It has to be financially worthwhile to be in work

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THE Minister for Women today supports our campaign for childcare, pledging that the issue will be high on the Government's agenda in the coming months.

Joan Ruddock said: "I think the campaign is superb. It is a real indication that there is a major debate with which people are becoming engaged. Women themselves are beginning to realise they are having the opportunity to work. This is the contemporary debate for women, not only those who are already young mothers but those who are anticipating becoming mothers."

Ms Ruddock was appointed to the post of Minister for Women with three priorities: childcare, family friendly policies and action on violence against women. It is with the first two that she must prove herself in the run-up to the Budget on 17 March, and the national childcare strategy due to be announced in April.

What does she want the strategy to achieve? "It has to be financially worthwhile to be in work and this is what we expect to see from the Chancellor. The Chancellor sees it as an economic issue and we are quite confident that this means that he will in future take into consideration the tax arrangements which he deems appropriate. We are very pleased that this is the case, that we are the Government that has taken a new direction on childcare."

The main problem many women face is that they may want to go back to work but cannot afford to do so. "What we're trying to do overall is create incentives for people to move from welfare into work so the sort of changes we hope and expect to get from the Chancellor will be very much encouraging that opportunity and acknowledging childcare needs to underpin that role whether it is a woman wishing to return to the workplace, whether it is a woman in a two-people household. or a woman in a lone- parent household."

What role are employers meant to play in the new childcare impetus? In other countries they often share far more of the burden. But Ms Ruddock said: "We're already in close contact with employers ... big companies who themselves have put into practice many of the things we would like to see made available - part-time work, job-sharing as a means of bringing women back into the workplace after they've had children and some of these companies have seen the return rate of these women dramatically increase.

"But we don't think that the workplace nursery is a universal panacea. It can't be because many people are living - and it's very obvious here in London - in a community where you're travelling a distance to work and you don't want to take the child into the workplace for a host of reasons.

"Clearly, however, we are prepared to look at all incentives ... It's not just about childcare. Some of it is about the family friendly dimension. For example, if you have a woman or a man who has responsibilities ... as a good employer you should have a code of practice that says this person is known to have these responsibilities and so don't ask this person to work outside the hours they are committed to work."

She thinks many businesses are waking up to this: "Losing people from the workplace matters. It's been found in the case of ordinary employees that it can cost around pounds 10,000 to recruit a replacement."

So far the Government has promised pounds 300m for the creation of about 30,000 after-school clubs. But what about women who want to go back to work earlier? "We haven't put a figure on under-five provision because that's a little less quantifiable ... it's an enormous task," Ms Ruddock said.

The other problem that is facing the Government is the introduction of the minimum wage. Many childminders are among the most poorly paid workers in the country. "It is important that people who are childminders are financially rewarded for their job of work. We want to encourage childcare to be made a job worth paying for and a key task the Chancellor has is what kind of tax arrangements we are able to make to underpin affordable childcare."

"At the end of the day we are going to have some priorities. There is a debate about whether we should be looking at providing for children up to the age of 11, 12, 14, 16 - this is an ongoing debate ... and not yet finally resolved."