Parents are being wooed by the political parties with a raft of measures to help with childcare. Women's Editor Lindsay Jennings reports.

LIKE thousands of parents, Pam Robertson has to pay for childcare for her daughter, Georgia. Although her husband Jamie's mum has two-year-old Georgia for one day a week, the toddler goes to a private day nursery near their home in Low Fell, near Gateshead, for the other three days.

As the couple earn under the £58,000 threshold, they are entitled to a limited amount of Child Tax Credit and they receive childcare vouchers through Jamie's employers, Royal Mail. The vouchers come off his gross salary and are exempt from national insurance contributions.

But even though Pam, 39, will take maternity leave for the couple's second child, due in June, she will have to continue paying for Georgia's nursery place, at £28 per day, because she fears she will lose it otherwise.

"I think one of the big differences this time for me is that you can now get a year's maternity leave," says Pam, who works four days a week as head of human resources at the North East Chamber of Commerce, in Durham.

"But I'm going to have to keep Georgia in nursery, otherwise she's going to lose her place when I go back to work. Even if she doesn't go I'll still have to pay for it to keep her place open.

"I would like to see more flexibility in childcare provision and more choice. So many friends of mine have returned to work, but the cost of breakfast clubs etc is very prohibitive at the moment."

How to arrange and pay for childcare is one of the biggest financial headaches new parents face. Like Pam, thousands juggle provision by a family member and day care, while others struggle to find the right balance between knowing when it's profitable to work and when it quite simply isn't.

According to the national childcare charity, the Daycare Trust, the typical cost of a full-time nursery place for a child under two is £134 a week, or almost £7,000 a year - a rise of nearly five per cent since 2003. The typical cost of a full-time place with a childminder for a child under two is £121 a week, or over £6,300 a year. Since Labour swept to power in 1997 they have introduced a range of childcare reforms, including free nursery places for all three and four-year-olds and the tax credits system, with Child Tax Credit giving income-related support for parents with childcare costs and Working Tax Credit providing targeted top-up wages for those in lower-paid jobs.

But the parent vote has never been more valuable to the political parties than now. Last week, Tony Blair and Conservative leader Michael Howard announced a range of childcare and maternity measures, moving parents up the political agenda.

Labour is championing plans to ensure every parent of young children has the opportunity of affordable childcare from dawn to dusk. It wants parents to be able to leave their children at school for ten hours a day, from 8am to 6pm, while they work, as part of its ten-year plan on childcare.

Mr Blair also announced that by 2008, 2,500 children's centres would be up and running, providing state-funded childcare for kids up to the age of five. The provisions would include activities for the under fives, information for parents, support for childminders and a base for midwives and other professionals.

But while a number of experts, including the Daycare Trust, welcome the plans, some critics have warned that family life could be damaged by so-called ''boarding schools without beds".

Emma Hutchinson, director of Music House for Children, which provides musical tuition for youngsters, says she's not against activities after school but that it's important for children to talk to and be supported by parents. "There is very little opportunity for that if you are at school for up to ten hours and then home and straight to bed. It doesn't promote children and families sitting together and being together as a unit," she says.

Until now, affordable childcare was not at the political heart of the Conservatives, but Michael Howard has also announced parent-friendly measures in a move away from the old fashioned Tory view that the woman should be at home to look after the children. The party has also appealed to the older generation of carers who might in the past have been more natural Conservative voters.

It wants to see the "complicated and bureaucratic" tax credit system replaced with a cash allowance for parents to spend as they like, allowing them to use the money for informal care, including by relatives, for the first time. The proposals include grandmothers being able to become childminders, with short courses to fast-track them to qualified status.

The party has also argued that extended schools may not be the universal answer for childcare, saying such services are already running well in churches or at other places in some parts of the country, and wants to take a more hands-off approach, leaving more scope for private and voluntary providers.

The Liberal Democrats also want to simplify the tax credit system as well as establishing Early Years Centres with pre-school education, play areas and health check-ups under one roof, similar to Labour's Children's Centres.

Jacqueline Craig, 36, of Darlington, has Martha, four, who goes to the state-run George Dent Nursery in Darlington; Sadie, two, and William, six months, and says lack of affordable childcare is high on her agenda. Her mum, Sheila, looked after her two youngest when she worked part-time as a modern languages teacher at Haughton Community School, in Darlington, where she is just about to return after maternity leave.

Her mum's help is invaluable as she and husband Paul, an IT business manager, do not qualify for Child Tax Credit. "You really need family, otherwise it's just not affordable, and even then you still have difficulties," she says.

"Some of my friends have left five years between having their kids because they can only afford to put one in childcare at a time. "The initiatives to get women back to work are all well and good, but if you have more than one child, unless you've got a family member to help, it's not financially viable."

Whether any of the proposals will be enough to win the parent vote remains to be seen.

More proposals are expected in the Government's ten-year childcare strategy next month and many parents believe it is time they were at the top of the agenda.

Says Pam Robertson: "I think it's just something they've never gone for before and they've done everyone else - but it is one that pulls at the emotions."

The childcare battle - Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat proposals at a glance


* All primary schools should offer childcare provision for children aged five to 11 in the form of breakfast clubs and after school activities.

* A full ten hours of childcare on offer during school holidays, costing up to £3.50 per hour. Those on low incomes will receive tax credits to help.

* For children aged between 11 and 14, the Government promises that one third of secondary schools will offer activities between 8am and 6pm.

* Sure Start children's centres will be created in every community, with at least 2,500 by 2008.


* Paying the child tax credit in cash to parents to spend as they like, on a nanny, au pair or even a family member such as a grandparent.

* A consultation on making childcare costs tax deductible, saving up to 40 per cent of the expense.

* Grandmothers would be able to become childminders with short courses to fast-track them to qualified status.

* Increasing maternity pay, although Conservative leader Michael Howard has so far refused to be drawn on the size of any proposed increase.


* Establish Early Years Centres (EYC) comprising pre-school education, play areas and health check-ups. Would also include parenting classes and teach secondary school pupils about the demands of parenthood.

* They would look at scrapping Labour's plans to introduce Child Trust Funds (the savings and investment accounts unveiled for children in Gordon Brown's April 2003 budget) to pay for the EYCs.