We need more health visitors, minister told

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Indy Politics

Children's Secretary Ed Balls came under pressure over health visitor numbers today as the Tories and Labour embarked on a battle over family values.

The Cabinet Minister was challenged over the issue by Mumsnet co-founder Justine Roberts and GMTV presenter Kate Garraway as he unveiled new proposals from the Government to boost the role of fathers.

Mr Balls was read a message on GMTV from a woman in Leeds who gave birth to her first baby in September. She said: "Get rid of the leaflets, employ more midwives and health visitors, they are in desperately short supply."

Garraway, who gave birth to her second child last year, told Mr Balls: "A friend of mine who gave birth to a premature baby recently says she still hasn't had a single home visit. She can't understand why, there is just a shortage of health visitors."

Ms Roberts, co-founder of the website, said: "I do think, from Mumsnet what we see is, what people really are crying out for, is some really excellent professional hands-on help in the early days after birth and at home in the first week, particularly in establishing breastfeeding.

"We did a survey last year - 52% of women said they would breastfeed longer and have had a less stressful experience if they had more support from both midwives and health visitors.

"I think the number of health visitors has actually fallen in the last five years."

Her remarks came as the Conservatives said they would include a pledge for an additional 4,200 health visitors in their election manifesto.

Mr Balls, who was unveiling a guide for new fathers, said: "I have been totally clear, as has Andy Burnham, the Health Minister, we have got to see more health visitors, we have got a plan there which is being led by the Chief Nursing Officer. I want lots more health visitors in the future."

He added that advice from health visitors in children's centres was also very important.

His remarks came as the Government pledged greater legal rights for grandparents, part of a raft of proposals being unveiled by Mr Balls on the family.

Speaking on GMTV, Mr Balls said: "To keep dads engaged in those early days is really important, especially for younger and first- time fathers.

"The support of fathers to give up smoking in pregnancy or to do breastfeeding is really important as well."

He added: "The reaction from fathers is really, really positive, it is only part of it, but the information, the helpline, all the stuff in there goes down really, really well."

Under the Government plans for grandparents, they will no longer have to seek leave from the courts before applying for contact with their grandchildren. A website - BeGrand - will also be launched to provide information and advice on their rights and role.

Mr Balls has stressed the "invaluable role" played by millions of grandparents, but said that when families broke down they often found it difficult to maintain links with grandchildren.

He said: "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.

"Removing the barriers that grandparents face in courts, when they wish to see their grandchildren through times of divorce and separation, will relieve an enormous burden currently placed on grandparents."

The Tories accused the Government of copying their ideas and said the Green Paper on Families did not go far enough to "mend Britain's broken society".

David Willetts, who is responsible for the party's family policy, said: "This adoption of the Conservative idea to give greater rights to grandparents is a welcome move.

"For far too long the Government has focused only on the relationship between mother and baby. In doing so they have ignored the other important relationships like those between parents and involving other family members like grandparents.

"But the Government's general approach of creating leaflets and websites without confronting the big issues does not meet the challenge that is before us."

Meanwhile, former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith renewed his assault on the Government for failing to support families.

Mr Duncan Smith's Centre for Social Justice issued a dossier claiming that more than 40% of children are now born outside marriage, and child abuse has risen 34% over the last four years.

"The UK spends more public money on children than most other advanced countries, and gets some of the worst results," he said.

"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."