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Sure Start

Volume 523: debated on Monday 7 February 2011

1. What estimate he has made of the number of Sure Start children’s centres that will offer a full service in 2014-15. (38218)

The Government have ensured that there is enough money in the system to maintain the network of Sure Start children’s centres and have provided new investment for health visitors. Local authorities, in consultation with local communities, can determine the most effective way of delivering future services to meet local need. They have a duty to consult before opening, closing or significantly changing children’s centres and to make sufficient provision.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but in my local authority area, Tameside, the early intervention grant that funds Sure Start faces a cut of 12%. Does she agree that such a cut could be a false economy, because one of Sure Start’s great benefits is that it saves the state further expenditure down the line by improving outcomes for young people through early intervention? What studies are her Department carrying out to estimate the likely future costs of cutting early intervention now?

We have provided a flexible grant because that is what local authorities said they wanted. Obviously, that includes money for Sure Start, but it also includes money for other things. Local authorities are the best people to make these decisions on the ground. Localism is the right way forward regardless of the circumstances, but when finances are tight there is a particular requirement on us to ensure that decisions are taken closest to where the impact is felt, because we are much more likely to get high-quality decisions in that way.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the early years provision plays a vital part in social mobility? How many two-year-olds does she expect will benefit from the programme to extend that to disadvantaged children?

I absolutely agree that the early years play a vital role in social mobility, which is precisely why the Government have chosen to prioritise funding in this way. Tomorrow, we will debate the Second Reading of the Education Bill, whose first clause provides the enabling powers for us to regulate so that we can help an extra 130,000 two-year-olds to experience high-quality early education by the end of the spending period.

Does the Minister agree that there is an inherent contradiction in a policy that announces that the Government will protect the original local Sure Start programmes in the most deprived areas, which I was proud to develop from 1997, while, with the so-called “localism programme”, saying, “It is entirely the fault of the local authorities,” which have been denied the money to maintain those programmes in the first place?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to be proud of the Sure Start children’s centres, which are an excellent programme. That is precisely why the Government have made sure that the money is there in the early intervention grant, and why we have built on that by providing extra money for health visitors, through the Department of Health, and more money for things such as the family-nurse partnerships, which we know work on the ground and are often delivered through children’s centres. I believe that localism is the right way forward. Good local councils are thinking creatively about, for example, how to ensure that they can cluster their centres and merge their back offices, and how to prioritise outcomes for children—it is outcomes that matter.

Does my hon. Friend envisage opening up the assets of these underused children’s centres to community groups to expand the big society?

In some areas, local authorities are very good at making full use of the assets, which are often fantastic buildings, but in other areas they are not as good. I hope that providing the flexible fund will mean that local authorities start to think more creatively about how they can join services together and perhaps provide support for older children. By providing that kind of flexibility we enable local authorities to make the right decisions for their areas.

Recent research by the Daycare Trust and 4Children shows that, despite promises made by the Prime Minister and his deputy, 250 children’s centres are expected to close within the year, with hundreds more at risk of closure or big cuts in the services they provide. Hundreds of thousands of parents across the country are deeply worried about this, but all we get from the Minister is glib indifference. I read this morning that the Secretary of State has announced that funding for music will be maintained, so, incidentally, the Government feel that that is worth ring-fencing whereas Sure Start is not. To paraphrase my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), does the Minister not think that parents deserve much more than having to listen to the Secretary of State playing his fiddle while Sure Start burns around him?

That was a long rant and I struggled slightly to find the question in it. The important thing to say about the survey that 4Children did is that it is about people’s concerns and not about decisions that have been taken—decisions have not yet been taken. We are saying to local authorities that we want them to focus on outcomes for children and families. We are trying to encourage them to do that by holding back some money for payment by results and we are developing that scheme with the sector at the moment. Good local authorities that make sensible restructuring decisions will be able to benefit from that, but if they make decisions that jeopardise outcomes for children, they will not be able to benefit from it.