Politicians need to act on parenting, says Cameron
David Cameron: "What happens in the home really matters"
Conservative leader David Cameron has said politicians should play a role in helping develop parenting skills to try to build a "responsible society".
What mattered most to a child's chances was "not the wealth of their upbringing but the warmth of their parenting".
"Active intervention" was needed in the case of the most dysfunctional families he said, pledging to revamp Sure Start to focus it on those who need it most.
Labour said he would axe Sure Start for modest and middle income families.
Mr Cameron was among people speaking at the launch of an inquiry into the importance of "character" in social life at the think tank Demos - sharing a platform with Labour backbencher Frank Field.
Mr Cameron said talking about getting involved in family life had been "tricky territory" for politicians but social problems could not be tackled "if we just ignore character and behaviour".
He said research by Demos suggested that good parenting was more important than wealth in determining life chances and he said it was important that the "right structures" were in place to build "strong and secure families".
We can't just stand by for fear of looking judgemental
"Of course there's a link between material poverty and poor life chances, but the full picture is that that link also runs through the style of parenting that children in poor households receive," he said.
"Because the research shows that while the style of responsible parenting I've spoken about today is more likely to occur in wealthier households, children in poor households who are raised with that style of parenting do just as well."
He praised Mr Field - who was welfare minister early in Tony Blair's government, and has long argued for a more radical approach to be taken to address welfare dependency - saying he had been willing to "say the unsayable".
The Tory leader said he would act to develop parenting skills with families who "are not functioning properly".
"We can't just stand by for fear of looking judgemental and we can't pretend that our other family friendly policies are enough here. It is our duty to meet the urgency of these cases with active intervention," he said.
Mr Cameron said if he won power he would revamp the government's Sure Start scheme - which he said had "lost its focus" and needed to get back to its "original purpose, early intervention increasing its focus on those who need its help most".
Mr Cameron and Frank Field were at the launch
Independent organisations with a "proven track record" would be contracted to run children's centres and "reach out to dysfunctional and disadvantaged local families" - partially paid on results.
The scheme would also be boosted with 4,200 health visitors to give families more personal support in the home.
Mr Cameron said he was committed to Sure Start but admitted he could not guarantee to protect its funding - the only areas the Tories have pledged to protect are health spending and overseas aid.
He also restated a pledge to recognise marriage and civil partnerships in the tax system - after last week admitting he "messed up" over the policy when he said he hoped to bring them in but could not promise them.
Mr Field said he was not there to endorse the Conservative position: "I am here today because it has been a topic I have been trying to promote for well over a decade."
Parents need policies not platitudes from David Cameron
Dawn Primarolo Families minister
He said he did not agree that tax breaks for married couples should be prioritised - saying efforts should be focussed on reforming the tax credit system instead.
Children and families minister Dawn Primarolo said the Conservatives would cut £200m a year from Sure Start "and take support away for families on modest and middle incomes".
"Parents need policies not platitudes from David Cameron. Families in Britain don't just want warm words, they deserve to know exactly what David Cameron would do to support them," she said.
Anne Longfield, of charity 4Children, welcomed Mr Cameron's commitment to Sure Start but said it must remain available to all to avoid stigmatising families.
All the main parties have been stepping up campaigning ahead of a general election, widely expected to be called on 6 May.
Mr Cameron's speech came as Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg outlined his party's approach to the general election campaign.
And Gordon Brown is due to issue a rallying call to Labour MPs later, after an attempted leadership coup failed last week, telling them they can defeat the Conservatives.
This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.