Energy crisis hitting the early learning and childcare sector hard
In September, the UK Government announced support for non-domestic customers facing rising energy bills – called the Energy Bill Relief Scheme. The support applies across the UK, although there is a specific scheme for Northern Ireland. Through these schemes, customers are receiving relief on their energy bills from 1 October 2022 to 31 March 2023, as a discount on gas and electricity unit prices, automatically applied to eligible bills.
The scheme applies to businesses, charities and public sector organisations such as schools and care homes.
In his Autumn Statement, the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt advised that, from April 2023, the scale of support offered by the Government will reduce and will be more targeted towards ‘vulnerable’ industries, however further detail is still the be announced. We, and others across the sector, are calling for this targeting to include continued support for our vital early years and childcare sector.
Recent research from the Early Years Alliance in England found that seven in ten nurseries and pre-schools said they would have no option but to increase their fees without additional financial support towards rising energy costs, and more than one in ten said they would be forced to close.
Even before the cost of living crisis hit, providers and parents were struggling in the absence of sufficient funding for the sector. The situation has only worsened since then. Childcare providers are particularly vulnerable to the increase in energy costs, as they are required to maintain their settings to a particular temperature, whilst also ensuring appropriate ventilation.
In Northern Ireland, work is ongoing to develop a new Early Learning and Childcare Strategy – which must see significant and ambitious investment directed into the sector. However, in the meantime, providers have reached crisis point and the challenges they are facing – continually rising bills, staff recruitment and retention challenges to name but a few – continue to mount.
The absence of funding for the sector in Northern Ireland means rising costs for providers can only be met through increasing fees for parents, or the sustainability of the setting is at threat and we will see further closures. Each closure of a childcare setting leaves a gap in the heart of a community, and impacts directly on:
- the staff, who have lost their job
- the children, who were benefiting from the early education and care in the setting
- the parents, who require affordable childcare to be able to work
- employers, who need their employees who are parents to be able to access childcare
- society and our economy as a whole.
More support is needed now to provide some level of security to childcare providers at this critical time – and that includes guaranteeing continued support through the Energy Bill Relief Scheme beyond 31 March 2023.