Stephen Byers: Frontiers for the modern welfare state

From the Daycare Trust Lecture, delivered by the former Cabinet minister in London
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The Independent Online

Childcare should be a priority for Labour, because it is one of the most tangible ways in which those traditional Labour goals of social justice and opportunity for all can be made real.

The availability of childcare places mustn't be a lottery with the winners decided by postcode. Public provision of childcare needs to be universal. This would require the Government to move beyond its present, highly-targeted approach.

A commitment to universal provision would demonstrate that Labour is in touch with the needs and aspirations of hard- pressed parents who are juggling with the responsibility of being a good parent and the task of holding down a job.

A clear picture is emerging of the state of our country in the first few years of the 21st century. It is one in which most of the population are better off than they have ever been.

But there is a hard core of 5 to 10 per cent of the population who have no qualifications; face long periods of unemployment; will exist on persistently low incomes and will suffer from poor health.

They will live in neighbourhoods that are crime ridden and suffer from anti-social behaviour. They lack access to good-value shops, have under-performing schools and inadequate health provision.

An environment in which disadvantage reinforces itself across generations. Where under-achievement leads to a spiral of decline So what should the Government do?

Labour has to be concerned and to act. All should have the chance to bridge the gap between what they are and what they have in themselves to become. Good quality childcare and effective early years provision is the new frontier for the welfare state.