A little-known team in the Education Ministry has been targeting suspect early childhood services for the past two years, finding multiple breaches of health and safety rules and putting more than 14 poor performers out of business.
Documents provided under the Official Information Act showed the Provider Assessment Group was a team of 12 ministry staff focused on high-risk home-based early childhood services in Auckland.
The documents showed in 2018 and 2019 it had investigated 18 home-based providers and a company that owned 13 early childhood centres, with 14 licences cancelled, one cancellation pending and others suspended or downgraded to provisional licences.
They said the group had saved $5.2 million in over-claimed early childhood subsidies in the past two years and was starting to focus more on financial fraud, with two new appointments aimed at ensuring its assessments were supported by evidence that would stand up in court.
Ministry internal documents from May and September last year showed the group was worried too many of the services it visited were breaking health and safety rules.
"The number of non-compliances for health and safety criteria (i.e. hazards) being identified by PAG during the home visits remains a concern," they said.
"For example, an assessment of a recent provider identified a total of 36 non-compliances across seven homes, equating to 50% of homes assessed as having health and safety non-compliances."
The documents said "safety in the sector needs to be improved" and providers were failing to submit documents related to safety checking and police vetting of people who were present in homes providing home-based care.
In September last year, the ministry decided to cancel three vacant roles in the group and replace them with two roles focused on financial fraud.
"These roles will assist with developing and executing additional strategies of targeting fraudulent service providers and in particular upskilling our permanent early learning adviser staff, whilst maintaining and supporting the sanctioning of non-compliant providers for poor safety checking and police vetting protocols," a ministry document said.
The documents showed at 112 sites checked in a six-month period last year about 70 percent failed an initial assessment to see if core workers had been safety checked.
Home Base Childcare Association president Susan Phua said she had not known of the group's existence, but home-based providers had been working with the ministry to raise quality and she hoped the group would not be required in future.
Early childhood advocate Susan Bates said the ministry's team should be targeting early childhood centres as well as home-based services.
Bates said the documents indicated early childhood services were being allowed to start operations without first proving that met all health and safety and police vetting requirements.
"It seems like mistakes are being made at the beginning and then the ministry's pouring money in to basically fix their own mistakes," she said.
"The initial regulations under which people can get licences are pretty poor, then the enforcement is worse so setting up and funding yet another body to go in and fix their own mistakes, well maybe it is necessary but it shouldn't have been necessary from the beginning."
Another early childhood advocate, Sarah Alexander, said the ministry's group should also investigate centre-based early childhood services.
"It seems strange just to have this particular checking service because it does seem to be unfairly targetting one group within the sector, really the resources should be for the whole of the sector so that parents can have confidence," she said.
Early Childhood Council chief executive Peter Reynolds said centres were under more scrutiny.
"The evidence that I have from our childcare centre members is that there is an interest being taken in centre activities as well," he said.
Reynolds said surprise visits were a good approach.
"It's important that services offer good quality and this is a good way of doing it."