The Swiss interior minister, Pascal Couchepin, has said that the country needs a coherent family policy that makes it easier for people to combine their home and professional lives.
Political parties from across the spectrum have welcomed his proposals.
Couchepin’s comments came in tandem with the government’s new report into the family, which he presented during his annual meeting with the media at St Peter’s Island near Biel on Tuesday.
The family is currently a hotly debated topic in Switzerland: tax cuts, allowances and lower health insurance premiums for families have all been discussed in parliament.
Added to this are concerns that the social unit is undergoing a fundamental change, with fewer children being born, a higher divorce rate and a rise in single parent and patchwork families.
In 2003, the birth rate in Switzerland reached a 25-year low of 1.4 children per woman. Couchepin said that it was essential to raise the birth rate but at the same time increase the number of women working.
But he warned that it was not up to the state to interfere in people’s lives but rather to eliminate the obstacles that families were facing.
“For that we need to go from a traditional family policy to a sustainable family policy,” said Couchepin.
Couchepin said that worries over money and how to combine family and professional lives were mainly responsible for the lower birth rate.
The minister put forward several proposals, which he said would help redress the situation. Among them were sending children to school earlier – children normally start school at age six or seven – and coordinating school and kindergarten times.
Couchepin also indicated his support for maternity leave. The country still has no statutory maternity leave, although the population is due to vote for a third time on the issue on September 26.
He said he was looking at new models for financing crèches, such as a voucher system, as well as tax breaks for families.
The minister called for a cantonal conference of heads of family policy to debate and harmonise policy issues.
Most political parties said that they welcomed Couchepin’s comments.
“For us, Pascal Couchepin’s proposals essentially go in the right direction – he is right to advocate a sustainable family policy,” said Jean-Philippe Jeannerat, spokesman for the centre-left Social Democrats.
But Jeannerat added that Couchepin did not go far enough on some points, such as family allowances. The Social Democrats want allocations for children and young people of between SFr200 ($157) and SFr250.
The centre-right Christian Democrats said they supported every step taken towards a better policy for families.
But spokeswoman Béatrice Wertli told swissinfo that in some areas it was necessary to act quickly and not to wait for a standardised concept for family policy to be developed.
Heidi Stutz from the Office for Work and Social Policy Studies, a think tank, voiced doubts about Couchepin’s commitment to change.
“Couchepin has until now not made any declaration on family policy, therefore one cannot assess whether he [really] wants to do something in this field or not. One certainly has to have some scepticism,” she said.
The minister said that his ideas should be considered as the basis for a discussion about a coherent family policy for Switzerland.
According to the Family Report 2004, which aims to give an overview of the family unit in Switzerland, such a policy is currently lacking.
Couchepin warned that the current situation facing families could no longer be ignored.
“Without children, society does not have any future – Europe has understood this, Switzerland should also wake up to this,” he said.
swissinfo with agencies
According to the Family Report 2004:
Families run an increased risk of getting into poverty.
A child costs between SFr500,000 and SFr1 million to bring up.
Each child costs around SFr1,400 per month, while an only child costs SFr1,800.
The average number of children per woman is 1.4, In 1970 it was 2.1.
Couchepin’s coherent family policy consists of:
Maternity leave and more crèches.
A lowering of the school starting age and a coordination of the school day.
The creation of an inter-cantonal conference for the family.
Dialogue between the authorities and companies.
Better statistics on the family.
Financial breaks for the working poor.