Interview: Make families stronger - Maria Miller, shadow minister for families

Ravi Chandiramani
Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Maria Miller laments Labour's performance in office, claiming its record "doesn't stack up when you compare how much has been spent on supporting families and children and alleviating child poverty".

Maria Miller
Maria Miller

In particular, she says Sure Start has failed to reach enough disadvantaged families and criticises the government's recent failures to maintain reductions in child poverty.

Miller wants a "fundamental reappraisal of priorities" around strengthening families. "We want to support the pressure points families have throughout their lives." She says this is essential to keep families together and reverse social breakdown. So the Tories would introduce relationship advice for pre-marital couples, with the Local Government Association issuing guidance to wedding registrars that promotes to couples the benefits of relationship support before problems set in.

Another pressure point is the birth of a child: "Family breakdowns are most likely to happen when couples have their first child". This is why the party has pledged an extra 4,200 family health visitors, funded partly by scrapping Sure Start outreach workers. "In order to reach vulnerable groups we need trained professionals. Research from these groups tell us the most trusted are health professionals." Indeed, she bristles at suggestions the Tories would make cuts to Sure Start.

During a child's first 12 months the party would offer flexible parental leave to be split between parents as they choose. "The more we can get fathers involved, the more likely we'll have families staying together," Miller explains. Interventions are not confined to the early years. The Tories would extend the right for parents to request flexible working from 16 to 18 because "often it is these teenage years when parents need to be around most".

Controversially, the party will introduce tax breaks for married couples. "It won't make people get married but it will send a message," she says. But what about children of single parent families or unmarried or divorced parents? "Just because you support one thing doesn't mean you're against the other," she says. "This government has done nothing to support committed relationships and we know it is around committed relationships that children thrive."

Miller is scathing about Labour's efforts to use tax credits to alleviate child poverty, saying just one-quarter of eligible families have claimed the childcare element of the working tax credit. She backs her party's pledge to simplify the tax and benefits system, saying: "One of the biggest caseloads I have as an MP is sorting out problems families find themselves in as a result of the tax and benefits system."

On the provision of childcare, Miller says the "rigid centre-based childcare operation doesn't reflect modern lives". She is alarmed about declining numbers of childminders and blames the Early Years Foundation (EYFS) for exacerbating this. "Childminders I have visited welcome something that improves the perception of quality of what they offer. But the problems of administering it is a heavy burden." Would she exempt childminders from further elements of EYFS? "I would want a long hard look at how critical this bureaucracy that is crippling childminding is," she reveals.

Of equal concern is extended schools' ability to sustain programmes on current funding, but she is similarly non-committal here on solutions.

As for Miller's own childcare, her three children, the youngest now six, have her parents to call on: "I'm very lucky they can be looked after by their grandparents. It's not easy when your job involves late-night sittings in Parliament. I know most people don't have the sort of support I have from my extended family."


- Maria Miller joined the Conservative Party at the age of 18 and was elected to Parliament as the MP for Basingstoke in 2005

- Born near Wolverhampton in 1964, she was brought up in south Wales and went to a comprehensive school in Bridgend

- Before entering Parliament, she worked in advertising and marketing, including a spell with oil company Texaco

- She has campaigned for more residential drug rehabilitation centres to combat drug-related crime

- She has been married to Iain, a solicitor, for 18 years and they have three young children.

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