Maria Miller MP: A family-friendly Britain
Like many women, I worked for a number of years before having my eldest daughter and then I went back to work when she was about 5 months old. In fact now, more than half of mums return to work by the time their baby is 6 months old; for many, it is not because they are hardened careerists but because of financial necessity.
Throughout our children’s lives the pressure on parents grows: from carefully dodging the chocolate and sweets placed enticingly near the checkout at the supermarket, to ensuring our children don’t spend too much time in front of the TV rather than being out kicking a ball. You want them to walk to school because it is good to develop their independence, and its green, but what about ‘stranger danger’? Having had one child you think it will be easy second time around, yet accepted practices around the care for babies change: dummies may have been frowned on in 2005 but now they are the latest way you can cut the risk of cot death. And then there are the new challenges - protecting our children from the dangers of internet chat rooms and social networking sites without cutting them off from their friends. One thing is for certain, the challenges we face as parents will continue to change and evolve. Yet the Government does not seem to have grasped that the support parents need has changed too, particularly in those early weeks and months.
The highest birth rate is now amongst 30-35 year old women and motherhood is, more than ever before, a planned event. Unlike previous generations, many women do not have their family close by for support and advice during this period of upheaval and adjustment; little wonder that more than half of mothers feel lonely and isolated in those first few months.
Midwives, health visitors and community groups such as the National Childbirth Trust do a tremendous job. But they are stretched too thinly. The shortfall in professional support probably explains the rapid growth of websites such as Mumsnet, where mums can come together and share their experiences of raising children. The site has about 375,000 visitors a month and is a vivid demonstration of how the Internet is breaking down geographic boundaries and bringing together groups of mutual interest.
However, the support we give families if they are to survive and thrive cannot be limited in this way. At our Spring Forum, David Cameron announced policies which underline the Conservative Party’s commitment to supporting modern family life. There is substantial evidence that support for families right from the start really matters because if children enjoy a secure and stable family life, have access to a good education and good healthcare they are more likely to succeed in adult life. This means that they will be less dependent on the state and so reduce the demands that they make on public services.
There are many areas where changes could make a big difference to family life. The current rules on parental leave are unnecessarily rigid and inflexible. Dads can take two weeks paid paternity leave, meaning only the mother really has the choice to stay at home on a full-time basis in the first year of her child’s life. Such a difference only serves to widen the gender pay gap, now at 20%, among the highest in Europe. 7 in 10 fathers say they would like to be more involved in childcare but the current rules don’t give parents a real choice. That is why we have announced that parents will have between them 52 weeks flexible parental leave. The first 14 weeks would automatically apply to the mother and it would then be up to the parents how to use the remaining 38 weeks. Splitting the time or even taking time off together allows parenting to be more of a shared enterprise right from the start.
We have also announced our policy of a universal health visitor service for all families with children from birth to five years. Three quarters of parents want support from a professional on child development and health care matters. Despite this massive demand, the Government have failed to invest in the training and retention of health workers, leading to a 10% decline in numbers in the past three years, and an expected shortfall of 4,200 health visitors by 2010.
The Government is not listening to parents. It wants to spend £200 million on untrained Sure Start “outreach” workers when their own research shows that a universal service through trained health professionals is more effective, particularly in reaching vulnerable families. We think this money would be better used on training and paying 4,200 more trained health visitors- the professionals that parents want and trust.
Parents are itching for practical, professional support. We are committed to helping parents with the difficult of task of child-rearing. Our policies allow parents to draw on more professional, qualified support, to help lessen that feeling of isolation. It is a Conservative Government who will support parents and a Conservative Government that has the vision to make Britain the most family-friendly country in the world