Parent power is now influencing policies

LORNA MARSH From kissing babies to revising tax credits, the fight to woo the family vote is more intense than ever. As the first real battle cries sound from Britain’s two main parties, Lorna Marsh reports on how parent politics is hotting up.

LORNA MARSH

Before 1997 the issues that dominated party political battlegrounds tended to be health, taxation and education.

You would have been forgiven for thinking parents, particularly mums, were a minority.

But since Labour's election and its introduction of the revolutionary working and child tax credits system, both it and the Tories have realised that the issue is one of the biggest potential vote winners.

Both came out this week to outline their policies on benefits for parents - whether that means incentives to stay at home or go out to work.

It might have been dressed up as a rallying cry to fathers to play a more active role in their children's development, but Tony Blair's interview on GMTV yesterday was really a chance to showcase one of Labour's more commended achieve-ments and outline future plans.

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The Sure Start project has been hailed as one of the Labour government's "proudest achieve-ments", and after announcing it had met a target of opening 1,000 centres, Mr Blair pledged to press on with plans to open an extra 1,500 by 2008.

Previously targeted at the country's poorest areas, he announced that, within four years, every neighbourhood would have access to the services, which include healthcare for children, advice on parenting, pre-natal classes, and information about jobs, training, housing, healthy eating and work.

"It's a fantastic service. It helps people before their kids are born and after their kids are born," said Mr Blair.

"By tailoring what it offers to different parents, letting them choose what services it wants, Sure Start exemplifies the government's vision for modern public services."

Government spending on Sure Start, which already reaches 800,000 children, is set to double from £928m in 2004-05 to £1.8bn in 2007-08.

And the prime minister did not miss the opportunity to outline to viewers that the number of registered childcare places had doubled since 1997.

The interview was impressively well-timed, coming as it did amid criticisms of the second biggest change for working parents since Labour came to power - the controversial tax credits system - and following David Cameron's alternative tax promises to parents.

A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) yesterday showed that the complex system means millions of people find it more attractive to stay at home rather than go to work.

The damning report, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, illustrates how those wanting to work overtime, or simply to start a full-time job, face giving up their credits.

It said some 2.2 million people were discouraged from putting in extra hours, because they faced losing half of all their extra income.

Stuart Adam, the report's chief author, said: "They [tax credits] have given a lot more money to low-income families, but if they go on to become higher-income families, it is taken away from them.

"Increasing means-tested child tax credit is effective at reducing poverty directly, but its indirect effect might be to increase poverty through weakening incentives for parents to work."

The conclusion is a serious blow for Chancellor Gordon Brown, who has frequently claimed that his tax credits scheme is reducing poverty and encouraging people back to work.

It will also heap more pressure on the Conservative Party to overhaul the present tax scheme.

George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, did not miss the chance to capitalise on the report.

"For all Gordon Brown's admirable ambition to tackle poverty, here is the most damaging evidence yet from one of our most respected think-tanks, which shows that his policies are in fact making poverty more entrenched," he said.

But the alternatives offered up by Tory leader David Cameron were, by his own admission, so far only the "floating" of ideas.

He signalled in a speech on Wednesday that the Conservatives could phase out targeted tax credits - replacing them with tax relief on childcare and transferable tax allowances.

The idea of allowing stay-at-home parents to transfer their £5,000 tax allowances to their working partners - worth up to £2,000 a year to married couples or people in same-sex civil partnerships - is commendable, but where does it leave single parents or those who want to work?

Family campaigners and the Labour party warned that the plans could punish those on the lowest incomes, although Mr Cameron's support for tax relief on any form of childcare, allowing parents to pay grandparents or friends for

minding their children, must be welcomed.

Whatever side you stand on the battlelines, and whether parents feel they are being corralled into working or staying at home or turning down extra hours and promotion, at least parents have moved on from the days of paltry blanket payments to become a powerful influence on policy-making.