THE SAFETY of thousands of children is at risk in Wales because councils are failing to carry out mandatory checks on playgroups and childminders.
Welsh authorities say they cannot afford to inspect daycare providers. More than 1,200 childcare workers have escaped any kind of official inspection, a new Welsh Office study has revealed.
The finding is a blow to the Government's national childcare plans which rely on private nurseries and pre-schools. Leading childcare campaigners have warned that English authorities may also be failing to make effective checks.
Collette Kelleher, director of the Daycare Trust, said: "The situation varies wildly between authorities. The whole system of regulation and inspection needs to be radically overhauled and tightened up."
Later this year the Government will publish proposals on daycare regulation. In July, Helen Stacey, a registered childminder, was jailed for life for the murder of six-month-old Joseph Mackin. Council checks had failed to uncover that she was taking medication for depression and that her own two children had been taken into care. She had also been a prostitute.
The Welsh Office is now demanding explanations for the "large scale failure" before officials decide what to do. In Swansea, the council with the worst record, none of the authority's 250 childminders and 66 playgroups was inspected during 1996-97.
David Evans, head of the social services inspectorate for Wales, said he was "very disturbed" by the findings. He wants answers from the nine authorities - Swansea, Cardiff, Neath, Port Talbot, the Vale of Glamorgan, the Isle of Anglesey, Gwynedd, Wrexham and Denbighshire - as to why they have failed to meet their statutory duties under the 1989 Children Act. Mr Evans has warned the councils that they now face "regular scrutiny".
Hugh Gardner, director of Swansea social services, said that the council was carrying out emergency inspections, but did not have the cash to ensure full inspections.
Derek Rees, chairman of Cardiff council's social services committee, blamed an increase in people wanting to become childminders. He said: "We are fully aware of the requirements on us to carry out checks I but resources will only stretch so far."