Parents signed up to the new Tax-Free Childcare scheme have told MoneySavingExpert.com they're unable to access money they've put into it and are struggling to pay nurseries and childminders, as massive technical problems continue to dog the site more than a month after it launched.
We've seen more than 20 separate reports in the last few days alone of parents who've managed to open an account and pay money into the scheme, only to find technical glitches have prevented them accessing the cash.
Some have had to find more money to pay outstanding childcare bills, while others have told us they risk being fined by their childcare providers as payment has not reached nurseries and childminders in time.
Under the Tax-Free Childcare scheme, which can only be applied for online, for every 80p a parent places into newly created accounts to save towards childcare, the state adds 20p – up to a value of £2,000 per child per year. Parents then choose which registered provider they want to pay and choose how much to pay and when – see full details in our Tax-Free Childcare guide.
MoneySavingExpert first revealed the 'Childcare Service' site was experiencing major technical problems three weeks ago, and despite HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) insisting it was fixing the problem, we continue to be flooded with complaints from parents struggling to use the site.
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'We're being penalised with late fees through no fault of our own'
Here are a few of the many complaints we've seen from parents:
Alison Fletcher told us she's been unable to access the account she set up, and faces being fined because she cannot pay her childminder using money deposited in the account.
She emailed earlier this week: "It took me days to set up an account, then another few days to transfer the money in. [HMRC] now has my money but neither of us can access it to pay the childminder. I am going to be fined if the money does not reach her today.
"I have emailed and phoned the helpline but they say there is nothing they can do because it is not working from their end either. There are lots of parents in the same position. We are being penalised with late fees through no fault of our own. I was told my complaint would be urgently referred but would take at least 10 to 15 days."
- Stella Andretta-Costa from Watford told us that the help offered after she complained about problems with the website was "complete and utter rubbish" and that she needed to pay her childminder this week from money she's put into the account.
"I now have to transfer more money for my poor childminder to pay her bills while I am waiting to get access to the money," she said. "Since 25 May I have called [the helpline] every day, three times a day and have tried about 10 times a day to get on the website, even at night. All this because I feel bad my childminder is not getting her money and mine is tied up on their site."
- Richard Morrison said he'd paid in over £700 to his account and has not been able to access it since.
He said: "Where's my money? It's now inaccessible to me. I'm now going to have to find the money from elsewhere because the nursery payment is due. So I'm lending the Government money!"
- Rachael Jenner told us that she's repeatedly tried to log in to her account over the last few weeks, having already made payments into it, but each time there were technical errors preventing her from doing so. "I will have to pay my childcare fees direct now as I cannot leave my nursery out of pocket," she said.
- Erin Graham said the website problems had prevented her setting up a regular payment to her childcare provider, and added: "What if I can't pay my childcare provider and my child can't go to nursery?"
If you're experiencing problems with the site, let us know by emailing email@example.com.
What to try if your money's 'trapped' in your Tax-Free Childcare account
HMRC, which runs the site, says anyone who's opened an account and is experiencing problems or struggling to make payments can call its dedicated helpline on 0300 123 4097.
A spokesperson told us it is possible to top up your account or ask HMRC to pay childcare providers from the account by phone – though some MoneySavers have told us that when they've called the helpline, HMRC staff have been equally unable to access the system.
We asked HMRC if those who've deposited money in an account and are now unable to pay their childcare costs will be compensated for any late fees they may be charged. A spokesperson told us: "We have measures in place to ensure that nobody ends up out of pocket."
We've asked for clarification of what expenses will be covered by this and how to go about claiming for costs, and will update this story when we know more.
Problems must be solved 'as a matter of urgency'
Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association, told MoneySavingExpert that it was essential HMRC sort out the problems before a Government advertising campaign to encourage more parents to apply for the scheme – which the trade body understands is currently scheduled for immediately after next week's election – gets underway.
"HMRC must ensure they resolve problems with the website as a matter of urgency and reassure parents and providers," she said.
What does HMRC say?
An HMRC spokesperson refused to disclose how many people have so far opened a Tax-Free Childcare account, citing so-called 'purdah' rules which limit the information that Government bodies can release during an election campaign.
HMRC previously told MoneySavingExpert it's unable to say how many complaints they have received about the website, as complaints about the site are not recorded separately from complaints about other HMRC services.
A spokesperson said: "We are sorry that some parents and childcare providers have been experiencing difficulties with the childcare service. We are working hard to improve the service."