Working mothers total has doubled in past 10 years

Childcare vouchers lead to a sharp rise in the numbers of women with children under five returning to work
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More than twice as many mothers with children aged under five are returning to work than was the case 10 years ago. And experts in child care believe that the "work perk" of childcare vouchers for employees has helped to bring about the increase.

More than twice as many mothers with children aged under five are returning to work than was the case 10 years ago. And experts in child care believe that the "work perk" of childcare vouchers for employees has helped to bring about the increase.

Introduced in 1989 and now used by more than 12,500 employees in Britain, the voucher scheme enables companies to help male or female staff with paying for a part-time or full-time child care including nursery, child minder or nanny.

More than 350 companies including, Avon Cosmetics, PricewaterhouseCoopers and the National Audit Office take part in the scheme. Employees get on average between £35 and £40 a week to help with care for a pre-school child.

"The voucher scheme is very flexible and can be used for care for children after school and during summer holidays," said Colette Kelleher, director of the Daycare Trust. "It has spearheaded the change in employers' attitudes and is part of a range of family-friendly polices that many companies are now introducing. Companies should realise that it makessense as they retain goodquality staff who remain loyal to the company," she said.

In 1989 only 28 per cent of women with children aged under five returned to work, compared with over 70 per cent in 1999, according to government figures. Affording child care is still, however, an issue for parents as the typical cost for a family with two children aged under five, one of whom is at school, is £6,000 a year - more than the average family spends on housing or food.

Research has shown that each employee searching for child care does so mostly in work hours, on average using up about 12 hours of paid time. Childcare vouchers offer a helpline service that assists employees in finding the best local childcare solutions.

"We recently looked at the level of maternity returners since introducing the benefit and noticed a significant number do return," said Carolyn Wilkinson, senior manager in human resources at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, who introduced the scheme last year. Next month the Government launches a campaign to encourage other businesses to take part.

"Companies now spend more on childcare vouchers than on any other formal form of child care, including workplace nurseries, a trend that is continuing to rise," said Sue Harvey, managing director of Accor Corporate Services, which runs the scheme. It expects the number of companies taking part to rise by 30 per cent in the next year as more firms adopt flexible work practices.

Although the number of nursery places in England has increased by 46 per cent, from 668,390 in England in 1989 to 977,300 in 1998, it is still not enough to meet the needs of working families; only one place exists for every seven children aged under three and 92 per cent of parents think that the Government should do more to help employees with child care.

Ms Kelleher. said: "The Government must address the needs of children under three, shift workers and the childcare workforce."

'I am now being valued as a staff member'

Sasha Hardman, a manager at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, says that the perk of childcare vouchers make her feel "valued" as a member of staff.

She has used the vouchers since returning from maternity leave in February. "I have found the vouchers to be a very uncomplicated way of helping me to pay for my childcare," she said. Her one-year-old son, Hector, attends a private nursery near her home in Fulham, south-west London.

Mrs Hardman, 32, who has been with the company for nine years is now pregnant with her second child, which is due in March. "For me it has created a great sense of loyalty to the company. I feel I am being well treated as a parent and the benefit encouraged me to returnwith the sense of being valued as a staff member," she said.

The company introduced the scheme just over a year ago to prevent highly skilled staff leaving after they had given birth.

"I will also be able to change my childcare arrangements as they grow up and their needs change," she added.

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