The political focus is additionally sharpened by the changes in family patterns (fewer extended families, more lone-parent families) and changed patterns of employment (more part-time work for women, less full-time work for men). But the question remains: who cares for the children when the mother goes back to (usually low-paid) work and granny is not around?
Nursery provision is also figuring in campaigns for the coming local council elections to the point where the Tories have been driven to claim that they, and not just Labour, stand for improved child care.
Until now, the childcare debate has tended to concentrate on the availability of nursery places. But this ignores the fact that nursery provision has failed to match the increase in mothers at work.
The number of children in council day nurseries has actually fallen over the past 10 years to 23,800. A large number of children (366,649) go to playgroups, but this is only very slightly more than 10 years ago. The number of children in private day nurseries (which can cost up to pounds 150 a week) is 90,000 and increasing. But the demand for child care for working mothers has been met above all by a huge increase in child-minding. More than 250,000 children are being cared for by child-minders, a rise of 155,000 in 10 years.
For many parents, child-minding is their preferred option. But for many more, it is not. It is unsatisfactory that the increase in women at work is being underpinned by a major expansion in a type of child care which is not the first choice of parents or experts.
In the past, children of working mothers were more likely to be cared for in nurseries. Now, the majority are cared for by child- minders. In effect, child care has been privatised and fragmented. This shift has been achieved with no public discussion and no parliamentary debate. It has come about by default, simply because the Government has not had a public policy on child care and has left parents to fend for themselves.
Although women are now entrenched as part of the workforce, there is no such thing as a typical pattern of work for a woman. She may, at different stages of her life, work full- time; be out of the labour market; retrain; or work part-time. She may be a permanent employee or on a fixed-term contract. But the fragmentation of the mother's employment should not be matched by the fragmentation in the care of her child.
Child care has to be seen as part of our economic infrastructure, as important in getting people to work as the roads and railways. And, like roads and railways, child care demands a strategic and long-term approach.
Most parents want care that will provide for their children for years, not just for months. Child care that enables a woman to train is important, but it is not good enough offering child care just for the duration of a six-month training course. The child will only just have settled in, and the last thing the mother will then want is to take the child out of the nursery and look for a job, knowing that if she finds one, she will have to make new arrangements which will need a new settling-in period.
Training and work do not appear in any even pattern. What the mother needs is a choice of child care which provides continuity and certainty and does not stop when the training course or the short-term work contract stops. While the mother's situation might be changing, the child's needs do not.
If child care is to be consistent, childcare policy must be equally consistent across government departments. At present, each one has a different approach, all short-term, intended only to get things started.
Child care must be rooted in the interests of the child, not spring from the separate interests of different government departments. Child care is not just a question of who looks after the child when the mother is training or at work (Department of Employment perspective) or whether the child has access to pre-school education (Department of Education perspective) or whether the child is at risk of abuse (Department of Health perspective). It is all of those things.
One reason why the Government's approach to child care is so short-term and departmentalised is because it cannot make up its mind about its policy. Last November the Secretary of State for Educationruled out universal provision of nursery education. Less than a month later, the Prime Minister said that the Government 'intends to move to universal nursery education'. You can't get much more ambivalent than that.
But current policy is not only ambivalent. In at least one aspect, it is wrong. Michael Portillo, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, seems to believe that state provision of child care saps parental responsibility. That is merely a sophisticated way of saying: 'They are your children, you had them, you look after them, they are nothing to do with us.'
Of course children are primarily the responsibility of their parents - no one would want it any other way - but they are also the responsibility of the community, which benefits from a generation that is at ease with itself and fulfils its potential, and suffers when children grow into rootless adults unable to cope with their own parental responsibilities.
A national childcare programme is an essential response to the revolutionary increase in women's participation in the workforce and the changing pattern of the family. Good quality care, with a choice of affordable services (including minders, nurseries and out- of-school clubs) for both under-fives and school-age children, is what is needed to meet the demands of parents and the demands of a modern economy.
It does not all have to be funded by central government; parents, local employers and local councils all have a part to play. But unless government takes the lead in establishing a national strategy, it will not happen.
The author is the Labour MP for Peckham and shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
Mark Lawson is ill.Reuse content