Blair woos parents with 'one-stop' child care deal

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The Independent Online
Labour will this week propose a new deal on child care and nursery education designed to woo working parents.

It will be based on a "one-stop shop", open 10 hours a day, where parents can leave under-fives for a mixture of nursery education, play and simple child-minding. The schooling would be free, while the child care would be means-tested.

Labour believes the scheme will win middle-class votes while offering single mothers a chance to increase their income by allowing them to go to work. They think the Conservatives have missed an opportunity to address one of the big social issues because they are scared of being seen either to encourage or discourage women from working.

Labour's plan will be presented by David Blunkett, the Shadow Education Secretary, as a way of giving parents freedom of choice. Drawn up by Margaret Hodge MP, it would end the divide between child care and nursery schooling.

Labour would start with regional pilot schemes. Some of the centres, for children aged from six months to five years, might be combined with health-centre baby clinics providing routine checks and inoculations.

From the age of three, children would get a half-day's schooling, rising to a full day for four-year-olds. Parents who work part-time would be able to buy sessions according to their needs.

Labour is expected to promise that each child care session will be supervised by a qualified teacher. Wealthier parents would pay full creche fees for child care; others would be means-tested. But everyone would pay something for children up to the age of four, with a minimum of pounds 5 a week for those on income support, enshrining New Labour's message that parents have responsibilities as well as rights.

Labour hopes that, over five years, between 100,000 and 200,000 places will be funded from parental fees, cash from existing nursery subsidies, European grants and Training and Enterprise Councils.

As delegates gathered in Blackpool, however, the party's fragile ideological truce was placed under strain again when Robin Cook, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, said that there was "very real danger" the party would end up ignoring those in the greatest need.

In an interview in today's Sunday Times, Mr Cook said that winning middle- class voters must not be the Labour's sole objective. He said: "It's very important that, as we reach out to these new voters, we also remember that the coalition on which we're building a Labour victory includes the dispossessed and those who have had the toughest time under Thatcher.

"There is a very real danger that we're ignoring the needs of a minority in society who find themselves in a very difficult position, usually through no fault of their own; so much so that when someone like me comes along and tries to redress the balance, we're accused of having an odd political agenda."

Although Mr Cook has articulated this view before, the timing of his intervention will exacerbate internal tensions. There was no let-up from the party's modernising Shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown, who said, in an interview with the Independent on Sunday, that in government his message to ministers would be: "Save first. Save before you spend. There has to be a rigorous examination of the priorities of public expenditure."

This meant, Mr Brown added, "departmental ministers taking their budgets and having to justify any additional spending they may want to make by savings they can make elsewhere".

t Further reports, page 10; Castle profile, page 17; Leading article, page 18; Brian Brivati, page 19