Childcare is looking like it is going to be a key battlefield at the next General Election - but small businesses are worried any new approach by either party could cost them dear.
The Conservatives have dismissed reports they plan to let fathers take up to a year's paid leave after the birth of a baby.
But in a major speech today, leader Michael Howard outlined plans to allow parents to offset the costs of childcare against tax and make it easier for grandparents to qualify as childminders.
More importantly for employers, he also said an incoming Conservative administration would look seriously at how it might increase maternity pay during the first six months of a child's life and reduce pressure on mothers to return to work.
His comments came as Prime Minister Tony Blair pledged to give all pre-school children access to childcare and to end the days of 'latch-key kids'.
Last month trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt met business leaders to look at ways of allowing new parents to stay at home for 12 months, an idea denounced by small businesses as "crippling".
Following today's speech, the Institute of Directors said small businesses in particular were worried childcare was becoming a political battlefield, and the practicalities of making childcare and paternity and maternity leave work were often overlooked.
"Parental leave is one of those things that is fine in theory but in practice can be quite costly for small businesses, particularly finding the replacement," a spokesman told Management Issues.
"There is a level of concern, particularly among smaller businesses, that it will be very difficult to cope with these things," he added.