Superwoman comes to the rescue

Best-selling author Shirley Conran has discovered the sorry state of Britain's childcare. She's lobbying for change

As a young woman, with children, I vowed that as soon as the kids were old enough I'd do something about the plight of working mothers. In the same way that I tackled housework in Superwoman I'd address the fact that the work-home-family juggling act left women feeling wrung out and depressed and there was an urgent need to do something about it. But the children got a little bit older and I was still too damn exhausted to do much. Finally, when my family did grow up, I'm sorry to say that my interest in the work-home-family issue vanished overnight.

Recently I returned to Britain after working abroad for 20 years and was horrified to discover that the childcare situation had worsened since my day, while at the same time there is far more pressure in the workplace.

One of my goddaughters, who runs a crime prevention charity and has two under 5s, complained bitterly of the popularity of breakfast meetings among childless executives. Another young female friend summed up the crisis: "Every intelligent working mother is aware of the problems, but we have no idea what to do about them and we're too bloody knackered to try."

Twenty years on, I've realised that if I don't want to see my grandchildren on the exhausting treadmill of job-housework-bed-job-housework-bed, then perhaps I'd better do something. At least now I have the time.

Not that it's been plain sailing so far. Keen to find out who is ultimately responsible for childcare, I've already spent a day being shuffled from tin voice to tin voice in the departments of Health, Education, Employment, Equal Opportunities, the Government's Women's Units and the Inland Revenue (the worst). Invariably I was told that the person ultimately responsible was the Minister, and he or she was responsible to the Prime Minister. So I had a chat with the Downing Street Press Office and put my request in writing. ("Who is the coordinator? Who is the person who points out to the PM that the Benefits Association is wonderfully family friendly but that the Houses of Parliament are the reverse?")

Back came the prompt reply from the PM's office: "There is not an individual or department that acts as a coordinator on the kind of issues you have raised."

It's not as though the childcare issue is a new problem. As long ago as 1976 a report from the Department of Employment stated: "If society is to make the fullest use of its human resources and at the same time to provide equal opportunities for women for work and training, the key factor for many women must be the expansion of childcare facilities."

Given the opportunity to speak to a politician, I'd explain that today 50 per cent of the workforce is women and one in five managers are female - so why has there been so little progress? Of course, I realise that the present Labour government did not create the lack of good childcare (although a Labour government dismantled the excellent British nursery system in1945). The present Government is keenly aware of these problems, and has started to tackle some of them; they cannot be solved overnight, we are told.

But why do I feel that if young children suddenly were made the sole responsibility of the male parent, then State nurseries would mushroom overnight, just as they did in the Second World War when women were urgently needed on farms and in munitions factories?

I'd go on to acknowledge that, of course, there have been some small victories. New Working Families Tax Credit will provide help for poor families. But paying for childcare is the biggest weekly outlay for almost all working mothers. When will all of them get this tax break?

It's no use telling women to go back home if they want to raise children. There's no way that we're going to go backwards. Meanwhile, working fathers have less time to help out too. They feel trapped by a corporate credo that expects almost ecclesiastical dedication to the office. When does a father find the time and energy to enjoy his children, let alone find the strength to give them the moral guidance the Government advises?

Of course, industry has an ultimate objective: to make money. This means that any proposed changes must provide positive financial inducement, especially for small businesses that feel they cannot afford the luxury of family-friendly policies.

Yet can this country afford to ignore the problem? With an NHS bill for stress-related illness of pounds 2bn per year and one in five children suffering from a stress-related problem, I would argue that we've no choice.

So who will pay for family-friendly changes? Indirectly we all will. As corporations are obliged to take over the care once provided by family, church and state, the employer is being pushed into the position of community care-provider, which may be a more efficient way of sharing the national system support load than by raising taxes.

Frustrated by the lack of progress, I've contacted a few mothers who were also tired of waiting for somebody else to tackle their problems and we've formed Mothers in Management. Probably you wouldn't recognise the names of anyone on my small committee (which includes a single man, a single woman and a father), but they are a hardworking and forceful bunch. When I see them rushing to our lunchtime meetings with a bulging briefcase in one hand and a bag of sandwiches in the other, I am always amazed and proud that they manage to turn up. I also wonder, if such worthy people have such a job getting to our meetings, how can they find time to be a caring part of the community, as this Government wishes? They can't find time to care for themselves, let alone the community.

Our first decision was to hold a conference on 30 September 1999, when memories of the exhausting school summer holiday will be still fresh. We plan to gather together 350 achieving working mothers - the managers - to discuss what needs doing and how we are going to get it done. Euston Town Hall with lunch boxes? "No," growled someone. "We'll hold it where the men hold their conferences - at the Savoy."

The day will be a mix of speeches (Sir Dennis Stevenson, Glenys Kinnock, Professor Cary Cooper and Susie Orbach have accepted) with table-based discussions before and after a celebrity luncheon attended by many of our patrons, who range from Lady Irvine to Richard E Grant and Lynda La Plante.

Our advisers are in place: Parents at Work and Antidote, the charity that promotes emotional literacy in education. Yesterday we recruited a part-time secretary and today the fax is working (0171 628 3591). Our first ticket has been sold... to a one-parent father. All we need now is 349 mothers in management. Is there anyone out there?

ALL WORK, NO PLAY

! British childcare costs are the highest in Europe. A family with one child at school and a baby pays an average pounds 6,000 a year.

! There is only one registered childcare place for every nine children under age eight.

! Only 10 per cent of British companies provide childcare assistance for workers. Two per cent have a workplace nursery.

! Thirty-five percent of women who do not return to work blame the fact that they don't earn enough to pay for childcare.

! Mainland Europe is markedly better. Finland, Denmark and Sweden have had good childcare facilities since the 1970s.

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