The 'big ambition' for childcare
Mr Howarth, the equal opportunities minister, outlined the Government's commitment to a national childcare strategy, and said a consultation document on it will be published shortly.
But he emphasised that at the heart of any new policy would be the "big ambition" that no parent will be prevented from being in work, education or training through lack of affordable childcare.
From now on, he said, the Government will seek to promote the integration of childcare and education. Mr Howarth said: "They are one and the same thing. The strategy will help teachers manage their classroom better in the long term because early childcare helps prepare young children to be better pupils. Research has proved time and again that those children who have had access to high-quality childcare do better socially and academically."
Mr Howarth insisted that the aim of the childcare strategy was not to create "some vast state plan", but to place the Government in an inspection role.
He called the present regulation and inspection processes for such workers "a real dog's breakfast".
He said: "There is a lot to improve in terms of the opportunity, quality and quantity of both childcare training and provision if we are going to give all our children the best start in their educational life."
Colette Kelleher, director of the Daycare Trust, called on Labour to clarify new policy before an estimated 1.1 million women enter the labour force over the next five years. Many of those will be single mothers taking up employment or training as part of the Government's Welfare to Work plans.
Ms Kelleher said: "Those children whose parents cannot afford the best childcare money can buy are unfairly missing out on an educational head start."
Dr Ian Roberts, of the Institute for Child Health, quoted research which showed the IQ of children who had attended a pre-school or daycare centre was higher for the first few years of primary school than those children who had not.
"We either pay for childcare now or pay the consequences later. Society must choose whether it prefers to pay for the prison terms of disaffected youths or the early start which can prevent that," he said.