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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 April, 2005, 16:39 GMT 17:39 UK
Election Issues: Families and children
By Kim Catcheside
BBC News social affairs correspondent

Nursery school class
Labour has pledged to expand child-care places in schools
The issues of work-life balance, childcare and poverty provide us with a rare glimpse of clear blue water between the two main political parties.

On childcare and child poverty there is also evidence of progress under the Labour Government.

In 1998, Tony Blair made a historic pledge to eradicate child poverty in Britain within 20 years, to halve it by 2010 and to reduce it by a quarter by 2005.


Poverty targets

When he spoke there were more than four million children living in poor households, and the UK had one of the worst records on child poverty in the developed world.

Scotland: Partly Devolved
Wales: Partly Devolved
NI: Partly Devolved
Devolved issues are the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, or NI Assembly. Tax credits for parents and maternity leave are decided by the UK Parliament.

Labour appeared to be on track to meet its child povety target, but the latest figures have been disappointing, leading the independent think tank, the IFS to predict that Labour was in danger of falling short of its planned 25% reduction by 2005.

Most experts think that more radical redistributive policies will be needed to halve and then abolish child poverty.

The Conservatives would abandon the targets Labour has set itself on child poverty, but the shadow work and pensions secretary, David Willetts says that a Conservative government would continue to publish figures and to be judged by them.

The Liberal Democrats would stick with the government targets.

Tax credits

Both opposition parties are highly critical of the tax credit system which has been Labour's main approach to tackling child poverty .

Father and baby
Fathers may get more rights to paternity leave

This gives extra financial support to poor families in the form of tax credits to make work pay.

As well as subsidising low wages, credits also pay towards the cost of childcare.

Conservative and Liberal Democrats say tax credits are too complicated and prone to error.

The Liberal Democrats would pay them as benefits, while the Conservatives would modify the system to make it fairer to families with two parents - at the moment single parents are the biggest gainers.

While it is certainly true that tax credits are making millions of families significantly better off, the system has been dogged by problems which are causing considerable hardship to many of the poorest.

Thousands who have been paid too much, have had credits withdrawn and are struggling to repay the money they owe.

The Conservatives have promised an amnesty on overpayments .

Key battleground

The issues of childcare and family friendly working are key election battlegrounds.

On childcare we have a rare glimpse of a philosophical divide between the Conservatives and Labour.

Labour sees high quality formal childcare as a way of creating more social equality.

The Conservatives think parents should have the freedom to choose the kind of care their children receive, and plan to give an extra 50 tax credit to all parents of children under five to spend as they like.

There are many more childcare places now than there were in 1997, and the government estimates over half a million places have been created.

But the National Audit Office has found that new childcare provision is often unsustainable and that for every two places created, one has closed.

Campaigners for more childcare provision also complain that too few of these places are in subsidised, affordable nurseries.

Five-year plan

If it wins the election, Labour has promised to transform the availability of childcare in England over the next five years .

It is promising to extend the number of hours of free care and education for three and four year-olds and to create out -of -school care from 8am until 6pm for every child aged between three and14 whose parents want it.

Out of school care will be provided in new extended schools. To help parents pay, the childcare tax credit is being raised to a maximum of 300 a week.

The Conservatives criticise what they see as the inflexibility of Labour's ideas.

At the moment tax credits can only be claimed for properly regulated care.

Many poor families prefer to use informal care from grandparents or friends.

The Conservatives would allow parents to pay anyone they liked to look after their children.

The Liberal Democrats support the Labour strategy.

They would also extend the current network of early years centres which offer child care and help with employment training and health to families in poor areas.

These would be expanded to cover the whole of England. The Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament would decide what to do in Wales and Scotland - although childcare credits would be paid nationally.

Maternity pay

All the parties are promising to extend maternity pay to make it easier for mothers to stay at home with very young babies.

From April this year, this is paid at 106 a week for 26 weeks.

Labour has already announced this will be extended to 9 months. It promises to increase payments to 12 months over the course of the next Parliament.

Fathers would be able to claim the money for some of that time.

The Liberal Democrats are promising to increase the amount to a 170 a week for six months.

The Conservatives have said they will give mothers the choice of either taking 6 months maternity leave at a higher rate (as proposed by the Lib Dems), or 9 months at a lower rate (similar to that proposed by Labour).



Issues guide
See where the parties stand with this easy to use guide