THE crippling burden of childcare costs on working families is set to become a key battleground ahead of the next general election.
Families paying up to €2,000 a month for creches are being targeted by all parties as a group of voters whose intentions can be swayed by policies aimed at reducing the rising costs of childcare.
A key aim of Fianna Fail's election campaign is shoring up support among families struggling to meet these costs, while the Government is scrambling to draw up a clear strategy to tackle the issue.
The Coalition also plans to "flush out" the opposition parties on the precise costs of their policies in the run-up to the general election.
Fianna Fail recently launched a childcare policy which is being costed by the Department of Finance, and the party is also holding a series of town hall meetings specifically on the issue.
Micheal Martin's party is pledging to introduce tax breaks for working families and provide a second free pre-school year for working families.
A senior government source admitted last night that a "light has been shone" on the Coalition over childcare costs, and it was forced to establish a cross-departmental working group to address the problem.
However, the source rubbished Fianna Fail's policy document, saying it had "no basis in reality".
"We have to do something, but we can't just magic an extra €1bn, as Fianna Fail is proposing, out of nowhere. If we did, we have plans for the money," the source said.
The Government is fast-tracking the setting up of an independent budgeting office in the Oireachtas, which will cost the proposals being brought forward by the Opposition.
The Coalition will publish its economic projections for the next five years in the coming weeks, forcing the opposition parties to outline their views.
Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein and the Independents are frequently accused of producing uncosted proposals and failing to set out where funding will come from.
The Government is currently reviewing its childcare policy and hopes to roll out a raft of new measures which will appeal to families in Middle Ireland struggling to balance household budgets.
A cross-departmental working group, due to meet this week, is exploring a range of options, but tax breaks are not seen as a viable way to ease the burden on families as these could increase costs overall.
Fianna Fail director of elections Michael Moynihan said people are "crying out for policy" on childcare costs, and it will be a central plank of the party's general election strategy.