Labour turns to grandparents in fight for the 'family vote'

Party unveils its response to Conservative plans to cut tax for married couples

Grandparents will today be promised new rights by the Government as the battle to win the "family vote" intensifies in the run-up to the general election.

Ministers will announce plans to scrap a requirement for grandfathers and grandmothers to apply to the courts when they are denied contact with their grandchildren by the "resident parent." An estimated one million children lose contact with their grandparents following adoption, divorce, separation or family feuds.

Some 68 per cent of grandparents feel very close to their grandchild. But while most enjoy caring for children, half of them feel stressed. A "BeGrand" website for grandparents will provide a directory of services and peer support, online advisers, information and advice ranging from cooking to legal rights. In a Green Paper published today, the Children's Secretary, Ed Balls, will acknowledge the important role many grandparents play in supporting and caring for grandchildren.

Mr Balls will say: "Grandparents are often the unsung heroes when it comes to informal care arrangements for children and young people. They play an invaluable role for millions of families, helping to bring up children and also helping working families balance work and family life and stepping in when things go wrong It's time they receive the recognition they deserve."

The Government will publish a "New Dads Guide", which will be added to the popular Bounty packs for parents-to-be, to give tailored advice and tips for fathers ahead of a child's birth. The Royal College of Midwives has also offered to produce new advice to its members on how to ensure fathers are more "engaged" before, during and after the birth.

Mr Balls will reject as "expensive and unfair" David Cameron's flagship proposal for marriage to be rewarded in the tax system. The Green Paper will pledge to support "strong and stable relationships" whether in or out of marriage.

The Conservative leader believes passionately in his policy but it has become a headache for him. Fully transferable tax allowances between men and women would cost £4.9bn a year and the public deficit will force the Tories to opt for a more modest scheme. They are struggling with the details and may not be ready to declare their hand when they issue their own Green Paper on families shortly.

A possible compromise will be proposed today by the Centre for Social Justice led by Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader. It will admit that transferable allowances are unrealistic in the current climate. Instead, it will recommend they are handed only to married couples with children up to the age of three. That would cost £600m and would benefit these families by about £20 a week.

Mr Duncan Smith said: "Under Labour, rates of family breakdown have soared. Only by recognising and supporting marriage in the tax system, and abolishing the couple penalty in the benefit system, will we begin to restore the British family to health."

David Willetts, the shadow Cabinet member responsible for family policy, said last night: "The Government's general approach of creating leaflets and websites without confronting the big issues does not meet the challenge that is before us.

"We have outlined a comprehensive approach to encourage stability and tackle social breakdown – extending flexible working, more health visitors to support new parents, and encouraging commitment by recognising marriage in the tax system."

What the parties say...

LABOUR

Marriage

Gordon Brown and his Labour ministers believe that "the modern family comes in all shapes and sizes". They oppose tax relief for married couples because they think it unfair, expensive and helps the better off. They have pledged to support "strong and stable relationships" whether the partners are married or not. Above all, they say that politicians should not "preach" about marriage.

Parents

Labour has given parents with children aged up to 16 the right to request flexible working hours, and this could be extended. In his election manifesto, Mr Brown may pledge to double paternity leave from two weeks to four, and to allow parents to split parental leave between them. A new guide will encourage fathers to play bigger role in their children's early lives.

Children

Labour will hit its target of providing 3,500 children's centres by March, and will protect the budget for its Sure Start scheme until 2012. It aims to abolish child poverty by 2020 but will miss a target to halve it by this year. It would keep the £500m a year child trust fund scheme and offer a £250 "nest egg" voucher for all newborn babies.

CONSERVATIVES

Marriage

David Cameron's Conservatives want to reward marriage in the tax system by end of their first five-year term in power but detailed proposals have not been decided. The party claims that a couple with young children are four times more likely to stay together if they are married. The Tories want to end the "couple penalty", which they believe encourages couples on benefits to split up by making them better off.

Parents

Mr Cameron has said he would extend the right to request parental leave to parents whose children are below the age of 18. He has pledged to make Britain's public sector a "world leader" on flexible working opportunities, and has vowed to let parents divide 12 months paternity and maternity leave between them. A crackdown on "deadbeat dads" has also been promised, possibly through cuts to their state benefits.

Children

The Tories plan to "improve" the Sure Start scheme by using outside organisations to run the centres and refocus them on supporting "disadvantaged and dysfunctional families". Some money would be switched to provide more health visitors based at centres. The party would scrap child trust funds for well-off families to save £300m a year, possibly restricting them to families with incomes of less than £16,040.

LIBERAL DEMOCRATS

Marriage

Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats oppose tax incentives for marriage, saying it is wrong to "spend billions providing a tax bribe for people simply to hold up a marriage certificate".

Parents

They would allow mothers and fathers to share parental leave. Mr Clegg says the current system is unfair on fathers, many of whom want more than two weeks off work when a baby is born, and sends a dangerous message that "looking after a baby is a woman's job". The party says: "We need to make all fathers understand parenting is their job, too." Mr Clegg's long-term goal is 19 months' parental leave but he does not promise to deliver it within five years.

Children

The party wants tax credits fixed for six months so that payments are stable and preditcable. Its previous plans for free universal childcare have been dropped as too expensive. Instead, it would focus money on helping poorer children and a giving £10,000 tax-free allowance to all, taking four million people out of the tax system. Mr Clegg has also pledged to abolish the child trust funds brought in by Labour.

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