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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 November 2007, 09:41 GMT
Families become hot political topic
Analysis
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

It seems only yesterday that party leaders were falling over each other to prove how "inclusive" their policies were - notably on the issue of the family and exactly what constitutes one.

A wedding ring
Marriage and the family are back on the agenda
Single parents, same-sex partnerships and other variations on the family unit, it was insisted, should not be discriminated against in government policy.

There seemed to be a consensus that, while the traditional family unit of married mum and dad bringing up children in a stable home was probably the ideal, there had been such dramatic social changes over the decades that it was unrealistic, even unacceptable, to base policy on it.

After all, it was argued, the old Victorian extended family had, thanks to equally dramatic social change, given way to the nuclear family.

It was claimed by some, however, that this was largely a matter of political correctness and that policy had actually become anti-family and marriage.

These were often the same groups who insisted many social problems were a result of a breakdown in traditional family life.

Meanwhile, Tory prime minister John Major started cutting the married couple's tax allowance in the mid-1990s before it was finally abolished by Labour in 2000.

'Good thing'

The past couple of years, however, has seen a distinct shift of emphasis with many politicians of all colours once again holding up marriage and the traditional family as the ideal - and not getting shouted down.

Andy Burnham
Cabinet minister Andy Burnham has spoken in support of marriage
Conservative leader David Cameron recently told the BBC's Newsnight: "Marriage is, on the whole, a good thing that should be rewarded not punished.''

And chief secretary to the Treasury, Andy Burnham, told the Daily Telegraph newspaper: "It's not wrong that the tax system should recognise commitment and marriage."

He added: "I don't think the Tories should have a monopoly on this kind of thinking. This is totally where Gordon [Brown] is coming from, your roots and your family are everything."

That, however, led to claims he was attacking current government policy.

And, in his party conference speech, the prime minister appeared to re-assert the existing Labour view, even quoting the Bible in his defence.

"I say to the children of two-parent families, one-parent families, foster parent families; to the widow bringing up children: I stand for a Britain that supports as first-class citizens not just some children and some families but supports all children and all families.

"We all remember that Biblical saying: 'Suffer the little children to come unto me'. No Bible I have ever read says: 'Bring just some of the children'."

Tax break

None the less, there have now been signs that government policy on the family may be open to change after the apparent popularity of some of David Cameron's announcements.

Leaving school
Children are at the core of parties' policies
Specifically, Mr Cameron's pledge to raise the inheritance tax threshold to 1million caused a minor sensation during his party conference.

Chancellor Alistair Darling was then accused of stealing Tory clothes when he announced an effective doubling of the limit for married couples - by making their allowances transferable - in his pre-Budget report just days later.

Labour stresses that, thanks to government policy, six million families receiving child benefit and child tax credit will see their minimum payments rise from 11 in 1997 to 31, a rise from 575 a year to 1,600 a year.

The government is also placing an emphasis on children and poverty, with minister for the family, Ed Balls, drawing up a national Children's Plan.

Meanwhile, the Tories' social justice policy group, headed by former leader Iain Duncan Smith, suggested the introduction of a 20-a-week tax break for married couples.

The Tories have not yet adopted this as policy, but Mr Cameron has announced his election manifesto will recognise marriage in the tax system.

The Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, insist tax breaks for married couples are the wrong way to go, and have placed emphasis on helping couples stay together.

All three parties seem to agree one of the greatest challenges, however, is to tackle poverty and unemployment.

Once again, this is an area where the Tories are planning to come up with fresh thinking and which the government is focusing much of its energy.

What seems clear is that the family is set to become one of the big battle grounds in the next general election and we can expect to see some considerable policy developments from all three main parties between then and now.





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