DUP wins six-month reprieve for childcare voucher scheme
The Government has announced a six-month delay on plans to end a system of childcare vouchers after representations by the DUP.
Education Secretary Damian Hinds made the concession at the end of a Commons debate called by Labour, after a question from the DUP.
Employer-backed childcare vouchers are being phased out and replaced by a new system of tax-free childcare.
However, MPs heard that the take-up of tax-free childcare has been well below expectations, with nearly £1bn earmarked for childcare returned to the Treasury.
The DUP, whose 10 MPs usually back the Government in major votes, has in the past opposed the abolition of the vouchers.
Nigel Dodds, the party's leader at Westminster, could be seen talking with Tory chief whip Julian Smith moments before Mr Hinds made the announcement.
South Belfast MP Emma Little-Pengelly said: "Could the Secretary of State agree with me that, given the concerns raised across this House in relation to the April closure of the childcare voucher scheme, that there should be a delay on the closure of that scheme to allow for the concerns to be addressed?"
Mr Hinds replied: "I have heard the concerns that have been raised about this and the timing, and I can confirm that we will be able to keep the voucher scheme open for a further six months to new entrants, following representations that she has made."
Ms Little-Pengelly later asked if the minister could confirm the delay "will be used to address concerns and issues raised" in the Commons. Mr Hinds said he had "already confirmed" that "we would have this period in order to reflect concerns".
Ms Little-Pengelly said: "Whilst this scheme has been far from perfect and flaws have been identified, it has nonetheless been beneficial for those working parents availing of child care. Each parent could use up to £55 per week from their pre-tax salary and allocate it to pay for childcare.
"The DUP is delighted that the Government has agreed with our proposal to delay the scheme's closure for a period of at least six months."
Much of the debate focused on plans to introduce a means test for families on Universal Credit to receive free school meals.
All families who are on Universal Credit are currently able to claim free school meals, as part of a package of measures to help the transition to the new benefits system.
In England the net earnings threshold will be £7,400, whereas in Northern Ireland it will be £14,000, MPs heard.