What should a responsible party of opposition do when confronted with what, at first glance, looks like a sensible policy proposal from the government? Labour doesn’t want to oppose for opposition’s sake. We want to welcome and support good ideas. But it is difficult to contain the incredulity listening to David Cameron attempt to convince a sceptical Conservative Party and public that he knows best when it comes to parenting.
I’m not someone who thinks that politicians should butt out and let mums and dads get on with it. Hillary Clinton is known for repeating the saying, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, and I think that she is right. If society in the form of the state want to pitch in and support, or even advise, on how to deal with the trickiest of child rearing issues such as behaviour, sleeplessness and communications then they’re very welcome. I’ll take all the help I can get.
The problem is that David Cameron has zero credibility on supporting good parenting. And I don’t mean that he left his child in the pub. It would be unfair to dwell on a parenting shortcoming, we all have them after all. The reason Cameron can’t be taken seriously on supporting parents is that he and his governments have made life harder for the majority of British parents at every opportunity since coming to power in 2010.
It’s never been tougher for parents to provide the kind of start in life for their children that they had hoped would be possible. Policies from across government departments are to blame from the removal of Child Benefit, cuts to Tax Credits, spiralling costs of childcare and the decimation of Sure Start to a shortage of midwives, cuts to charities working with the most disadvantaged families, persistent low pay, a lack of affordable housing and spiralling household debt. There has never been a government less motivated by the challenges faced by British families than this one.
There is a credibility gap here too – too much fanfare in the last parliament the Prime Minister announced the trialling of free parenting classes and relationship support for couples with new babies. Initiatives which we welcomed and continue to see as an important tool in the early intervention armoury to help parents tackle problems and provide stability for children. Yet just five per-cent of eligible parents took part in the parenting course trials and fewer than ten couples took part in the relationship support programme for new parents in six months. This is because the sign-positing services that many parents rely on to show where they can get help – like Sure Start and family support – have been systematically pared back by a government that talks the talk but fails to walk the walk because of their ideological fixation on a smaller, narrower state.
So yes, bring on the parenting classes for the parents who have the time to take them. I’m sure we can all benefit from the assistance. But don’t pretend that this initiative is part of a broad strategy to tackle inequality because it isn’t. The families who need help most won’t take part because they’re already too busy struggling to make ends meet.
The Prime Minister can have all the initiatives he wants to support families, but until he understands that making a speech in London doesn’t translate to real change on the ground without continued and sustained support and political will, parents will continue to feel hard done by his government and his policies will continue to flop.