Families, flexibility, and the fight for the floating vote

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The Independent Online

No one after this week can be in any doubt about the constituency the two main political parties believe they must win over before the next general election - or the issue they have singled out as the key. Both are targeting that part of the population skilfully identified by Labour as "hard-working families", and what both seek to offer is enhanced life-work balance.

No one after this week can be in any doubt about the constituency the two main political parties believe they must win over before the next general election - or the issue they have singled out as the key. Both are targeting that part of the population skilfully identified by Labour as "hard-working families", and what both seek to offer is enhanced life-work balance.

Disappointingly, perhaps, for those seduced by the advance billing, Michael Howard is as yet merely casting out ideas for consultation. Among them, however, are some that could prove attractive to those parents who derive little advantage from any of the benefits and allowances currently in place.

The proposal that pretty much all forms of childcare, whether provided by nurseries, nannies or relatives - such as grandparents - should be tax-deductible is something that many have long argued for. Modest pay for a parent who chooses to stay at home is also worthy of debate. Paying a parent of young children to stay at home would extend a choice currently available mostly to the better off. At present, the economics encourage poorer mothers to work - often in low-paid jobs - while paying others to look after their children. This is not necessarily the best solution.

Labour's new offerings, as set out by Mr Blair, include a possible extension of maternity pay and more affordable childcare for more hours per day, including supervised pre- and after-school activities on school premises to reduce the number of "latchkey kids". For all the Government's good intentions, however, affordable childcare is still far from adequate in much of the country. And keeping schools open for longer could help working parents, but a few might use it to abdicate responsibilities that are rightfully theirs.

What both parties seem to be fumbling towards, but still do not quite grasp, is the paramount need for flexibility and choice within whatever system of benefits is on offer. Britain's relative economic success has not been matched by progress towards a better balance between family life and work - almost the reverse. If the politicians are finally addressing this failure, so much the better.

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