But who's left holding the baby?

Government's childcare initiative dismissed as too little, too late
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With only months to the general election, the Government was yesterday accused of suddenly discovering women.

While pressure groups queued up to welcome a consultative paper on the special problems faced by working mothers, some of them were privately cynical about ministers' motives.

The consultation process was being rushed through in two months to give ministers time before the election to "do something" for harassed women who were trying to combine work and domestic responsibilities, it was said.

Until now, the Government has relied on one-off initiatives to make the lives of working mothers easier, but critics argue that it has been too little and that there has been no coherent national strategy. Both the Equal Opportunities Commission and the organisation Employers for Childcare yesterday claimed responsibility for changing the Government's mind.

Cheryl Gillan, Education and Employment minister, conceded that more childcare provision was needed. The Government was determined to set up a framework and ensure that all "barriers" preventing women from taking advantage of the help already available should be removed. It needed to assess the availability and affordability of childcare for working mothersand to ensure that both employers and their workers were given access to information on what was available, she said.

There was no suggestion, how-ever, that there would be much in the way of hard cash. Mrs Gillan, who has special ministerial responsibility for women's issues, said the Government would not act alone in this area.

"I certainly do not believe in a nanny sate. It is the family's responsibility to look after their children," she said.

The Government only had a role where there was real need, where children were at serious risk, for example. The most effective action government could take was to remove obstacles and to create the right conditions for supply to grow to meet demand.

Most women's organisations agreed that present government measures had helped, but the tax relief for employers to set up workplace nurseries had been a conspicuous failure.

Officials at the Department of Education and Employment admitted that there had been no "revolution" in provision since the incentive was introduced.

No figures were available, but the take-up by employers had been "very limited".

Gill Haynes, chief executive of the National Childminding Association, said the Government should extend tax breaks to include the provision of child minders, who provided 60 per cent of care for working women.