The Government has signalled that it no longer intends leaving child-care services to the mercy of market forces.
Cheryl Gillan, the junior minister responsible for women's issues and equal opportunities, launched a consultation paper on creating a national child-care framework this week.
The paper does not set out a blueprint for action but indicates that the Department for Education and Employment should take a co-ordinating role across Government departments. It is a response to the large number of children's organisations which had pressed the case for a reappraisal of the Government's free-market policy on the supply of child care.
Ms Gillan defended the Government's record in providing help for working parents.
The Out of School Child Care initiative had created 71,000 places; tax relief for workplace nurseries amounted to Pounds 10 million; and help had been given to about 23,000 families on low incomes. She said nursery vouchers would also help working parents.
"It is precisely because of the success of these initiatives that we believe it is time to take stock of where we go from here."
Key issues included availability, affordability, accessibility, quality and coherence.
Training and enterprise councils, employers, local authorities, private and voluntary sectors, schools and parents had a role to play in shaping the policy, she said.
Women now made up nearly 45 per cent of the workforce, up from 37 per cent in 1971.
They account for 1.3 million of the projected total rise of 1.6 million workers by 2006 and more women are employed in the UK than in any other European Union country except Germany.
Copies of "Work and family:ideas and options for childcare" can be obtained from the Department for Education and Employment publications centre on 0171 510 0150. Responses to the consultation should be sent to Mike Buckley, DFEE, Room 400 Caxton House, Tothill Street, London SW1H 9NF by October 25 1996.