“WOMEN are at the heart of the country’s economic growth” – that was the message from Basingstoke MP Maria Miller in her maiden speech as the women and equalities minister.

Speaking at the Deloitte Academy in London on Wednesday, Mrs Miller used her keynote address to announce a £2million Government scheme to help boost childcare.

The mother-of-three said that from April 2013, people who want to set up a nursery or childminding business can access grants of up to £500 to help cover legal or insurance costs, as well as pay for health and safety training.

The scheme is aimed at boosting childcare places across the country, which would help more parents to get into work.

Mrs Miller said: “I understand that not all mothers will want to go out to work. But we know that half of non-working mothers would like to work if they were able to arrange good quality childcare which was convenient, reliable, and affordable.

“It’s important to stimulate the market over the next year so that more childcare places are available – and more women can get into work because they have good reliable childcare.”

During the speech, Mrs Miller, who is also the Government’s Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport, said that barriers to getting women into work need to be removed.

She rejected recent suggestions for businesses to meet quotas, such as a minimum number of women sitting on company boards, but said the Government instead should “encourage employers to put in the right measures themselves”.

She said: “It makes no sense to stifle the achievement and aspiration of 50 per cent of our society. It is essential that we maximise the contribution that women make to our economy – not because of political correctness, but because of economic reality.

“Now more than ever, we need to remove artificial barriers which women and men face in the workplace.”