Miércoles 18 de Junio de 2008, Ip nº 234

Cameron sets out plans for 'family-friendly' government
Por Andrew Sparrow

David Cameron said today that policies to support families would be among the "defining social reforms" of a Conservative government.

In a speech to the relationship-guidance charity Relate, Cameron said he wanted to make Britain more "family-friendly" in order to reduce the damage caused by social breakdown.

The Conservative leader insisted that people were not yet aware of the "scale and depth" of his party's plans, which he said went beyond "mechanistic" changes to the tax and benefit system.

He acknowledged that trying to get couples to stay together was not "comfortable territory for politicians". But he insisted that government was right to intervene because of the cost to the taxpayer of dealing with the effects of family breakdown.

Family policy is likely to be a key dividing line between the Tories and Labour at the next general election. While Cameron has already promised to change the benefit system to favour couples who stay together, Gordon Brown has spoken passionately about his opposition to the idea of apparently penalising children for the breakdown of their parents' relationship.

In Cameron's speech, which was released to the media in advance, the Conservative leader said: "Britain has one of the highest rates of family breakdown in Europe. And we also have some of the worst social problems.

"That's why I say it's time for change: to make this country more family-friendly so we can turn around the social breakdown, turn around the crime and antisocial behaviour, turn around this unacceptable situation where our cost of living's going up and the quality of life is going down.

"I don't think we'll ever get to the heart of the big problems we face, from crime and antisocial behaviour to welfare dependency and educational failure, from debt and drug addiction to entrenched poverty and stalled social mobility, if we don't help the best institution in our country – the family – do the vital work it does: bring up children.

"What that help is – and how it will be delivered – will be among the defining social reforms of the next Conservative government."

In the 1990s John Major's call for a "back to basics" approach to policy backfired because it led to him being accused of moralising about people's private lives at a time when many Tory MPs were involved in sex scandals.

In an apparent reference to this, Cameron said: "This isn't comfortable territory for politicians. Our relationships break down and fail just like other people's, arguably more so.

"This goes to the heart of people's personal lives – and some might say the best thing politicians can do is keep their noses out. But I think that's a bit of a cop-out.

"Politicians are the ones who take taxpayers' money and write billions of pounds' worth of cheques to deal with the costs of family breakdown. So I think politicians have a responsibility to do what we can to keep the costs down."

Cameron said that one option would be to spend more on relationship support. Social breakdown sparked in part by family breakdown costs the taxpayer £20bn a year, compared to the £23m annual budget of Relate, he said.

"I want us to destigmatise relationship support so people feel completely comfortable, if they have a nagging difficulty in their relationship, in getting help from organisations like Relate," he said.

"Government can take a lead here. One way is to start early - and insist, for example, that there's no sex education in schools unless it includes relationship education."

Cameron reaffirmed his commitment to end what the Tories call "the couple penalty" – the rules in the benefit system that can enable couples to receive more if they decide to live apart. He also said the tax system should recognise marriage.

"I do think it's wrong that we're the only country in the western world that doesn't properly recognise marriage in the tax system - and I will ensure that we do," he said.

"So we will change tax and benefits to make them more family-friendly. But I don't want anyone to think I have a mechanistic view of these things - that a tax break for marriage will stop family breakdown in its tracks overnight. It won't.

"This reform is about the message, more than the money. The message it sends is that our society values commitment and backs the public commitment two people make when they get married."

People are not yet aware of the "scale and depth" of the family-friendly reform Tories are planning, Cameron said.

"That does include getting family finance right," he said.

"But it also includes giving families more time to spend together. Giving families the help and support they need when the pressure is at its greatest. Helping to ensure affordable childcare. Taking on the unrelenting commercial influences on childhood.

"And, as Relate so clearly demonstrates, it includes understanding the vital importance of the emotional aspects of relationships and family life."

In response to Cameron's speech, Beverley Hughes, the families minister, said that the Tory leader had "no credibility on supporting families" because he voted against longer paid maternity leave and giving parents the right to request flexible working in the 2001-05 parliament.

She also said that the Conservatives' plans for marriage tax breaks and higher tax credits for couples were unfunded and that "marriage tax breaks would exclude millions, including, for example, offering nothing to a widow or a woman abandoned by her husband".

She went on: "While Cameron offers nothing more than warm words, Labour will continue to build on its successful family-friendly measures, including the recent announcement to extent the right to request flexible working to parents of children up to the age of 16."

  09/06/2008. The Guardian.