One in four grandparents are now routinely bringing up children, according to a report published tomorrow.
Grandparents now spend an average six and a half hours a week acting as substitute parents to their grandchildren. With working mothers and single parents finding it increasingly difficult and expensive to find suitable nannies or nurseries, many grandparents spend much more time than this looking after their grandchildren.
The findings by Age Concern also reveal that more than two in three British parents rely on their own parents to provide some childcare.
Campaigners say this will increase pressure on ministers to provide grandparents with childcare allowances and to reform existing laws that made it difficult for grandparents to win legal access to their grandchildren.
The Age Concern study was based on interviews with 2,000 grandparents and parents from across Britain. The survey revealed that the role grandparents play in childcare and support varies widely according to the part of the country in which they live.
In the North-east, 43 per cent of parents with young children said their parents play an important childcare role compared with only 19 per cent in the South-east and South-west.
On average, fewer grandparents in London spend time with their children's offspring than in the rest of Britain. But 21 per cent of those who do provide more than 20 hours a week of support - the highest in the country.
"Age Concern takes the role of grandparents very seriously," said a spokeswoman for the organisation. "We feel that they are the unsung heroes of family life.
"The fact that three-quarters of them feel they are heavily involved in the lives of their grandchildren goes to show how important they are. Most are happy to provide care and support, asking for nothing in return."
Government research shows that almost all first-time mothers - 96 per cent - have care provided by grandparents. But grandparents have no automatic rights of access or to care for their grandchildren and have to go through a complex legal process.
The Government has set up a working group that is investigating access rights to children, including the rights of grandparents.
But the Grandparents Association, which has 1,000 members, said that there was a desperate need for contact centres to be set up where grandparents can visit their grandchildren, for grandparents to be provided with care allowances and for court procedures to be simplified, making it easier to apply for access.
Peter Harris, the group'schairman, said it advised callers to its helpline to try and mediate over the issue of access instead of going straight to court.
He said 80 per cent of calls came from people who were finding it difficult to see their grandchildren, and the rest from those who were caring for their grandchildren or considering doing so.
"Grandparents ... are an important resource, but their contribution is taken for granted," Mr Harris said. "This benefit to the economy needs to be recognised."
'It's very difficult to make ends meet'
Fifteen years ago, Henry Curnow was looking forward to retirement and the long, lazy hours in his armchair it would bring.
Instead, at the age of 72, he spends four hours every day picking up two of his grandchildren from school and looking after them until their parents return home from work.
He has been looking after one or other of his five grandchildren since he was 60. The widower, whose wife, Sheila, died in August has never received a penny in state aid for his role despite the fact that for 10 years he brought up two of his grandchildren, Ria and Melissa, as their primary carer. One of Mr Curnow's daughters was unable to bring up the children through ill health.
Mr Curnow is now looking forward to being a great-grandfather when Ria, 22, gives birth to her first child later this year. He hopes to assume childcaring responsibilities for her children too.
"I love children," said Mr Curnow, a former builder. "Every day with them there is something amuses me. They are a great source of happiness to me."
But it has not always been easy. "It's difficult making ends meet. You still get nothing from the state if you're just the grandparent," said Mr Curnow.
Now that Ria and Melissa are adults, the grandfather of five acts as a carer for his younger granddaughters, Georgia, aged five, and Cally, who is six, while his son goes out to work.
Mr Curnow said that he has no intention in giving up his childcare duties and would be willing to look after his great-grandchildren.
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