Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt poses with the red Budget Box as he leaves 11 Downing Street in central London on March 15, 2023, to present the government´s annual budget to Parliament. — AFP

LONDON: UK finance minister Jeremy Hunt announced Wednesday that most working parents in England will be offered 30 hours of free childcare for their under-fives, to ease cost-of-living pressures on families.

The policy, part of the government’s tax and spending plans unveiled in the budget, will eventually apply for 38 weeks of the year, from when a child is nine-months-old until they start school aged around five.

It comes alongside a host of childcare measures aimed at encouraging more women back into the workplace — or to remain working — after having children, while better funding the sector.

Childcare costs in the UK are among the highest in the 38-nation OECD, accounting for nearly a third (29%) of a family’s income compared to just 9% in France.

“We have one of the most expensive systems in the world,” Hunt told MPs as he delivered his budget in parliament.

“For many women, a career break becomes a career end,” he added, noting almost half of the non-working mothers said they would prefer to work if they could arrange suitable childcare.

The new 30-hour provision will be rolled out in stages and brings it into line with Scotland and Wales, where childcare policy is set by the devolved governments in Edinburgh and Cardiff.

All parents of two-year-olds who work at least 16 hours will be able to access 15 hours per week from April next year.

It will expand to the same eligible working parents of children aged from nine months to three years old from September 2024, with a further expansion a year after that.

Hunt said the package was worth on average £6,500 ($7,844) every year for a family with a two-year-old child using 35 hours of weekly childcare and would reduce their childcare costs by nearly 60%.

Other new measures announced include piloting incentive payments of up to £1,200 for childminders who sign up for the profession, and increasing funding paid to nurseries providing free childcare.

Optional minimum staff-to-child ratios will also rise from 1:4 to 1:5 for two-year-olds in England, mirroring the situation in Scotland.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of parents on the “Universal Credit” benefits system could see their childcare costs paid for upfront, instead of having to be reclaimed.

The government is also aiming for all schools in England to offer so-called wrap-around care on either side of the school day for children by September 2026 through extra funding, Hunt said.

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