Childcare policy makes Britain child-friendly

One million families expected to benefit from government initiative, reports Glenda Cooper
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The Independent Online
LOCAL authorities will have to carry out a "Domesday audit" of all the childcare in their area by the end of the year so that targets can be set in the next Budget. The Government is also considering making it compulsory for all nannies to be registered and regulated in the wake of fears over children's safety.

The long-awaited Green Paper on the national childcare strategy is to be launched this morning by Harriet Harman, Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women, David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education, and Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. It will say that arts, drama and sport will form a crucial component of the after-school clubs.

But childcare campaigners warned that it was unlikely that enough carers could be trained in time to meet demand.

One million families are expected to benefit from the childcare tax credit announced in the March Budget and it will cost the Government pounds 250m a year. This compares with previous childcare subsidy which reached 30,000 families a year.

In an interview with The Independent, Ms Harman said yesterday: "The childcare strategy puts children and families at centre-stage in public policy ... For far too long, Britain was regarded as a country that was not child-friendly.We weren't concerned unless they were in school, or in trouble.

"But childcare is as important an economic policy as the roads or the railways ... It is part of the infrastructure which enables women to work."

Childcare provision around Britain is patchy - in Walsall there are 60 day-nursery places per 10,000 children under eight compared with Calderdale, where there are 1,186.

The audit is intended to give an accurate picture of childcare problems around the country, so that next year's Budget can take that into account. Local authorities will play an important part in the development of care, which will see after-school clubs expand from 3,000 to 30,000.

"There is not yet a clear picture, because it was not of interest at national level before," said Ms Harman. "This survey will make clear what is available on the ground and where it falls short." Local authorities will have to report back to ministers by the end of the year "so that it makes the following Budget and it's clear which areas need future investment ... We'll get a picture of whether or not we've made further progress and how to set targets. The way we identify targets and who will do what and when will then be set."

Ms Harman said the Government would be "uncompromising" in its demand for choice and quality. "Choice does affect quality. It's more flexible when you have money in your pocket." The minister said she wanted after- school clubs to be able to compete with those in the private sector. "There will be an opportunity to do homework, drama and sports. We see these after-school clubs as a crucible, a basis for culture and the arts inspiring a revival in kids who need these opportunities and interests ... It's about children's development, not just making sure they're safe."

She denied the childcare tax credit would only help the poorest women. "Women on incomes of up to pounds 30,000 will get some help with their childcare. But they will also benefit from the investment in the provision on the ground. There are two ways you can help - putting money in people's pockets and putting money into provision ... We don't want the provision to be seen as for low-income families, or it will be stigmatised and regarded as poor," she said.

Ms Harman said she had used a variety of childcare when her children were growing up, ranging from nannies, nurseries, holiday schemes and after-school clubs. "I didn't use one form of childcare and very few women do. I was in a better position than most mothers, as affordability was not a problem for me but I know what it was like having to balance work and home."

She said the present training infrastructure would have to respond to the new demand for childcare workers. "We're not going to compromise on quality and we're not short of money." However, she said there were several areas which needed looking at closely. "We're looking at whether the scope of regulation is sufficient. We're asking the question whether it's acceptable that nanny agencies aren't registered or regulated."

However, childcare campaigners such as the Kids Club Network (KCN) said 100,000 workers would need to be trained in the next five years and it was unsure whether the current infrastructure would cope.

"The Government has to increase its current involvement," said Anne Longfield, KCN director. "We are not saying it can't be done, but at the moment out- of-school clubs have around 10,000 workers and the majority cannot get access to training. And only 50 colleges run courses at the moment. In the short term at least we need that gap to be plugged."