childcare, I also lost the £77 I would normally have saved through the salary sacrifice scheme."
- Emily Hardy from Dartford, Kent, said she has had to find more money to pay her childcare bills because of the issues. "My total childcare costs are £1,634 per month. There's not much of my wage left after the costs... I am starting to use credit cards to get by now.
"I have phoned the childcare service helpline around eight times and spent about 30 minutes on each call. Each time I am told that they have raised a ticket for the issue or that a manager will call me back. No one ever does."
- And Gavin Jones from Ruislip, Middlesex, told us today (Friday 16 June): "I have just come off the phone from another wasted 30-minute call to the helpline where I have been through the same hoops again attempting to get my childcare provider to show up correctly in the system.
"Even though I have seen my childminder log in, it says she's not registered. Because she IS registered she can't even attempt to re-register!"
What the survey shows
Some 325 parents who've used the site completed the survey.
Just 13% of respondents told us they'd had no technical problems using the site, while 64% said they'd encountered issues all or most of the time.
Other findings were:
- Twenty-six per cent of those who tried to set up an account were unable to because of technical difficulties.
- Of those who did manage to set up an account, just 18% found they were able to use it OK (eg, to pay a childcare provider). Forty-two per cent managed to use it OK but only after encountering technical problems and 29% couldn't use it due to technical problems.
- Of those who contacted the website's helpline after encountering technical problems, 75% still haven't had their problem resolved.
- Asked to rate their experience of the website on a scale from one (extremely bad) to 10 (fantastic), 70% gave a score of three or under.
What can you do if affected?
While HMRC insists the issues have been largely resolved, if you're still having problems, you have to keep trying as the accounts can't be opened by phone or post.
HMRC says anyone with an account who is experiencing problems can call its dedicated helpline on 0300 123 4097. It's open 8am to 8pm Monday to Friday, 8am to 4pm on Saturday and 10am to 4pm on Sundays and bank holidays.
We asked HMRC about compensation for those charged late fees by childminders. A spokesperson told us: "We have measures in place to ensure that nobody ends up out of pocket."
What does HMRC say?
HMRC refused to answer a series of specific questions regarding the number of people who've opened accounts via the site, the number of complaints filed, the number of people unable to access their money and the number of calls to the website's helpline.
However, an HMRC spokesperson said: "We are sorry that some parents and childcare providers have been experiencing difficulties with the online childcare service... We've now made significant improvements based on customer feedback. Over the last week the service has been available all of the time aside from brief overnight updates, and we continue to make updates to improve the customer experience.
"Currently more than 2,500 parents are applying successfully on average every day. Parents who have had confirmation they are eligible and have an account should be able to make payments without problems.
"Sometimes we do need to make further checks to confirm parents are eligible. We are now prioritising these cases where parents are waiting to hear about their application, particularly those who have applied for 30 hours of childcare."