`Childcare vital to our strategy'

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Harriet Harman reacts to The Independent's campaign on childcare while Glenda Cooper, Social Affairs Correspondent, meets a family caught in the trap between children and work, and readers tell us that they stand squarely in support of help for working mothers


We are delighted to see The Independent is taking up the issue of childcare. It is very dear to my heart. It is a Government priority.

Any time you're out shopping you'll pay a woman at the check-out. When you come round from an operation in hospital, the chances are you'll see a woman at your bedside, a doctor or a nurse. The clothes you wear are likely to have been made by a woman.

A third of these women will also be someone's mother.

Britain now depends on women's work as well as men's. Our economy depends on them - but so too do their families. Women today are very much part of the world of work but they still remain the backbone of the family. Women's shouldering of extra responsibilities to provide for their families by working has not yet been matched by men taking extra responsibility in the home. So for nearly all women, combining work and home responsibilities is a struggle, and sometimes a nightmare. Too many mothers can't find childcare that they can trust and afford - childcare that matches their work hours.

It's not like this in the rest of Europe. There, high-quality childcare is taken for granted. But when it comes to childcare, Britain's children are Europe's poor relations. That's one of the reasons why lone parents here are less likely to work and more likely to be bringing up their children on benefit.

For many women, the cost of childcare can be crippling, That is why the Chancellor said in his pre-Budget report that his March Budget will build on the successful elements of Family Credit and deliver better help through the tax system for childcare costs.

This Government believes that childcare is central to children and families - central to our social and economic policy. Getting childcare right is crucial to building strong families and communities and to running a sound and stable economy.

In conjunction with the Department for Education and Employment we are driving forward our plans for the first ever National Childcare Strategy, which we will publish in the Spring. The three watchwords of our strategy are quality, accessibility, and affordability.

First, quality. We want to give our children the best possible start in life. That means more and better-trained childcare workers, an improved system of regulation and inspection, and a seamless service of education and childcare which puts children at its heart.

Secondly, accessibility. We are investing pounds 300m to expand out-of-school childcare provision over the next 5 years. This will fund up to an extra 30,000 childcare projects. That means provision for around a million children, up from only 100,000 children at present. pounds 40m has already been made available for the first year, starting from this April.

Third, affordability. We have already announced plans to help low-income families with the cost of childcare. Families with two or more children under 12 will get up to pounds 100 in their Family Credit.

Childcare must be flexible enough to help women balance their responsibilities at home and at work. This means breakfast clubs as well as after-school clubs and holiday play schemes, and it means mothers being able to choose the number of days or hours of childcare to help them match work-hours.

This Government, under the leadership of Tony Blair, is modernising Britain to meet the challenges of the 21st century. High-quality, affordable childcare to help children and support families in the changed world of work is an essential part of a modernised welfare state.

Harriet Harman is Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women.

`What are we meant

to do without help?'


ROB YOUEL realised that as a manual worker approaching 50 he wasn't likely to find a job. Wanting to support his wife, Sue, and three- year-old daughter Rhiannon, he decided to increase his chances of finding employment by getting a qualification. "I wanted a job which could give both of them a decent standard of living," he said. So he enrolled for a BA in Humanities.

There the trouble began. Sue was working in a petrol station on shift work. Rob had to be at college, a good half-an-hour away, four days a week. Who could look after Rhiannon?

"We found out we couldn't get her in the college creche," said Rob. "We applied to various places for funding but there was absolutely nothing. Their attitude was not that they didn't want to help, but that they were incapable of doing so."

Sue brings home on average pounds 85 a week from her job. Their family credit of pounds 42 is under review because Rob has qualified for a grant. Yet when they priced childminders they were quoted pounds 60 a week, half their income. "If we had less than pounds 3,000 income then we'd get help. But because Sue works we don't get any help," Rob said.

The couple, who live in Pennington, West Yorkshire, worked it out by farming Rhiannon out to friends and by Rob occasionally missing lectures if he had to look after the child.

"I hadn't got into trouble although there were other people on my course who had been warned for missing too much," he said.

Sue added: "My friend who looked after Rhiannon was very good, but you can't impose on people forever. It could only have ever been a stop-gap."

This term the Youels managed to get Rhiannon into the college creche which charges only pounds 10.50 a week. Even so, she cannot attend every day which means Thursday remains a day of juggling shifts and classes. "They're trying to encourage people to go into work but there's no childcare when you get there," Sue said. "Education gives you the means to better yourself but there's no help ... What are people meant to do?"

"I would like to go to college myself so I could get a better job. But I just don't know whether the finances would work out."

Readers pledge support for mothers


YESTERDAY we launched The Independent's campaign for a tax allowance for working mothers. Since then dozens of readers have pledged their support.

Those who have responded to our campaign include Lord Russell, and Lesley Abdela, chief executive of Project Parity which trains future women leaders around the world and Andrew Smith, Secretary of the Scottish Young Liberal Democrats.

"Women who go back to work, bringing back valuable skills to the business world, pay a dear price for the luxury of independence - or just standing on their own feet," says Alison Purver of Leeds. "Having children and going to work should not be a luxury and I totally support your campaign."

"In the early Nineties, as a PhD student and a single parent of three children, I was trapped in what only can be described as childcare hell," says Dr Ijeoma Uchegbu from the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Strathclyde University. "Although I had an expensive child-minder ... I also had to rely on family, friends and kind neighbours ... Now my children are aged 15, 11 and 8 and I am a tax paying pharmacy lecturer and researcher. If I had given up, I would probably be a `benefit scrounging single parent' to some."

"I am a solicitor, so enjoyed well above average female earnings, but as I wanted to work more and more part-time the cost-effectiveness diminished," says Penelope Overton of St Albans. "In the end I quit working after five years post-children. The issue which seemed particularly unjust was that for a time I was paying a nanny as an employee and was unable to deduct her salary from mine before tax."

Kate Holden says: "The UK is so behind all other European countries, it does little to encourage mothers back to work and gives no help to those who have ... made the choice to return to work. It's not only lone mothers ... most people struggle to pay childcare and good childcare costs a fortune!"

"Someone has finally recognised the terrible financial stress that is placed on families who need to pay for childcare," says Melissa Slater from London. "My 18-month-old child is cared for by a child-minder at a cost of pounds 95 per week. I find myself expecting our second child in July. We are going to have to sell our home... because we will not be able to afford the pounds 190 per week [pounds 823 per month] in childcare fees, and it is really breaking our hearts. It makes me wonder in a system that can so cripple a family that it made us question whether or not we should have our second child due to financial reasons."

Sheila Candeland, subject librarian at All Saints Library, Manchester Metropolitan University, says: "I've just worked out what I pay for my two children and it comes to just over pounds 4,000. I can't help feeling that we are almost being penalised for having children who, when adult, will be contributing to the economy in all sorts of ways, and will be helping to pay our pensions in 20 years time!"