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Why our childcare problem needs a grown-up solution

There is no doubt that the most eye-catching of the proposals in the Executive's draft Programme for Government (PfG) is its promise to 'promote' more than 25,000 jobs.

The Executive stopped short of promising to create that number of jobs, but the existence of this headline target will certainly add to the pressure on our politicians to get more people into employment.

However, achieving this goal will require more than simply investing in the creation of additional jobs via Government grants and loans.

While the job-promotion drive is crucial, it is equally important to tackle the barriers which prevent many people from seeking a job in the first place.

Official figures show that there are 12,000 women in Northern Ireland who would like a job, but are not looking for one due to family commitments. Many of them will be women for whom finding affordable, good quality childcare is the obstacle to seeking employment.

In addition, many more single parents with school-age children are now being required by Government policy to actively seek work, adding to the pressure to ensure adequate childcare provision.

In its draft Programme for Government, the Executive reiterates previous commitments to implement a childcare strategy and to invest £3m annually in childcare.

Those undertakings are welcome, but have been made previously and we are anxious to see some action.

In particular, we are still waiting to find out how this year's annual £3m childcare allocation is to be spent; two thirds of the way through the current financial year, no firm decision has yet been announced.

Registered childminding is the largest childcare sector in Northern Ireland.

It is especially valuable in rural areas where low population densities may make group-based childcare unviable.

Yet, circumstantial evidence suggests that, as the economic climate worsens, more parents are turning to illegal, unregistered childminders. In a recent survey of new registered childminders, more than a third said they knew of at least one childminder operating illegally in their area.

Illegal childminders often undercut their registered counterparts, because they aren't complying with the regulations on maximum numbers of children.

That makes them a tempting option for hard-pressed parents, but, as unregistered childminders aren't insured and haven't been inspected, it's a risky and unwise choice.

It also makes it harder for law-abiding registered childminders to survive when they're faced with this unfair and illegal competition.

But some parents also tell us they can't find a suitable childminding place in their area. We've already put proposals to the Executive for a childminding start-up programme, which would assist prospective childminders in starting up sustainable businesses which can respond to that demand.

The evidence shows that childcarers who have received training provide better-quality childcare than those who have not.

In England, childminders have had access to generous Government grants to help them access training. Those incentives haven't existed in Northern Ireland yet and so a smaller proportion of our childminders have a relevant qualification.

The existence of the Executive's childcare fund provides a valuable opportunity to improve the skills of our childminding workforce.

Let's make sure that this important fund is used to invest in our childcarers, to assist parents in entering employment and to provide the best possible start for the children who must be the focus of any new childcare strategy.