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Employers launch campaign for better child care: Business leaders seek government help. Marianne Macdonald reports

BUSINESS leaders of the most powerful companies in the UK forced the controversial issue of child care provision up the political agenda yesterday by launching the first business-led campaign for better provision.

The new forum, Employers for Childcare, called on the Government to increase child care funding, set a national framework for services, and lay down national standards. The UK has the second-lowest number of child care places of all European Community countries.

Lack of effective provision means that large sums of money are wasted on training employees who are unable to continue their careers when they have children, say the employers. Leading the campaign are British Airways, British Gas, British Telecom, Midland Bank, Co-operative Bank, the TSB, the Rover Group, Shell UK, the BBC, Grand Metropolitan, Kingfisher and Littlewoods. A further 15 have signed up in support, including Abbey National, Boots, National Westminster Bank, Tesco and The Body Shop International.

Howard Davies, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, warned: 'We need to ensure better access to child care to employees if we are to be competitive in world markets in the future. I hope the Government is prepared to respond constructively.'

The EFC initiative comes from a recognition that major companies are repeatedly hitting the same problems in providing child care for employees.

They say that without government help they cannot overcome difficulties such as providing nurseries in rural areas or where demand comes from few staff. Many small businesses cannot afford the capital required to set up child care services, reducing their ability to attract skilled staff.

The EFC launch document, Good Childcare Good Business, calls for 'accessible, available, affordable, quality provision'. It adds: 'It is not simply a matter of cost. Providing child care is a business in itself requiring considerable expertise.'

The forum wants inconsistent tax laws - which exempt workplace nurseries and creches from tax, but not child care vouchers - to be rationalised. It says funding through autonomous Training and Enterprise Councils creates uneven standards.

The EFC is to be invited to put its case to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children chaired by Baroness Faithfull. She admitted: 'I think the Government has got to make a structure possible for this scheme to operate.'

The forum is welcomed by voluntary groups, who have been campaigning since 1970.

Lucy Daniels, director of the Working Mothers' Association, said: 'It's like the cavalry coming over the hill to the rescue.'

Gillian Pugh, of the National Children's Bureau, added: 'The Government should not forget proper provision makes sense. Our research shows a national child care strategy would bring in pounds 2bn a year within a decade in savings from benefit claims and returns from income tax.'