Always a close ally of the prime minister, Stephen Byers’ most
recent speech to The Daycare Trust confirmed that the question
“what to do about children?” is still being bandied about
government departments. For both Blairites and Brownites have
latched on to the rather obvious truth that many – or some would
say “most” – of society’s problems stem from bad experiences in the
first few years of life.
From that point there is a split between the two camps. The “real
Labour” Brownites instinctively look to the state to “solve” the
problems, while New Labour knows that the state is rarely good at
such social engineering and frets about losing middle class votes.
The chancellor has tended to lead the debate to date, promising far
greater sums than the £4.5bn he has already committed to
children’s services over a four-year period. He is a
“universalist”: someone who believes that the same solutions should
be rolled out for everyone. Byers tied himself into this belief
last week – which revealed something about his judgement of Tony
Meanwhile, some ministers, not least the trade and industry
secretary Patricia Hewitt, have started to worry about the
government communicating a message that the only good parent is a
working parent. One New Labour adviser told me: “Some of our MPs
give the impression that, if children spent as little time as
possible with their real parents and as much time as possible in
government-controlled centres, then all our troubles would be
Do not assume that as a Conservative I espouse a strong
pro-stay-at-home-mothers line. I don’t. But nor do I believe that
the only good parent is one in paid employment. Hence the effect of
polarising the debate leads to endless studies purporting to
“prove” what is best for children and their parents.
Surely, jiggling around with tax and benefits to force a parent to
take paid employment can be as cruel as forcing them to stay at
home because of a lack of affordable, quality child care.
But a workable tax and benefit system which does not discriminate
between working or stay-at-home parents, with decision-making on
child care facilities taken at a local level and the best possible
support for vulnerable groups, taken together, could deliver a far
bigger vote than trying to impose one’s prejudices on others.
Sheila Gunn is a political commentator and a Conservative
councillor in the London Borough of Camden.