More than a third (36 per cent) of HR professionals are unaware of upcoming changes to the childcare voucher scheme, despite significant reforms coming into force in just six months.
The survey of 129 People Management readers also revealed that, although 90 per cent worked for an organisation that ran a childcare voucher scheme, just one in three (36 per cent) had done something to make staff aware of the changes.
From April 2018, childcare voucher schemes will be closing to new applicants. Employees who have already signed up to a company’s scheme will be eligible to keep receiving vouchers, but they will not be able to rejoin the programme if they leave and will not be able to join their new employer’s scheme if they change jobs.
Although the vouchers are essentially being replaced by tax-free childcare, the two schemes do not operate in exactly the same way and some parents would be worse off financially if they ditched their vouchers in favour of the new system.
“This is a major change and should be communicated like any other change,” Jo Thresher, director of Better With Money, told People Management. “Employers may want to address it as part of a review of their family-friendly working policies. Explaining the difference between the two schemes… is vital to helping employees make decisions.”
Mubeen Bhutta, head of policy and communications at Working Families, said: “These new figures show that working parents are at risk of missing out because of gaps in communication about changes to childcare support.”
The People Management survey suggested that employees might be unaware of the reforms. A quarter (24 per cent) of those surveyed said they thought none of their staff were aware the schemes would close to new applicants, and three-quarters (78 per cent) said nobody had approached them with questions about the changes.
Meanwhile, 86 per cent believed that HR should be responsible for making sure employees are aware of the changes. Four in five (80 per cent) said the government should be responsible, and a third (32 per cent) said employees themselves should take charge of keeping themselves up to speed.
“HR could use this as a positive engagement opportunity to understand their working families’ needs and where they can help,” Thresher said. “With gender pay reporting on the horizon, maternity support is a key time to engage and retain female talent.”
HR professionals are also concerned that the changes might create problems for their working parents. Half (52 per cent) said they were slightly worried the changes would make it more difficult for staff with children to arrange and pay for childcare, while 29 per cent said they were very worried.
"I share the concerns on affordability of childcare for working parents as some will be financially better off under this scheme than under the new tax-free childcare scheme, and parents have to choose one scheme or the other, as they the cannot be in both," said Sarah Dowzell, COO and co-founder of Natural HR. "This leads to another area that will become problematic for HR professionals - questions from employees on which option is better for them. To me, that’s the point at which HR responsibility stops, as the answer will depend on each family's circumstances.
“HR should be aware of what’s happening, check that business leaders are aware and up to speed, then agree a communication plan so that employees are informed and signposted to resources so they can make an informed decision for themselves."
However, Bhutta added: “The government should simply keep vouchers open alongside the new tax-free childcare scheme, allowing parents to use the scheme that best meets the needs of their family.”
An HMRC spokesperson said that, since the government had launched its Childcare Choices website in March, with the aim of bringing together information on all the different kinds of help government offered on childcare costs, it had had more than a million unique issues. More than 700,000 had also used the website's calculator to find out which option offered by the government suited them best.
The spokesperson added: "We will continue working with stakeholders and the media in the run-up to the closure of the scheme to new entrants, to ensure that parents are able to make informed decisions about the best scheme for them."