Cameron puts childhood centre stage

‘Red tape’ is stultifying childhood, the Conservatives argued today.

In a continued pledge to put families at the heart of policy, David Cameron has launched a review on the quality of childhood, headed by shadow education secretary David Willetts.

Mr Willetts argued red tape is damaging modern childhood, saying “we need to allow children to have vivid lives and everyday adventures”, even if this includes taking risks and making mistakes.

The review has been launched in response to the Unicef report that ranked Britain as one of the worst developed nations in which to bring up children. The report is a “serious wake up call” about childhood, Mr Cameron said at a conference today.

A number of high profile experts have been drafted in to advise the review, including Lord Richard Best, former director of the Rowntree trust, and Sir Richard Bowlby, president of Centre for Child Mental Health. It will examine a wealth of areas, including the role of government and social services, the responsibilities of business, the role of communities and the importance of family.

“The great challenge of the 1970s and 1980s was economic revival. The great challenge in this decade and the next is social revival,” Mr Cameron said, adding social revival needs strong families at its heart.

Reflecting old-Tory values of small government, Mr Cameron said ministers should not seek to raise children but they can exert an influence, and government has a responsibility to care for families. Conservative policy must be answerable to a single final test, Mr Cameron pledged, namely “does it help families?”

In a break from Gordon Brown’s progress on alleviating child poverty, Mr Cameron argued family policy must move beyond wealth creation and improve quality of life. To this end, legal measures would be accompanied by incentives for social and cultural change.

A Conservative government would reform family law to compel men to pay maintenance and update the welfare system to help parents stay together, while promoting marriage through the tax system.

At the same time it would seek to dismantle regulation. As part of the Conservatives’ attack on red tape, Mr Cameron would launch a “blitz on the health and safety culture” that sees schools cancel trips through insurance fears.

“Children need to be protected to a reasonable degree but our society has gone too far with rules and regulations that sometimes come close to paranoia,” Mr Cameron said.

The Conservative leader also reiterated stated plans to repeal the Human Rights Act, replacing it with a British Bill of Rights. Framing this in the childhood debate, he argued this would better teach children rights are accompanied by responsibilities, thereby improving discipline.

Businesses would also be encouraged not to cause harm and would be asked not to promote “irresponsible” products, for example clothes that sexualise young girls. However, Mr Cameron stressed a Conservative government would not legislate to this end.

Children’s minister Beverley Hughes attacked the policy as a case of style over substance.

“Today, he has launched yet another policy group, this time on children and families. But what his policy group won’t tell you is that Cameron has voted against Labour’s flexible working legislation and investment in education,” Ms Hughes said.

The minister defended the government’s record on child-friendly policies, pointing to free early years education, the 1,178 Sure Start children’s systems and increased maternity and paternity leave and pay.

Family policy continues to move centre stage, as the Liberal Democrats warn the chancellor risks missing his targets on child poverty.

Work and pensions spokesman David Laws claimed Mr Brown would miss his 2010 target by over three quarters of a million children, warning the Treasury will need to spend a further £4 billion a year to meet targets.