David Cameron says parenting classes are not 'nanny state'
Free parenting classes are not a "nanny state" policy, David Cameron insisted as he unveiled a number of initiatives aimed at helping families.
The Prime Minister said it was ludicrous that people had to train before they were allowed to drive a car but could bring up a baby with no practice at all.
Vouchers for £100-worth of parenting classes are now on offer from high street chemist Boots and health professionals to parents of children aged up to five in three trial areas.
There will also be a new targeted NHS email and text service aimed at those expecting a baby or in the first month of parenthood.
It is designed to provide "regular, relevant and tailored" advice such as videos of midwives demonstrating bathing and other techniques, plus advice from other parents.
Initially the parenting classes will be piloted in Middlesbrough, Camden in north London and High Peak, Derbyshire - but they could be extended throughout England if successful.
Courts can already impose such classes on parents of unruly children, but ministers hope that the involvement of Boots will persuade families to see them as just as normal as ante-natal classes.
The scheme, known as Can Parent, is said to be the brainchild of Mr Cameron's strategy adviser Steve Hilton.
As well as parenting classes and the new digital service, subsidised relationship support sessions will also be piloted from July for all expectant parents and those with children up to the age of two.
The project will be tested in York, Leeds, North Essex, the City of London and the London boroughs of Hackney, Islington and Westminster, with up to £1 million made available for the trial up to March 2014.
The initiatives are launched nine months after the riots that swept across England last summer, for which ministers blamed a breakdown of family discipline.
Mr Cameron said: "Parents are nation-builders.
"It's through love and sheer hard work that we raise the next generation with the right values.
"That's why this Government is doing everything possible to support parents.
"This is not the nanny state - it's the sensible state.
"It's ludicrous that we should expect people to train for hours to drive a car or use a computer, but when it comes to looking after a baby we tell people to just get on with it.
"I would have loved more guidance when my children were babies.
"We've all been there when it's the middle of the night, your child won't stop crying and you don't know what to do.
"And to those who say that Government should forget about parenting and families and focus on the big, gritty issues, I'd say these are the big, gritty issues.
"Families don't just shape us as individuals, they make a stronger society.
"That's why supporting families is right at the top of our agenda - and I'm going to make sure it stays that way."
Mr Cameron's comments came after he indicated previously that he was "hugely attracted" to the idea of tax breaks on childcare to help parents get back to work.
The economy would be stronger if mothers could be helped back into the workplace after having a child, he argued.
"Where we've put our firepower so far in this agenda is helping the least well-off parents get back into the workforce, so we have increased the hours of free nursery childcare for two, three and four-year-olds in order that they can start looking for work and getting back into the job market," he said during a visit to Manchester.
"I'm hugely attracted to the idea of making childcare tax allowable... It seems so odd that you make other things tax allowable but not this thing that can help people be able to get back to work."
But he stressed that the Government would have to find the money for such a move.
"The issue we always have to deal with is where does the money come from?" he said.
"With everything we do, someone's tax break is someone else's tax burden.
"We have a limited amount of resources, a limited amount of firepower. Where do we put that?"
Speaking after Mr Cameron's announcement of extra support for families, Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said: "We all want to give our children the best start in life.
"But sometimes, particularly for first-time parents, bringing a new baby home can be a daunting as well as a happy experience.
"That is why we are determined to help people become more confident in becoming a parent, from pregnancy to the start of their children's lives."
Mr Cameron said he would have liked parenting lessons himself.
"I've got three, and the youngest is not yet two, and I still sometimes think I would love to have a bit more information about how to get them to do the things I need them to do sometimes," he told ITV1's Daybreak.
"Somebody told me the other day you are meant to praise them seven times more often than you criticise them - try that in a day, it's quite tough."
He said his wife Samantha was "one of those mums who read all the books and was very committed to getting it right".
Labour MP Frank Field, who was a welfare minister in Tony Blair's government and advises the coalition on poverty, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I've never met a young person who has said, 'I want to be a poor parent', and yet we have increasing numbers of them turning out to be poor parents.
"It is the job of the state to kick-start activities which in the past would be done by families and civil society."
Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg said: "Any new scheme must be able to reach a wide range of parents from different backgrounds and provide real value for money."
Mr Cameron later talked to mothers about the plans during a visit to Coram Parents' Centre in north London, which is one of the organisations that will run the parenting classes.
He said it was "nonsense" to suggest measures were the nanny state in action.
"These are sensible practical tips from midwives."
Asked if the money would be better going to existing children's services such as the Sure Start scheme that no longer has ring-fenced funding, he said the digital contact plan was an extra scheme that would reach everyone.
He said: "We are putting up the money that goes into early intervention.
"This is an extra service. The great thing about it is everyone that goes to have a baby on the NHS gets a midwife attached to them, this is a really personal service they can get via email or other methods so they keep in touch and they have those vital tips.
"The great thing about this scheme is because everyone who goes to the NHS has the midwife, this service is available to everyone.
"You've always got the problem otherwise, you set up a great new service and it's sometimes the most active people that come in and use it.
"This is for everyone so it will reach those hard-to-reach mums who probably need it the most."
Mary Rose Brady, head of Coram Parents' Centre, said: "This is the missing piece of the jigsaw in the support that's offered to parents.
"Parents tell us no one gives you a manual when you have kids, so here's our manual."
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