Diana Appleyard examines calls for all nannies to be officially registered
One of the problems for any family wishing to employ a nanny is that there is no national registration scheme for the profession. The onus is on the family to check references - but this is by no means a safeguard against any previous convictions a nanny may have for harming a child, or for having been sacked by a previous employer for neglect.

As part of The Independent's call for a childcare tax allowance in the next budget of pounds 1,800, it also seems clear that there should be much stricter safeguards for this form of childcare, which is increasing in popularity as parents work more flexible hours.

Just two weeks ago the Liberal Democrat MP for Taunton, Jackie Ballard, proposed an adjournment debate on the issue. But at that debate the Labour MP Paul Boateng made it clear that a national registration scheme for nannies was not "a priority" for this Government. A number of childcare groups have vowed to continue lobbying and campaigning for the scheme.

The nannying profession at present is the only form of childcare which doesn't have some form of registration. Child-minders are governed by clear legislation and must be registered with local authorities, and day- care nurseries are regularly inspected and have firm guidelines about such issues as ratios of staff to children.

Sue Monk is the joint chief executive of Parents at Work. She says: "Parents who use nannies have no reliable way of finding out if a potential nanny has a criminal record. A system of registering nannies is urgently required to provide the protection of police checks and regular inspections, which currently exist for people using child-minders and nurseries.

"To ensure the welfare of their children, parents using nannies have to rely on references, a system which is open to abuse. With the change in working patterns from the traditional nine to five, nannies are a necessity rather than a luxury for many working parents."

The number of nannies employed in this country has rocketed this century. Initially, nannies were the prerogative of the rich. But with so many more women taking up well-paid careers, the employment of nannies has spread from the upper to the middles classes. It's now estimated there are about 100,000 nannies employed in this country, and that out of the 82 per cent of women who return to work after pregnancy who have higher than A-level qualifications, 60 per cent will chose to employ a nanny rather than use an alternative form of childcare.

The main problem for parents is how to chose a nanny. Some advertise in the local press, or make contact through advertisements in publications such as The Lady. Increasing numbers are using established agencies, which can at least provide the safeguard that they have interviewed the nannies in depth, checked references, and often know the girls well.

There is a registration body for nanny agencies, the Federation of Recruitment and Employment Services, which has a clear code of practice that agencies must adhere to. The chairman of the childcare section, Peter Cullimore, says FRES is backing calls for a national registration scheme - but that it must be statutory.

"A voluntary scheme simply wouldn't work," he says. "It's likely there would be a cost involved, and many nannies simply wouldn't bother."

He says: "We can see there would be problems within the scheme - but something must be done because at the moment the situation is a minefield for parents.

"One of the issues which must be addressed is the qualifications a nanny would need to be registered. There are many excellent, experienced nannies who have no qualifications - and there are lots of young girls from the Commonwealth who come over here to work as nannies, and so wouldn't have British qualifications. Yet they often do an excellent job."

His advice is that if you are employing a nanny for the first time, you should go to a registered agency. The downside for many parents is the cost. In London, you can pay anything up to a pounds 1,000 fee to register with an agency.

In the provinces, the figure is more likely to be around pounds 300-pounds 400. Agencies will normally advise on nanny's salaries. In London, you can expect to pay anything up to pounds 250 a week for a live-out nanny, less if you are providing accommodation. In the provinces, nannies are general charging pounds 100 to pounds 200 per week. There are also perks to be taken into account, such as whether a car would be provided, and if additional duties such as light housework would be required.

Nanny agencies will check up on employment histories - but even they cannot make police checks. On application forms there is a requirement to reveal previous convictions, which potential nannies must answer. But this is not a foolproof safeguard. Peter Cullimore says: "You cannot, as a parent or an agency, go along to the police station and ask to see any previous convictions for a girl applying to become a nanny. The only way to do it would be to ask the girl herself to make the inquiry - but this can take a great deal of time, and wouldn't necessarily show `spent' convictions."

He says checking references are the best safeguard - and don't just rely on the agency to do this. "After all," he says, "you are employing someone to come and work in your home and you are entrusting them with your most precious possessions - your children."

It is then important to draw up a contract between yourselves and your nanny, clearly setting out the hours you expect them to work, and the duties which will be involved. FRES has standard contracts of this kind available. For many parents, it also plunges them into the minefield of tax and national insurance. Your nearest Inland Revenue Office will have details of what you must pay and which forms to fill in.

Judith Gower from Letchworth in Hertfordshire has employed a number of nannies for her children, Alison and Caroline. She says: "We chose to employ a nanny because of the flexibility - they can take the girls to school or to swimming. We always sit down and draw up a questionnaire in advance - and we have only ever employed qualified nannies.

"The advantage for us in using an agency is that they match you with a girl who fits your needs, so you don't waste time interviewing unsuitable people. I also make contact with previous employers - I don't just accept the written reference."

Peter Cullimore says: "Until we get a national registration scheme, I think the best advice is to go through an agency, which adheres to our code of practice. There is the initial fee to pay - but it should be worth it in the long run."

To contact FRES, telephone 0171-323 4300.

know the diplomas

The most common qualification is the NNEB, which is offered by the National Nursery Education Board. This is a two-year course including work experience, and is run at Colleges of Further Education.

There are also three independent colleges - the Norland, the Chiltern and the Princess Christian. These offer their own diplomas, and fees are met by the students. Often nannies with these diplomas will expect higher salaries.

There are a number of other courses, such as the B-Tch and National Vocational Qualifications in childcare, which are also run at further education colleges.