Ignore childcare at our peril
We demand sufficient quality, affordable and accessible childcare places across the province, stated the DUP's manifesto for the Assembly election earlier this year.
Women's rights to education, work and equal pay "¿remain theoretical unless underpinned by a right to childcare", declared Sinn Fein's manifesto.
Indeed, all the main parties recognised the importance of childcare in their manifestos.
It is therefore something of a surprise to find that there is no mention of childcare in the Draft Programme for Government recently produced by the Executive - and just one reference in the Draft Budget.
What is going on? We know politicians are genuinely concerned about childcare issues, so we're left to conclude that the Executive quite simply forgot about it when drafting its centrepiece policy document.
Yet childcare should be at the heart of any effective Executive strategy for this simple reason: childcare is of central importance in tackling child poverty and improving our economic performance, and all the available evidence shows that there is a serious shortage of good, affordable childcare in Northern Ireland.
Research commissioned a few years ago by the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) found a significant shortfall in childcare places in Northern Ireland, and specifically recommended a 20% expansion in the number of childminders.
Instead there was a 19% drop in the supply of places with registered childminders in the three years to March 2006.
There are sound economic arguments for expanding childcare provision and, as the DUP's manifesto demanded, ensuring there really are sufficient high quality, affordable and accessible childcare places across Northern Ireland.
Firstly, the Draft Programme for Government commits the Executive to halving the level of child poverty by 2010. That objective clearly cannot be achieved without ensuring that the childcare places exist to enable more parents to enter the workforce.
Secondly, one of the key weaknesses of the Northern Ireland economy is its relatively high economic inactivity rate; as many readers will be aware, we have the largest working age economic inactivity rate of any region in the UK.
Let's look a little more closely at those who are currently of working age but 'economically inactive'.
There are, of course, many who either cannot or have no wish to seek a job but DEL figures reveal that there are no less than 12,000 economically inactive women of working age here who want jobs but who cite 'family and home' as the reason they are not actively seeking work.
Some of these will, of course, be carers of elderly and other adult dependants, but many must surely be mothers.
This stark statistic certainly suggests the existence of a not insignificant potential additional pool of labour which the Northern Ireland economy could be utilising - if the right childcare facilities existed.
The economic strategy being pursued by the Executive also focuses on the creation of higher-skilled, value-added jobs - and on the promotion of equality of opportunity for women.
Yet many women give up work or work part-time in order to look after children. There is robust evidence that this disadvantages women's pay and promotion prospects, reducing the overall productivity of any economy as a result.
My organisation, NICMA, the Childminding Association, would never stand in the way of women who wish to take time out or to work part-time in order to care for children.
But equally we strongly suspect many women feel they're forced into this position by a lack of high quality, accessible and affordable childcare.
Better childcare would also help to encourage higher rates of self-employment among women, again potentially creating some of the value-added jobs which the Executive is seeking.
Female entrepreneurs are currently under-represented in Northern Ireland; just 14% of self-employed individuals here are women compared to 27% in Great Britain.
Given that registered childminding is by far the most popular and affordable form of full- time childcare in Northern Ireland, it is imperative that any policies designed to improve childcare provision give priority to addressing the shortage of childminders.
NICMA's proposed Childminder Start-Up Package would provide a cost-effective means for the Executive to begin tackling the childcare deficit.
Many potential childminders are currently put off by the cost of setting up a childminding business, while many others give up during their first year of operation.
Our Start-Up Package would address these issues through a twin approach - a start-up grant for new childminders combined with one-to-one mentoring for all those seeking to enter the profession or just beginning to establish their businesses.
And our proposal really is a cost-effective solution, requiring an annual investment on the part of the Executive of just £300,000.
We're pleased to say that we have received genuine interest from the Executive and from politicians in our proposal.
However, we would urge them to act now to transform that interest into action - and to give childcare its rightful place in the final version of the Programme for Government.
Bridget Nodder is director of NICMA - the Childminding Association. For more information on NICMA's Start-Up Package proposal see www.nicma.org.