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Sure Start Children’s Centres

Volume 524: debated on Wednesday 2 March 2011

[Relevant documents: The Fifth Report from the Children, Schools and Families Committee, Session 2009-10, Sure Start Children’s Centres, HC 130, and the Government response, Fourth Special Report from the Education Committee, Session 2010-11, HC 768.]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That, for the year ending with 31 March 2011, for expenditure by the Department for Education—

(1) further resources, not exceeding £240,806,000, be authorised for use as set out in Spring Supplementary Estimates 2010-11, HC 790,

(2) a further sum, not exceeding £66,354,000, be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to meet the costs as so set out, and

(3) limits as so set out be set on appropriations in aid.—(Stephen Crabb.)

The debate will be initiated, or led—opened: I will use a neutral term—by the Chair of the Select Committee on Education, Mr Graham Stuart.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is a pleasure to take part in a debate which will, I hope, rise above semantics. I do not know whether “initiation” is a partial word or not; I suppose it depends very much on what ceremonies one has undergone earlier in life.

This debate takes place in the context of a crisis of confidence in our education system and, more broadly—if I may pick a few headings at random—in our society’s ability to raise children so that they achieve, enjoy life, are safe and healthy, make a contribution, and go on to prosper. The PISA—programme for international student assessment—tables to which the Government frequently refer indicate that, on a comparative basis, this country’s performance has declined.

The first 10 years of the last Government, between 1997 and 2007, preceded the credit crunch. I should it put on record, in my party’s interests, that the period of solid economic growth between those years had begun in 1992. During that period, the number of young people aged 16 to 24—pick your age range—who were not in employment, education or training remained about level, but once the credit crunch arrived it spiralled up, and now as many as 1 million young people may not be in apprenticeships, at college, at school or in a job. That is a pretty tragic situation.

I have always believed that those who seek a crude proxy to measure the effectiveness of an education system should consider not so much the outcomes of those who go to Oxbridge—important though that is—or those who go to universities in general as the number of young people who end up as NEETs. We engage in an annual argument about whether exams are becoming easier, and how we are placed in comparative terms. I used to point out to Labour Ministers in the Select Committee that existed under the last Government that the system of which education forms a part was intended to deliver Every Child Matters outcomes, and to ensure that young people were able to go on to prosper in life. They cannot do that—and, indeed, they are signally failing to do it—if they end up as NEETs.

As I have said, those who seek the best proxy to measure the effectiveness of society’s systems for bringing up children—which, I suppose, include families—should consider the number of NEETs. That number is at a record high, and we need to tackle it. However, we are also concerned about social mobility, and the fact that our record on teenage pregnancy, fatherless households, drug use and other issues connected with social breakdown and social failure is not good in comparison with the records of other European countries.

The intellectual running under the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition Government seems, ironically enough, to be being made largely by current and former Labour Members of Parliament. I am pleased to see that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) is present. Whether we cite the Field report, the Allen report on early intervention or Alan Milburn’s report on social mobility, it is clear that a huge amount of work is being done, which indicates a general consensus in the House that we should try to become more effective.

The Select Committee produced its report as the Labour Government moved towards their target for full service delivery, which was at least 3,500 centres. I believe that there are now more than 3,600. Having initially established children’s centres in the most deprived parts of the country, the Government wanted to ensure that they existed in every part of the country. While it is fair to say that they wanted to provide a universal service, their rationale for taking Sure Start everywhere was the need to reach the poorest and most disadvantaged children in areas that were not themselves generally disadvantaged. They recognised that if they focused only on the most disadvantaged areas, many children elsewhere would be missed out.

May I ask the hon. Gentleman to think again about what he has said? According to evidence given to the Select Committee, most children from deprived backgrounds lived outside the 500 most challenging wards in the country. That was the point: more young people with deprived backgrounds lived outside than inside the targeted areas.

The hon. Gentleman is, of course, right, and if I suggested otherwise I did not mean to. I meant to say that the main driver was not the need to provide a universal service, but the need to reach poor children wherever they were. In rural constituencies such as mine, which may in general contain high levels of wealth, there are still many people from poorer families. The aim was to provide a universal service that would reach those people, but the Committee concluded that the policy had not been as effective as we should have liked it to be.

I hope that we shall learn from Ministers today about their vision of the future of children’s centres. We know that the Government agree on the importance of early intervention, and we know that they see an important role for children’s centres within that. We also know that they have rolled funding for children’s centres into the early intervention grant. They say that they are providing enough funds to keep all the existing children’s centres open, but they have not insisted that local authorities do so. Moreover, the larger fund in which they have included the funds for children’s centres has itself been reduced this year from about £2.7 billion to £2.4 billion, and from 1 April it will be 10.9% lower than the 2010-11 notional figure.

Will my hon. Friend congratulate authorities such as Medway, which has 19 Sure Start centres—seven of which are in my constituency—and has agreed to keep all of them open? That clearly demonstrates that it is not inevitable that Sure Start centres will close. I should declare an interest: I am a sitting Medway councillor.

I am happy to congratulate my hon. Friend’s council on adopting what it considers to be the most effective way of delivering the improvements that we so desperately want for young people. However, the number of NEETs has been rising, and research suggests that the outcomes from children’s centres so far are not what we would wish them to be.

We have heard about the bundling of funds and the relaxation of ring-fencing. Ministers are still saying that every Sure Start or other children’s centre should be able to stay open, but “should be able to stay open” and “will stay open” are two separate concepts. I should like to know from Ministers, and indeed from Opposition spokesmen, whether they are fixated on the importance of maintaining buildings from which services of varying quality emanate. Is that the be-all and end-all, or are we prepared to give local authorities the power to decide how best to provide early intervention, which may well be through a rationalisation of children’s centres? I do not know whether the Front-Bench teams think that the buildings are the be-all and end-all and that any reduction from 3,600 will be a disaster for our young people, or that local authorities should be allowed to think for themselves and tailor local solutions to local needs. I would like a clearer steer from both Front-Bench teams so that we have a better idea of where we are going.

In the last Parliament, the hon. Gentleman and I served together on the Select Committee and I respect his opinion. He has touched on the key question. The Government are cutting the funding to my local authority by about 13% and they say that leaves enough money to keep the network open, but the local authority is cutting by 45%, which clearly will not leave enough, so the majority of centres will close. In such a situation should the Government intervene or should there be localism at its purest, and if the local authority wants to close down most of the centres should it be allowed to do so?

The hon. Gentleman is right to pose this question about the right response, and we need a clearer steer. While making claims about localism, will the Government in fact quietly put pressure on councils and say, “You must keep these centres open”? I recognise why the hon. Gentleman says the last Government put all these things in place and the new Government are threatening to dismantle them while denying doing so, as that is an understandable line to take in opposition, but rationalising these centres could be the right thing to do. It could be that, after sober analysis and assessment of the needs of its local community, a local authority decides that its children’s centre buildings are not working well enough and it cannot get the teams to deliver in the right way but thinks it will be able to find a better way of providing these services. I would like to know how fixated we are going to be on children’s centres per se, rather than on delivering the outcomes for young people.

Perhaps the hon. Lady, who is her party’s Front-Bench representative, will explain the Labour party’s position on that.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I too served on the Select Committee with him in the last Parliament, and I think he is doing a sterling job as Chair of the new Select Committee. I am also pleased that we are having this debate today.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Opposition are not fixated on the buildings. Our priority is that the provision should still exist. We still believe it should be a universal provision targeted on those most in need. It is not about the buildings; it is about ensuring that there is a service within them. When the Sure Start children’s centres were first introduced the aim was that everybody would be within a pushchair push of one of them. If a local authority decides to have just one or two such centres, people are not going to be within a pushchair push of their nearest one, and they will therefore not be used by those who need them most.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. She makes a fair point, but service delivery is the key and there is enormous variation in that between children’s centres across the country. In the last Parliament, the National Audit Office investigated the cost-effectiveness of centres at our behest, and it concluded that

“it remains very difficult to examine and compare centres’ cost effectiveness.”

It also said:

“Where we have been able to calculate unit costs we found wide variations. Together with other evidence this suggests that there is still scope for improving cost effectiveness.”

That suggests that there could be savings. The Government reasonably say that reductions in budget should not necessarily lead to closures. Children’s centres could, perhaps, be improved and operate on a lower budget.

The NAO also said:

“There is qualitative evidence of improvement; for example, some local authorities and centres are developing and implementing means of managing children’s centres to make more effective use of skills and resources. And most centres and local authorities have made substantial improvements in their monitoring of performance since our 2006 report.”

There is progress, therefore.

I ask the Minister to set out the Government’s vision, and explain to what extent they wish the existing infrastructure to be maintained, or whether, in the spirit of localism and the tailoring of services to meet local needs, they want local authorities to make up their own minds, which might lead to great discrepancies. It could certainly lead to the loss of a national entitlement to children’s centres, but that might be an improvement. A true localist looking at the analysis of the results so far may conclude that a more localised and differentiated approach would be better.

I went on a Select Committee trip to Finland two weeks ago. Learning lessons from Finland is hard, and I know my predecessor as Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), hated any mention of Finland. I do not think he ever explained why, but I guess it was because of the difficulty of applying its experiences and contexts to our experiences and contexts. There was one thing I did learn from Finland, however. Someone in its central department of education said, “We’ve been trying to achieve a particular outcome, but although we’ve been working at it for 10 years, we haven’t really made as much progress as we want, so we’re going to work harder and carry on trying to make it happen.” That is very different from the way things are done in our country, where, typically, 18 months into a new initiative new Ministers arrive and throw it overboard because they decide it does not work, and they stop doing the long, hard, grinding work that leads to the improvement of existing services.

I would hate the groundwork that has been done by children’s centres across the country to be dismantled, not because they are universally successful but because it takes a long, hard slog to improve performance and management, to bring on more leaders, and to learn what certificates they should sit for so that we have higher quality staff who can identify the areas that are brilliant and share that practice, and identify the areas that are poor and need to be challenged. I would rather we did that than what this country seems to do, which is just throw everything up in the air again when a new set of Ministers come into office.

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case. One of the Select Committee conclusions is:

“Children’s centres are a substantial investment with a sound rationale, and it is vital that this investment is allowed to bear fruit over the long term.”

The hon. Gentleman is reminding us of the necessity to consider the long term. The long term is even longer than 10 years, as he rightly points out, so now is not the time to fiddle with this provision.

It is certainly a time to fiddle with it. There is ample room for improvement, but it would be a shame if these centres were inadvertently dismantled before what they could deliver had been properly thought through. I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman about that.

I also want the Minister to say whether there are any incentives in place for local authorities to ensure that they focus on changing the life chances of young children, because all too often people will pay lip service and say, “Of course we’re on board with this.” I am reminded of another Select Committee trip, this time to the Netherlands in the last Parliament. The Dutch changed the way local authorities were financed in respect of young people’s services. I think they froze the money from central Government so that if there was a spike in youth unemployment and so forth, local authorities would be at serious financial risk, but if they addressed such matters, they would be much better off. As a result, local authorities stopped just processing young people and putting the financial claim for that into the centre. Instead they became locally responsible for the financial consequences of young people remaining as NEETs. I believe—the previous Select Committee Chairman will put me right if I am wrong—that they more than halved the number of NEETs over the years.

If there are incentives for local authorities that are real and that bite and that mean they take this issue incredibly seriously and focus on it, that would give me more confidence than even the maintenance of the centres. If I felt that local authorities were driven by a desire to grasp this agenda and make a difference to their young people’s lives and one of them told me it was closing some of its children’s centres, I would find that more encouraging than watching, in this time of fiscal retrenchment, centres close apparently because they were especially local and apparently because things would then get better.

The hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful case, as always. On local authorities and incentives, I wonder whether he shares my concern that some authorities may do what it looks as though my local authority is doing. Westminster city council is trying to keep the children’s centres open so it can avoid the controversy attached to closing a building, but it is slashing outreach and drop-in services and other services that actually work and that are provided from within the bricks and mortar of those buildings. That is likely to have an even worse impact on children’s outcomes.

Order. Just before the Chairman of the Select Committee responds to that intervention, I want to make the point that, although there is no time limit on Back-Bench speeches and the House is listening attentively and with respect to the Chairman of the Select Committee, I know that he will want to take account of the substantial interest in making contributions to the debate, and I am keen that everyone who wishes to speak should have the chance to do so. I know that the hon. Gentleman will tactfully take account of my gentle ministration.

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for that gentle and quite proper intervention—and those who wish to speak will be even more grateful.

The hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) is right. We need to ensure that the resources are used for the best purposes, not political purposes—not in order to make it look as though something has been protected, or to avoid embarrassment, but to help to look after the most vulnerable children for the long term. That is what we must all hope for.

I intervene only because the hon. Gentleman, who is a good friend of mine, mentioned Finland and has now moved on to Holland. It is true that, although I like the Finns, I do not think that many lessons can be learned from their experience. However, he did not give the full picture of the core of the Dutch answer to NEETS, which is very successful: in Holland people cannot draw benefit until they are 27 unless they are training and learning the Dutch language.

I believe that that measure was originally introduced by the mayor of Rotterdam, who picked the 27 threshold. It was about creating incentives at a local level in order to tackle the root of the problem. The hon. Gentleman, as befits a previous Select Committee Chairman, tries again to correct me by pointing out that I did not necessarily give the full story.

Will Ministers explain the rationale for the things included in the early intervention grant? I should like to understand how they hold together. Will they take us through the finances of the grant in some detail, and tell the House whether the Government have acted on the Select Committee report recommendation that they pull together all the funding that goes into Sure Start children’s centres? How much will come through health visitors? Also, can Ministers tell us more about health visitors? One of the most important things that children’s centres can do is be more effective in outreach. The National Audit Office and the Durham university study found that, in fact, children’s centres were not as effective in that respect as they could be. The growth in health visitors could play a major part in creating a more effective outreach service that identifies such children earlier and gets them the services and support they need, so that they are school-ready.

Mindful, as ever, of your ministrations, Mr Speaker, I shall sit down.

I wish to make three short points in this debate, so that my colleagues can get in. I am sure that many of them will register their worries about the future of the Sure Start networks. I am fortunate, as our local authority clearly is not going to make any decisions until after the local elections, so I speak as one of those whose Sure Start network is currently intact.

Although it is very important that such concerns are registered, I should like to contribute to raising the spirit of the debate and our hopes for what foundation years can achieve. Indeed, some of my hon. Friends will make the point that that makes the closure of Sure Starts an even more important issue, not less important. We now have enough information to know that, if we want to make a major difference to the life chances of children, particularly poorer children, we need to do it very early on and not think that that will happen automatically in primary, secondary, further or higher education. These are the most crucial years if we are to make a difference.

Two pieces of information that I gathered together when writing the report on foundation years staggered me and knocked me sideways. One was the longitudinal study that looked at outcomes for young children, thanks to which we now know where such children end up in their late twenties. It showed that, probably at the age of three but certainly by five, the die of life is set for most children. Of course, after that age, the most brilliant parents, schools and teachers can make some difference for individuals, but it is very difficult to make a class difference for whole groups of our constituents. So if we are to be serious about whatever we spend, we need, over time, to redistribute resources from further education and from secondary and primary schools into the foundation years, not in a gigantic or absurd way, but in a way that recognises that building up this budget requires knowledge and expertise. We should note the Select Committee Chairman’s plea that we learn from what we are currently doing and add to our success, rather than knocking that sideways and jumping into the latest obscure way to extend life chances.

The second piece of information concerns an area in Birkenhead that has had Sure Start for 10 years. I asked the head of a really good school what 10 things he wanted from children attending school on their first day. What skills did he need? He shared this exercise with his teachers and with other schools, and not only in the Birkenhead area. There were some stunning replies. The schools would like the children to know their own names; to know the word “stop”, because that can hint at danger for them. They would like them to learn to sit still, so they can begin playing properly and by that learn; to learn how to take off certain items of clothing; to learn how to hold a crayon; to know what a book is and how to open it the right way.

This is not a school in Birkenhead that is one the most “challenged”, as we must euphemistically call it. It is a school where, 20 years ago, I first learned that mums would lie about their addresses to get their children into a better school than they would otherwise be allocated. While lying is of course wrong, I could not but have a sneaking admiration for those mothers who were acting in this way, and who knew in a ration-book economy what little chance they had to choose the best services for their children. So although this is not the most challenged school, even after Sure Start—in fact, it was one of the first Sure Starts in the country and has been operating for 10 years—we were still finding children who were highly unprepared for school.

In the light of those two pieces of information from the report, we know that the die is cast for all too many children by the age of five, and that something quite troubling is going on in many areas in our constituencies, where children are nurtured in an arbitrary and random way. I see young people in Birkenhead who are so un-nurtured by their parents that I wonder whether I would survive if I were subjected to the things they are exposed to.

That information underscores the importance of this debate, and in that context I want to make a plea for Sure Start, but not because I disagree with the view that it should be radically reformed, which is an issue I will deal with in a moment. Sure Start already has some extraordinary advantages. It is a brand name. None of the parents whom I spoke to in the various areas I visited throughout the country in undertaking this inquiry told me that this is a service for poor people that stigmatises them. If anything, some of the more bushy-tailed parents who might well not have used the centres were actually there, knowing what a good service Sure Start was providing for children and wanting it for their own. It would be appalling if that brand name were destroyed or damaged in any way.

My right hon. Friend is making an incredibly important point about the lack of stigma attached to Sure Start, and about access for families from many different backgrounds. At the Thornton children’s centre in Crosby, families from a deprived estate and from a less deprived estate all come together. In fact, more than 700 families use that centre, and one of its many huge benefits has been families getting together, mixing, meeting new friends and building relationships that would be severely damaged if the centre closed.

I agree with that. As my hon. Friend says, this is partly about the brand image and about people thinking that going to Sure Start centres is almost a right of citizenship that we do not want to destroy. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) has momentarily left the Chamber because I would have argued with her about the balance between limiting what Sure Start centres do so that we can keep the structure going and cutting the number of centres so that we can maintain the whole range of services that they provide. My judgment is that the balance ought to favour keeping the structure. However, as the Minister knows from the report, I am very anxious about how we reform Sure Start, and I now wish to discuss that.

In reforming Sure Start, it is crucial to keep its universal provision; it does not have to be the most expensive or the most upmarket, but the report on the foundation years suggests that it is important that all parents use Sure Start centres at some stage. We suggested that such a centre would be the place where someone picks up their child benefit form—they would not be able to get it from anywhere else—and where they can register the birth of their child. It might be the place where people who are not of any faith take their child for an initiation ceremony to welcome them into the wider community. It is possible to maintain universal services without adding greatly to the costs, and a universal service has a chance of reaching the parents who need most support to make them even more successful as parents.

The Sure Start centres should be taken back to what my right hon. Friends the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) and for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell) originally envisaged, which was that there would, of course, be a universal approach, but the vast majority of the expenditure, time, effort and love of Sure Start should go to those families who need most help, not to the parents with sharp elbows that get them to the front of every queue. The Minister and I spoke at a conference for children earlier today, and I was pleased to hear her say that the Government will examine payment by results seriously, as that would help to achieve that objective.

One of the results we want is children to be ready for school. We do not want primary schools trying to make up for what has not taken place in the first four to five years of life and secondary schools trying to make up for what primary schools have not been able to achieve because they themselves have been doing a rescue operation. I hope that the Government will carefully consider the objectives for Sure Start children’s centres or whatever we call them. I also hope that the Government will build up payment by results around those outcomes.

The last point I wish to make is that I hope that the Government will encourage people to think outside the box about who should run Sure Start centres. A couple of weeks ago, I asked the heads of primary and secondary schools in Birkenhead and the chairs of governors to meet so that we could discuss whether we should bid to run our Sure Start centres. Although we hope that the Government’s payment-by-results approach will bear fruit, we need to think much more imaginatively about incorporating the Sure Start children’s centres into what will be a much more seamless operation to ensure that we break down inequalities for the poorest children. Although it is right to emphasise the worries of those on both sides of the House about the future of Sure Start centres, both in terms of buildings and the services that they provide, I hope that we will get a clear steer from the Government about the reforms that they will be announcing by the end of this month. I hope that those will cover the points about keeping this service universal and about doing so while targeting that service, and that one way of doing so is to experiment with payment by results.

Finally, I wish to commend to the Government that outside providers wanting to take a collective but non-state view about these services should be encouraged to bid for them, so that every child in the country is ready to start their first day at primary school and is ready for that great experience.

It is a huge pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field). I feel at least as passionately as he does about the need for early intervention and about the need to support the youngest in our society, and I wish to use this speech to press for far more evaluation of what works. I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman, who I am pleased to call a friend, on the need for children’s centres to be far more at the heart of children’s services generally. I absolutely agree with his suggestion that people should go to such a centre to register for child benefit and for initiation ceremonies to welcome their child into the world. Such things are all crucial to ensuring that Sure Start children’s centres are at the heart of everything to do with infants and their families—that is incredibly important. I welcome the Government’s intention to introduce far more health visitors, because that will strengthen the ability of children’s centres to meet local needs.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) on his words and on his recommendation that the Government think carefully about whether we want this to be a purely localist agenda or whether there needs to be some universal, centrally driven remedy on children’s centres. I believe that localism is key, because local communities know best how to deal with the issues in their area, and I wish to talk a little about my experience of Sure Start.

The hon. Lady talks about the importance of localism, but one of the report’s recommendations is that central Government ought to say that Sure Start ought to buy in more services from outside organisations. There is a balance to be struck between allowing local bodies to do anything, which might just be to keep things as they are, and an approach that engages some of the best organisations, which so far have not got much of a look in from Sure Start funding.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. As I said at the outset, I wish to make a plea for better evaluation of what works. My hope, although not my direction, is that more Sure Start children’s centres would therefore follow best practice.

From 2001 to 2009, I was chairman of the Oxford Parent Infant Project—OXPIP—which is a children’s charity operating around Oxfordshire. In the past year, it has become co-located with the Rose Hill Sure Start children’s centre. When I first became its chairman, OXPIP helped families who were struggling to bond with their newborn babies and provided psychotherapeutic support for families who were simply desperate. I am talking about people who are perhaps suicidal or about to harm their baby, who are desperately depressed and who simply cannot cope. OXPIP helps those parents to get over that, to build a secure attachment with their babies and to move on confident of being loving parents as part of a loving family. OXPIP’s results have been truly astonishing and there is a desperate need to evaluate quantitatively the work of such organisations, so that such best practice can become widespread in children’s centres.

In 2001, the Rose Hill Sure Start children’s centre was just starting out, as was OXPIP, and in those days it was all about creating a large building and it had a large budget. It was focused on outreach and putting lots of resources into play. My hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness made the good point that it has taken a lot of time to get children’s centres to the point where they are really effective, they know what works and they know where the best value for money lies, so it would be a great shame now to try to form any sort of revolution in children’s centres and end up throwing away all the good stuff that has come out of that long term of experience.

In those early days, OXPIP was a charity with very little funding, no statutory money whatever and only the money it could raise through its own efforts. We were successful in getting a significant and ballooning lottery grant, so we had three years of ever-rising income from which we could build on our platform. The sad fact was that the Sure Start children’s centre would not even cover the cost of providing a service. It wanted to engage OXPIP’s services, but only at a flat rate that did not reflect the true cost of providing it. We therefore had a ridiculous scenario in which a charity that was living hand to mouth and was totally dependent, in the early days, on the good will of volunteers was subsidising a Sure Start children’s centre that had a huge budget and that did not seem to understand that OXPIP’s work really defined what Sure Start was all about—providing children with a sure start in life.

From that day to this, 10 years on, we have gone from strength to strength. As I have said, in the last year OXPIP has co-located with the Sure Start children’s centre, and that has been a complete success story. They have many different approaches regarding the different backgrounds of the many diverse nationalities and cultures found in Oxford. They provide support to fathers, mothers, grandparents, foster parents and adoptive parents, and many different services. Now that OXPIP, of which I remain a trustee, is co-located with Sure Start, we can focus on providing psychotherapeutic support for families who are really in difficulty. That has worked very well. I wanted to share that experience with hon. Members because I feel that Sure Start children’s centres have come a very long way and it is terribly important that the Government seek to improve on that and to provide more evidence about what works best, rather than interfering with and possibly damaging it.

I concur with much of what my hon. Friend and other hon. Members on both sides have said about Sure Start being a tremendous success. It is now bedding down and although I have some anxieties about local authority flexibility, I think it is broadly going in the right direction. One thing I am particularly pleased about is the increased entitlement to 15 hours a week for all three and four-year-olds. My view—I think that everyone who has spoken so far has said this—is that the more children from disadvantaged areas we catch early the better and that the entitlement for all three and four-year-olds will make a real difference. Does my hon. Friend agree?

I thank my hon. Friend for that timely remark. I was going to resist the temptation to talk about early infant brain development, but I shall just spend 30 seconds on it now. I absolutely agree with him, but I feel that the money should be focused on nought to two-year-olds for the simple reason that a baby’s brain development is at its peak rate at between six and 18 months. That is when the frontal cortex grows as a result of a secure attachment to a loving carer. That loving attachment enables that part of the brain to put on a healthy growth spurt, giving the child the capacity for lifelong mental health even before they are a toddler. In the absence of such an attachment, intervention when the child is three or four is too late, so I absolutely agree that the extra money for the early years is important, but I think it is coming in too late and I would rather it was focused on the nought to two-year-olds to support families at a time when the outcomes for their baby matters so desperately. Once a baby reaches two years old, that opportunity is significantly reduced, so anything we do after that is already too late.

The hon. Lady makes a very good point about the brain development of young children, which is made very strongly in the report of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), as I am sure she is aware. Given the point that she and others are making about the importance of Sure Start and early intervention generally, will she comment on the impact of removing ring-fencing? In Sefton, there is a 12.9% cut, as there is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) in the borough of Hammersmith. The impact of that, along with all the other huge cuts, particularly in inner cities, has made it very difficult for councils to protect these services. Will she comment on the link between that and the need to protect services centrally if we are seriously to have a national strategy on protecting Sure Start and on early intervention?

Yes, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I am a firm believer in localism. My experience of Sure Start centres is that they evolve in a way that suits their community, and it is for county councils to support that need as necessary in their community. I am not a big fan of centralism or, indeed, of ring-fencing for that very reason, so I share his concern about the decisions that councils may be taking to cut those services, which I very much regret. Having said that, there is enormous room for improvement in Sure Start children’s centres, which could become more effective. Those centres need to focus strongly on that because otherwise the incentive for councils to continue to fund them at current levels simply will not be there.

That brings me to my final point, which is about the call for better evaluation. OXPIP, the charity that I have been closely associated with for many years, has always had rave reviews from social services, health visitors, GPs and families in Oxfordshire, where it operates, but we have not been able to have a random control trial, which is the gold standard in quantitative evaluation because of the ethics of intervening with one group but not another. What about the outcomes for the group of families whom we know are in difficulty but do not help? The ethics around this issue mean that quantitative evaluation is a problem. If the Government are to do anything to help Sure Start children’s centres to make the right decisions and to make progress in the most effective areas, they need to put resources into serious studies about how effective different early intervention programmes are. I strongly support the work of the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) in looking into those issues and in trying to evaluate which programmes are more helpful than others.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I have been spending a lot of time in primary schools in my constituency in the past 10 months and reception teachers have told me time and again that they can almost tell which Sure Start centres are doing good work and which are not really adding much value. However, that is the extent of their knowledge because the evidence is anecdotal. We really need some proper evidence so that Sure Start centres can be evaluated and best practice can be spread.

That is exactly right. County councils and directors of children’s services are very aware of the potential value of Sure Start children’s centres. My director of children’s services in Northamptonshire would love to get even more value out of them and would welcome better research showing what would work better, rather than having to go it alone in those areas.

Let me conclude with a small plug. I plan to launch a pilot scheme in 2011 for a Northamptonshire parent infant project that will mirror what OXPIP has been doing so successfully for 13 years in Oxfordshire. Working closely with children’s centres in Northamptonshire, I hope to show, prove, demonstrate, document and evaluate the value of really early intervention services in making a real difference to the quality of families’ lives.

It is a pleasure to follow the excellent speech of the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom). I was strongly tempted to intervene at the critical point near the end of her speech when she put her finger on the real problem of localism—when she talked about the pilot that did not go ahead because of the ethics of intervening with one group but not another. The issue we are debating directly concerns children’s centres and the information that flowed from an inquiry of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families when I chaired it. That inquiry went back to March 2010 and I think that you might even have given evidence to it, Madam Deputy Speaker, wearing a different hat. Central to today’s discussion is whether we should have a service that guarantees certain things for every poor child in the country or whether we should leave it up to the randomness that comes when different councils with different majorities or no majority, which may lack funding and which may be urban, suburban or rural, are left to take those decisions. I come from an old-fashioned school of thought, which I hope will come back into fashion, that believes in giving guarantees to every child in the country.

Let me take the House back briefly to when I became the Chair of the Select Committee, 10 years ago. The very first inquiry was into early years. We were the first Select Committee ever to hire a psychologist, because we wanted to understand the development of a child’s brain. Everything that has been said in the debate touches exactly on that.

We were lucky enough to engage three special advisers to the Committee, led by Kathy Sylva, the wonderful former head of children’s services in Oxfordshire. Kathy Sylva did that original research showing that by 22 months a child’s brain has developed to such an extent that it is extremely difficult to compensate later for lack of stimulation during those 22 months. Members in all parts of the House—no party political points here—understand that early years intervention is critical. We must also agree that there have been some difficulties since we produced our report last March. Such a time lapse is a great advantage, because we are able to see what has happened.

Many of the 3,500 Sure Start children’s centres are new and had only just been completed when we finished our report, just before the general election. Some were older, but all centres need time to put down roots. When we are experimenting with social policy, especially in such an important area, we must bear it in mind that children’s centres need time to respond to the local community and to change their shape and nature as demands on them are made and they become better known by good professionals working in the community. There is no doubt that the maturation process is important. As all of us in the educational world know, with the best intentions, it is difficult when national policies are rolled out.

Pilots may show that something works excellently on a small scale. I have been reflecting on that. One of the few times that I failed to get a witness to come before the Select Committee was when we asked Jamie Oliver. By the time we got through his press and publicity machine, his managers and his agents, we gave up trying to get him, even to speak about school meals. We did a school meals investigation before Jamie Oliver had made his programme. Tonight there will be a Jamie Oliver programme on television about his ideal school.

I learned a lesson last summer. I took my daughter, who at that time was heavily pregnant with twin boys, and my wife to a Jamie Oliver restaurant in Kingston, and it was one of the most disappointing meals that I have ever had. I had eaten in his restaurant Fifteen and I would recommend it to anyone. It is a flagship restaurant and was a wonderful experience, but when the Jamie Oliver offer is rolled out around the country, we see the difficulties that I found in Kingston upon Thames in the summer, as we have in education when we roll out children’s centres. The pilot looks wonderful and we think we can roll it out in 100 or even 500 centres. The reason our Government moved from 500 Sure Start centres to 3,500 was that most of the poor families in our country live outside the 500 poorest wards.

Sorry, I disagree. It is a call for greater management. When an idea is rolled out and franchised, it is essential to ensure that there is a set of standards, that people know that they are expected to reach those standards, and that those standards are delivered. May I point the hon. Lady to the remarkable work of Lord Baker when he was Secretary of State? He picked up the challenge of Jim Callaghan’s Oxford speech to Ruskin, in which Callaghan said that we needed an inspectorate to check on quality, testing and assessment to find out how children were progressing, and a national curriculum. Jim Callaghan never did anything about it, because he did not have a majority or any money. Ten years later Ken Baker did it. He knew that we had to be able to deliver nationally to a national standard.

The hon. Gentleman is making a case for a franchised system like McDonald’s or any other burger chain, not for Sure Start centres. I have some excellent Sure Start centres in my constituency in the most deprived areas, precisely where they should be, but the programmes offered there would not work in other parts of my constituency.

I take the hon. Lady’s point. We can disagree on that.

Let me get down to what worries me. Our report—which, if my memory serves me right, the present Chairman of the Education Committee voted against—suggested that children’s centres should be maintained. We made some helpful comments. I want to spend a little time on the Government’s response. Paragraph after paragraph, they keep saying how wonderful our report is, but when I look at their response in detail, I am worried about some of their reasons for agreeing with it.

We can all agree that evidence-based policy is good policy, and this policy of ours was the purest example of that. In all my 10 years as Chair of the Select Committee, with some wonderful colleagues—many of us turn up at debates such as this—the best policies that we saw were those based on evidence, and of all the policies in those 10 years, the clearest evidence was on early years intervention and redirecting expenditure to the early years. People carelessly think that we spend a lot of money on early years, but that is not the case. How much we spend increases as a child gets older. All the evidence shows that we have got it the wrong way round. My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) often made that case, and made it to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The money should be piled in during the early years, for the reasons that the House has heard this afternoon.

What worries me about the Government’s response to our report is whether the commitment is still there. It is all very well having the commitment, but without the money and the resources, children’s centres will start to go. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) said that his council had not yet made up its mind. I have it on good authority that my local authority, Kirklees, in which Huddersfield sits as the jewel in the crown, is reducing the number of children’s centres from 35 to 17.

Sefton council proposed reducing the number of children’s centres from 19 to seven, but I am pleased to say that, in the face of huge opposition from the hundreds of families who use the centres, it is reconsidering. My hon. Friend makes his point about the link between policy and the money made available. We could comment on manifesto pledges. I am sure he would agree that it is only by Government guaranteeing that the money is available and that it will be spent on children’s centres that there is any hope of achieving the aims set out in the Select Committee report.

Indeed. I hope my own local authority will change its mind under pressure from those who use the excellent children’s centres in my patch. I am sure that throughout the country there will be a large number of closures of children’s centres. That will be a disgrace, because I know what good work children’s centres are doing.

May I take up a remark made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead? He visits schools and sees how important the first two years are. I used to boast that I visited more schools than any other MP, and I am trying to keep up that track record. When I visit urban schools I see the difficulties that he has identified, measured against the 10 things that children should be able to do. I visit schools with fantastic heads and children’s centres with fantastic leaders who improve children’s behaviour and performance enormously, but 40% of the children will not be in those primary schools in a year because of the churn in our schools. We do not discuss that enough.

How can children be stimulated when in many of our major towns and cities they live in totally mobile populations? It is not the old-style poverty of the coalfields and shipyards, but the poverty of churn and change. In so many of our constituencies, heads and Sure Start leaders do not know which children will come through their doors in just a few weeks, which is a real problem. However, they do know that children will often have no one at home who speaks English to support them in learning our language. When those children go home, the television will not be in English. Sometimes, because of political correctness, we turn away from the reality of what is happening in our schools.

I fear that, as the world changes and the middle east turns itself upside down, for example, even higher rates of migration will result in even higher rates of change in our schools. I am not against migration and hold no extreme views on the matter, as everyone who knows me would acknowledge, but I know that our children’s centres and primary schools in urban areas are at the front line of that change. We cannot carry on asking teachers, heads and Sure Start leaders to cope with the increasing churn and turmoil resulting from the number of new children, so few of whom have a command of English, or indeed of many of the standard requirements that we expect in schools and children’s centres. We all pick up on that point but sometimes ignore it. We ask professionals to do a job, but not all children live in the leafy suburbs or the countryside.

That is an important and well-made point, but does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the additional investment for increasing the number of health visitors to 4,200 is surely a good thing for a number of reasons, not least the important issue that he has addressed?

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman made that intervention, because I was moving on to the funding of health visitors. I am not entirely sure or comfortable about when that money will come in, because I had heard that it is not yet and that it might be in 2012; there is nothing in black and white. I would be pleased if a member of the ministerial team would let us know during the debate whether the funding is coming and whether it is from the health budget, as one Minister has told me. If that is true, it will be a real plus for the overall budget and to be welcomed.

Where the health visitors are based is also important, and I hope that they will be concentrated in children’s centres. Some of us will remember hearing the head of the Royal College of General Practitioners say in evidence to the Select Committee that half its members did not know what a children’s centre was and that the other half thought that it was just competition for health visitors. Integration and working together are important.

It is also important to consider the revolutionary step at the heart of children’s centres, which has been missed out of the debate so far. The revolutionary step is that they view a child holistically. A child is not a child with a bit of educational difficulty here and a bit of early stimulation there, or with a little health problem here and language difficulties there. The beauty of children’s centres is that a child gets all that support and evaluation in one place. Parents do not have to push a pram all over town to go to one clinic for a certain service and somewhere else for another, as my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) said. The fact is that providing a holistic service for a child delivers the best chance of giving that child the environment in which they can thrive.

While the Committee was conducting that inquiry, we were looking at young people who were not in education, employment or training. When we went to Holland, we found the Dutch experience particularly interesting, because they also looked at young people holistically. They have centres where young people can have a health evaluation and an aptitude evaluation, where employers and colleges are represented and there are seminar rooms for people who had been NEETs before gaining employment. Those centres provide an all-purpose focus for young people. When we are talking about people’s lives, it is that holistic approach that seems to work, and I recommend that what we do in children’s centres should be transferred to that older age group, as stated in our report on NEETs. Local authorities have moved in that direction, and some examples in the UK have been extremely successful.

Not for the moment.

Many of the responses to the Committee’s report have made much play of the big society. I must confess that I actually like the idea of a big society, but I am slightly resentful of it, because I think that the Conservatives stole it from Labour—[Interruption.] I say that in a good-natured way to ensure that Conservative Members are still awake. In fact, we all believe in the big society. I believed in it even when Mrs Thatcher said that there was no such thing as society, so I have a long-term commitment to it. Throughout my whole political life I have involved myself in starting social enterprises as part of that big society, because I think that that is how our society should develop.

My worry about the big society is that it is often linked to the idea that everything should be done by volunteers. I am a little suspicious when people argue that things can be done by volunteers, because the best analysis and professional research suggests some problems with that. I refer the Minister to an interesting article—she might already know it—published in 2006 by Professor Alison Wolf, who is about to publish a report produced for the Government on 14 to 19-year-olds. As the Minister will know, Professor Wolf’s daughter, Rachel Wolf, is in charge of the free schools movement and her son, Martin Wolf, is a senior influence at the Financial Times. I listen carefully to Alison Wolf, and her 2006 article stated that the real problem with volunteering in this country is that it has been dying—first, because of the decline of organised religion, and secondly, because women now work in demanding jobs. Both men and women work in our country.

Professor Wolf also noted that the research suggesting that there is a lot of volunteering left in our communities is poor because it is based on opinion polls, and people tell fibs about how much they put back into the community when they are asked in such polls. If members of a pilot group are asked to keep a diary, the results show that the average time a person gives to volunteering is four minutes a day. If we are to base children’s centres and the big society on all of us volunteering for four minutes a day, we will still need a hell of a lot of good professionals to provide quality health and children’s care.

I shall also briefly touch on something that was central to the Government’s critique of our inquiry—the idea that we would no longer need so many hours. One absolutely fantastic thing about children’s centres in the most deprived areas was that they had to stay open 10 hours a day, 48 weeks a year. The document before me clearly states that that is now finished as an obligation and does not need to delivered. We all know that that is true, because it is in the response to the Select Committee’s report, and, in the hard-pressed and most deprived communities throughout our land, it represents the withdrawal of a guarantee that really meant something and will be sorely missed.

I do not know what my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead, who wrote his own report, would say about that withdrawal. I do not remember hearing whether he was conscious of it when he wrote his report, and I do not know whether he thinks that the fairness premium will counter-balance it, but nobody knows how the premium will work, when people will receive it or who will benefit from it.

At the heart of my concerns about the response to the Select Committee’s report is the fact that localism has become an excuse for saying, “We don’t have the confidence or the courage to say that we believe that there must be a reduction in the number of children’s centres or the services they provide, so we are going to pass it on to local authorities.” The Government must know, however, that local authorities, in straitened times with much smaller budgets, are going to cut back on children’s centres.

This Government—any Government—have a responsibility for knowing that some policies are so fundamental to the welfare of our people that we and they cannot afford to give up the guarantee and say, “Oh, I’m terribly sorry. We believe in children’s centres, in a full service and in the early stimulation of children, but unfortunately those naughty people up there in Oxford, down there in Surrey or up there in the north-east happen to be short of money and it is all their responsibility.” No one can shuffle away from such responsibility. If children’s centres are cut back or cease to exist as fully integrated models, the buck stops with the Government. I hope that all parties in the House recognise that.

There is a very real problem with the final piece of evidence in the Government’s response to the Select Committee report. I was very fond of evidence-based policy, as you know Madam Deputy Speaker. On page 3 of the Government’s response, they say:

“The Government agrees with the recommendation—high quality provision leads to better outcomes for children and families. Research evidence shows that it is the quality of support which makes the difference for children's outcomes, particularly for disadvantaged children. That is why, where children's centres are providing early education and care, it should be led by either an Early Years Professional or a Qualified Teacher to ensure quality and provide expert input to the activities and services on offer.”

Do we all agree with that? I am looking at the ministerial team. Do we agree? Can I have a nod? [Interruption.] I am not going to get a nod, because they know that page 6 says:

“It is crucial that children's centres in disadvantaged areas continue to offer high-quality early education and care to support vulnerable and disadvantaged families. However, since we have removed the requirement for children's centres in disadvantaged areas to provide full day care, we do not want to be as prescriptive as the previous Government in expecting them to employ both a Qualified Teacher and an Early Years Professional. Therefore, we have removed this requirement.”

The Minister responsible for schools became very fond of one little bit of evidence in Clackmannanshire, when he was converted to synthetic phonics, but all the evidence, not just one piece in a relatively obscure part of the United Kingdom—

No, Clackmannanshire.

One inquiry swept the Minister away to the world of synthetic phonics, and he has been there ever since, but in fact much research shows that a qualified teacher or an early years professional in an early years setting makes a substantial difference to outcomes, and this Government are taking that away.

That is good information, but if I take the two responses together I find that the requirement is substantially weakened.

Yes, I fear that the hon. Gentleman probably has not read all the document.

Part of the problem is that in some areas—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman lets me finish, then he can shout at me. In some areas, we find that there is no need for full day care, and if there is no need, we end up subsidising full day-care places, which is not sensible. We should put that money into the evidence-based programmes that make the difference, to which the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) referred. That is where the money must go, and that is why we have taken away the requirement for full day care. There is no requirement for both professionals, but there will need to be one.

I am sorry, but it is unkind of Ministers to suggest that I have not read the document. From a close reading of it, I have explained how those two paragraphs do not make sense. Taking away the commitments to 10 hours a day and to 48 weeks a year substantially weakens the overall offer.

Now that I have managed to get the Minister to the Dispatch Box, I wonder whether she will also tell us a little about the future mutualisation of children’s centres. The Select Committee said that it was in favour of variety and more community-responsive children’s centres. We certainly were not against diversity in the shape and nature of children’s centres throughout the country, but throwing into the response to our report something about the possibility of mutualisation, without really developing it, left us all rather puzzled. Can she enlighten us on mutualisation?

I shall pick up on those wider points when the hon. Gentleman sits down and I make my speech. I just wanted to make that clarification, but I am conscious that other Members want to speak and I am just prolonging his speech.

Order. That is a good point. We do not want a discussion just between the Minister and the hon. Gentleman, even though it might be of interest to other Members. Other Members are waiting to speak.

I would never be so churlish as to suggest that the hon. Lady has not read the document.

Ten years ago, when I became Chairman of the Select Committee, we produced a report on early years. I used to go to early years settings where people were employed for £1 an hour. There was a very poor core of professionals and many volunteers, and 10 years ago there was a lot of fuss because a Labour Government introduced the national minimum wage. People told us at our inquiry that that was the end of early years, because no one would be able to afford to pay the minimum wage. Over those 10 years, everything we saw taught us that the policies that increased the professionalism of the early years resource and staff were a fantastic investment—the sort of investment that our communities and our Government should make and be proud to make. Our original report made that point very clearly, and I still believe in what we said: the children’s centre network is highly valuable, and we destroy it or undermine it at our peril.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to follow that very lengthy and detailed speech by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman).

This debate needs to cover several points, some of which were referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), the Chairman of the Education Committee. For example, unfortunately we have a huge number of NEETs in our country. That is a measure of the failure to deal with children in early years education in a proper and satisfactory way. Until we got into government, there was a failure to deal with the widening inequality gap—a damning indictment—and we have to tackle that.

I want to say a few words about resources. This debate is, to some extent, influenced by the fact that we are in a period of reductions in public expenditure, so it is worth noting that we spend almost 40 times as much paying interest on this country’s debt as we do on the subject that we are talking about. That puts our funding difficulties into perspective.

Of course, we have Sure Start facilities in my constituency—for example, Treetops in Dursley, which is first class. It is very important to ensure that Sure Start really does what the label says. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) is right that it is a very good brand, and it does say something that is really encouraging—a sure start. However, we must be completely certain that that is exactly what happens. My hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) was right to talk about the importance of evaluation and ensuring that Sure Start works in every different area.

I want to give an example from personal experience. My own family were lucky enough to have access to a children’s centre some years ago when my son was three years old, and we certainly benefited as a family, but this is more about the other families who were from more disadvantaged backgrounds than ours. They clearly stated that in terms of opportunities and development, the differences between the younger children who had access to children’s centres and their older siblings were very noticeable within the same families, let alone on the same estates between different families. That evidence was very strong, and I could see it at first hand.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I would say that that is the experience of Sure Start in one situation, but we need to be sure that all Sure Starts deliver high standards for all the children who attend.

I want to make two general points about Sure Start. First, there is the issue of localism, which has cropped up several times. The real need is to ensure that we shape our services for the needs that we find on the ground where we see the problems. It is therefore right that local authorities have more influence in allocating and shaping provision. This is the converse of the previous Government’s approach, which was always top down, telling everybody what it was important to do and ensuring they did it, but not taking into account people’s needs, especially local circumstances. That obsession with top-down control often means that people end up worrying too much about the structure and too little about those within it and the children needing to benefit from it.

Secondly, we are no longer ring-fencing funding. That is right, because it is important to have local accountability for the provision of services and to enable local authorities to make the decisions that they want to make. The way in which the Government are now funding Sure Start is the better way to ensure that these facilities can be more flexible and adaptable. I make the case for localism on those terms.

I would like to pull together the point that my hon. Friend has just made and the point about evaluation. Does he agree that if we are to have a more localist approach, national Government need to ensure that evaluation takes place so that we have the data to see whether local authorities are making a difference to the school-readiness of children when they turn up? If we spend all this money and it does not make any difference, as the Durham studies have shown in too many cases involving poorer children, then we are spending money to no positive result.

My hon. Friend is right. We need to be sure that we deliver the outcomes that we want. If we are obsessed with process, structures and all the rest, and not with outcomes and delivery, we are letting down the very children we aspire to help.

The Education Committee went on a trip to Finland, where there were some interesting points to note, one of which was schools’ involvement in more than just teaching the children. Schools always had social care provision and, in effect, district nurse provision, and there was proper, regular consultation between those providers and the teachers if there was a problem. That is well worth thinking about. It is important to consider other ways of doing things than simply the prescribed way from central Government. As I have often said, it is sensible to look at other systems, not necessarily to copy them completely, because that cannot be done effectively—there are too many obstructions such as different cultures and priorities—but to pick up ideas that can be transferred. I urge people to keep an open mind about that kind of arrangement.

Before we got to Finland, we were in Germany. There, too, I learned something, which was that the Germans have a different approach to NEETs, and they did not seem to have nearly as great a problem as we have had. They were taking relatively proactive measures to encourage young people to become involved in society at an early stage and to give them signposted ways into further education and employment. That is something that we could pick up on. There is a lot more detail that we could discuss about those trips that would be useful to the debate, but I mention those two examples.

The right hon. Member for Birkenhead was entirely right, and very moving, when he spoke about family structures where parents were sometimes unable to provide decent parenting for their children, and wondered whether he could have survived in certain circumstances. We must recognise that this is a very serious issue. We cannot, as a society, be happy when such comments can be made and readily accepted without question. We must concentrate on improving parenting—not in the case of all parents, obviously, but those with the biggest challenges and problems.

I met a lady in my constituency who is in charge of the Nationwide Community Learning Partnership, which focuses on providing strong and effective programmes for improving parenting. I urge the Minister to think very carefully about such programmes, which offer a way forward. That organisation is of a very high standard. It is based in the county of Gloucestershire but has functions across the country. I think that, allied to Sure Start activities, helping people in need of parenting skills is a way forward. I invite the Minister to meet the Nationwide Community Learning Partnership, because I think that it would bring something of value to the discussion.

We need to be more flexible and open-minded on this issue. We need to recognise that Sure Start has a strong role to play. It is sensible to have a localist and flexible approach to providing such support.

In this debate, it is worth remembering the role that the pupil premium will have in helping children. I do not think that it has yet been amplified, but I believe that it is an important way of getting financial support to the right place at the right time. The schools I have visited in my constituency that will receive a large amount of pupil premium recognise its value.

The Government’s decision to provide funding for two and three-year-olds is a big step in the right direction. As hon. Members have said, one can tell when children who need that support have received it and when they have not. To solve the problems of children in this category, it is logical that we must help them when it really matters, and it really matters at that young age.

This is an important debate. We have to be sure of the quality of the services that we provide. We need better evaluation and a wiser way of interpreting the data. We must capture the needs of local people and children in a much more intelligent way. To a large extent, that means trusting local authorities to do just that. It is right to have this debate at this time. There are a lot of challenges and we should not rest until the headline figures that I referred to at the beginning of my remarks come down much faster than they have done thus far.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I give my apologies in advance in case the debate continues beyond 4 o’clock, because I am hoping to speak in Westminster Hall.

I agree with the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) about the importance of evaluation. There have been constructive speeches from Members from across the House. As my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) said, we have to start by looking at the evidence of what is working in our country and, as several hon. Members have said, what has and has not been successful in other parts of the world. Several hon. Members talked about the balance between having universal expectations of services in all parts of the country and local flexibility. I am a fan of local flexibility. The hon. Member for Stroud said that the situation must depend on the needs on the ground. I say to him gently that although that is true, meeting those needs on the ground depends on the resources being there. In the latter part of my speech, I will talk about the impact of the Government’s cuts to these grants on children’s centres and nursery provision in Liverpool.

I absolutely concur with the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) on the need to focus on those who are not in education, employment or training. Ultimately, the success or failure of Sure Start and other investment in early years will be assessed by whether we succeed in cracking the nut that all speakers have referred to: that so many people’s life chances are set before they go to primary school or even, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) said, before they enter a Sure Start children’s centre.

Before 1997, I had the privilege of working with my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), who is now Chair of the Public Accounts Committee. She was asked by the then Leader of the Opposition, Tony Blair, to develop a policy for early years. That ultimately became the Sure Start policy that was taken up in Government by my right hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) and for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell). Our approach then was very much the one that my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield set out. We looked at the evidence and at the examples of excellence from our own country. They did exist, but they were individual cases rather than occurring nationwide. Perhaps more importantly, we looked at the head start programme in the United States, which seemed to be having such a big impact on the life chances of children and young people from poorer communities, and at similar programmes in European countries.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead has had to leave the Chamber, but his speech was an important contribution to the debate. In the latter part of my remarks I will focus, as I am sure will other Labour Members, on the impact of Government cuts, and in doing so we are saying that not everything in the garden is rosy. Of course some children’s centres are doing better and are more effective than others, but we need a proper quantitative and qualitative analysis of what is working so that lessons can be shared across the country.

I believe it was the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) who had the courage to say that if one believes in early intervention, in the current financial situation one must reduce funding further up by taking money away from primary schools, secondary schools and colleges, and give it to early years. Does the hon. Gentleman therefore support the fact that two-year-olds will now have nursery education at a cost of more than £300 million, which perhaps reflects a redistribution from later school years by this Government?

I welcome that element of what the Government have done. On its own, it would represent something of a redistribution. The trouble is that it exists alongside other changes that work in the opposite direction—principally the removal of the ring fence. The hon. Gentleman referred to the debate on ring-fencing. It has always struck me in debates about education and other public services that people tend to be against ring-fencing in general, but in favour of it in particular. We all want our favourite thing to be ring-fenced, but we do not like the general idea. The principle of moving away from central Government saying, “You must spend this funding on this, regardless of local circumstances,” is good. However, it is concerning in this instance, not least because it is happening in the context of cuts in many areas. With the best will in the world, it is very difficult for local authorities to maintain expenditure on early years with the ring fence removed, when they are having to make such big cuts in other areas of their budgets. I will come back to that point, but I urge the Government to think again about the proposal to remove the ring fence for this area of spending.

I think that the case for investment in this area is now accepted across the House. It can make such a difference to the life chances of all children, and in particular those from the poorest and most deprived areas with the greatest need. The formulation set out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead is right: we want a universal service, but within that, we must focus without relenting, and without any apology, on the needs of those from the very poorest communities.

That brings me to the financial predicament that is being faced by local authorities of all parties up and down the country. There is no quarrel about the need for cuts, or about the fact that some of the cuts will affect children’s services, but our concern is that the scale, speed and distribution of those cuts, combined with the removal of the ring fence, will cause enormous damage.

In the light of what the hon. Gentleman has just said, will he join me in congratulating Tory-led Medway council, which has had a difficult funding settlement, on keeping all its Sure Start centres open, including the All Saints centre in Chatham and the Kingfisher centre in Princes Park?

It is very welcome to hear of any authority that has managed to keep all its centres open despite these financial circumstances. We heard earlier, during Prime Minister’s questions, about another Conservative authority, Bromley, which is closing the vast majority of its children’s centres. The impact is clearly being experienced in different ways in different parts of the country, so I welcome the fact that Medway has managed to keep its centres open. I am not sure whether my welcoming that will make much of a newspaper headline in the hon. Lady’s constituency, but her news is nevertheless welcome.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) has talked about the services that the centres will provide. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) not agree that it is all very well keeping the buildings open, but that that will not be much use if the services have been scaled back to a point at which they are unrecognisable?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am not familiar with the details of what has happened in Medway, so I do not know whether that has happened there, but that is precisely what is happening in other parts of the country, as my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) has said. In Liverpool, the day nurseries attached to two of the centres in my constituency, at Croxteth and Knotty Ash, are closing down. Keeping centres open is an important indicator, but it is not the only one. What matters is what goes on inside the centres and the services and outreach that they provide.

Liverpool city council is seeing the greatest cuts of any authority in England. Birmingham council, a Conservative-Liberal Democrat council, has produced a fascinating graph showing the relationship between the cuts in Government grant and the average level of need in an authority. There is a remarkable relationship between how deprived an area is and how big the grant cuts are. Liverpool is right up at the very top with the biggest cuts and the highest levels of deprivation. We accept the need for cuts, but we do not think that they need to go as far or as fast, and even if the quantum of cuts can be justified, their distribution between different authorities absolutely cannot be.

In that context, Liverpool city council, which has placed a strong emphasis on children’s services over the past decade under Liberal Democrat and now Labour control, is having to cut children’s centres. It is not cutting them on the same scale as Bromley, but, of our 26 centres, four are earmarked for closure, which is four more than I want to see. It is also four more than my hon. Friends the other Liverpool MPs want to see, and four more than all the parties on Liverpool city council want to see.

One of my first engagements as the new MP in West Derby last May was to attend the opening of the West Derby children’s centre. A week ago, I went back there to attend a meeting to discuss its proposed closure. It is heartbreaking for the children, the parents and the people working at the centre to see that fantastic new facility, which was created for that community, facing closure. Even at this late stage, I am working with people at the centre and councillors to consider every possible option for safeguarding it, even if it takes a different form in the future. My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield talked about mutualisation and social enterprise options. There might be options for at least some of the services at that children’s centre to be retained, but it would have been much better to keep the whole centre open. It opened only a year ago to provide all those services for the local community, and what is happening now is a direct consequence of Government cuts.

I also visited the Knotty Ash nursery last week, and I want to mention a woman whom I met there. Lisa Dempster is the mum of a child at the nursery, and she is happy for me to mention her. She left school when she was 16, which was 24 years ago. Throughout those 24 years, she has been in work. She has never claimed unemployment benefit, and she has paid her tax and her national insurance. She has two teenage children and a toddler. Both her teenagers want to go to university, so that they can get on in life. Her daughter, who is in the first year of the sixth form, is losing her education maintenance allowance this year, and her son, who starts sixth form this September, will not receive EMA at all. Her children are losing their bus passes, and they fear that they will face enormous debts in the future. On top of all that, her little one’s nursery place is going to be lost. She is a good example of someone who has been very badly let down by this combination of policies from the Government. The latest blow for her and her family is the closure of her local nursery.

I apologise again that I might not be here to listen to the Minister’s response to the debate, but I shall read the Hansard record. I urge her to think again, in two respects. First, I really believe that the ideal would be for the Government to re-impose the ring fence for Sure Start children’s centres. That is the best way for us to ensure that there is a universal entitlement, which goes hand in hand with local decisions about how that entitlement is implemented in each community. If she cannot agree to that today, or thereafter, I ask that she, her colleagues in the Department for Education, and particularly her colleagues in the Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government look again at the unfairness of the distribution of the cuts, which are hitting children’s centres in some of the most deprived areas of the country much harder than those elsewhere. All those who have contributed to the debate agree that Sure Start has achieved some amazing things over the past decade. We also all agree that a focus on the areas of greatest deprivation must be at the heart of Sure Start in the future. I fear, however, that the broader picture of the cuts will undermine all the Minister’s personal good intentions.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate today, and I am following a large number of Members who have spoken with great authority and understanding. I have listened with interest to the debate, but one thing seems to be missing. It is the big picture. The biggest impact of the money spent on children’s education, in terms of our ability to improve cognitive skills, is seen in the earlier years. There is now consensus not only in the academic literature but across the House that we need to target resources in that area, because that is where they have the biggest impact on child brain development. However, when we consider how the money is spent in the UK and across the world, we see that the inverse of that is happening. Excellent research has shown that the money going into post-16 education in the UK is 1.5 times the amount per head that is spent at primary level. The differential is even greater for the pre-school and under-twos provision that we have been discussing today.

We all recognise this historic anomaly, but the question is: what can we do about it in the context of the extremely tight public spending limits that are necessary, given the scale of the deficit? That is not an easy proposition. The analysis is easy, and the evidence all points the same way, but it is extremely difficult to achieve the practical and political ability to make that change, so that that money will go to children at the age at which it has the most impact.

I shall give two examples. The Government have made two proposals that will save money, because the evidence showed that the money being used did not have as much impact as it could have done elsewhere. They are politically difficult proposals. First, the Government have asked students to pay more of their tuition fees, and secondly, they are restructuring the EMA. At the moment 90% of those who receive it would have stayed in school anyway, so now the impact will be much greater. Those are both extremely politically sensitive changes, yet they are having exactly the impact that Members of all parties have called for.

In an era of rising budgets it may be easy to put more and more focus on increasing spending at the lower end of the age distribution. In an era of very tight finances, however, it is difficult to redistribute and retarget money from the older end, especially post-16, where the evidence shows that the impact on cognitive ability is the smallest, to under-fives, for whom the evidence shows it is biggest. However, this Government are doing it. Members of all parties ought to recognise how difficult it is to make that change in the context of the very tight public finances.

That supports the strength of the Government’s position, which I applaud, of keeping the early intervention grant flat in cash terms in the forthcoming period. Protecting money for early intervention, in the context of the current spending conditions, is an achievement for which the Minister ought to be applauded.

We then come to the argument about how that money is spent and where the cuts are falling. I did a bit of research and found 27 councils across the country that are managing to keep all their Sure Start centres open despite the difficult public finances. Of those, 24 are run by the Conservative party and three are Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalitions.

Can the hon. Gentleman tell the House what percentage cuts those councils are receiving compared with the 4.4% average cut to local authority budgets?

Absolutely. My own county council, Suffolk, did not do very well in the distribution of the local authority grant, but because it is making savings in back-office costs, re-engineering how it delivers services, reducing the cost of services and being flexible in how it delivers them, it is able to keep its centres open. I absolutely take the hon. Lady’s point, and the crucial point is that councils ought to be making savings in the back office and re-engineering their services to protect front-line services, as Suffolk is doing.

I will try to keep this non-party political, but since the hon. Gentleman makes that point, I will ask him the same question that I asked the Chair of the Education Committee. If councils are closing most of their Sure Start centres, should we just shrug and say, “Well, that’s a matter for localism”, or, given what the hon. Gentleman has said, should the Minister take an interest?

There is of course a statutory amount of Sure Start provision that must be in place, as I am sure the Minister will spell out in more detail. The question is whether services can be provided in a way that delivers better value for money, through savings in the back office. I recently chaired a report on councils’ ability to save money and deliver services better by bringing together the delivery of local services. Reference was made earlier in the debate to the fact that when that has been done, it has not only saved money but actually improved services. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) talked about Sure Start centres that also have health and social services, so that they are a one-stop shop. Those are exactly the sort of innovative solutions that we need to examine.

One example of a council that is doing that extremely well is local to the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter). Hammersmith council, and others across the country, are saving money by changing how services are delivered. That is far better than cutting front-line services, and I commend that approach. I mention that not to make a party political point but to argue that by allowing local councils on the ground to spend money in the way that they see fit, with the flexibility to deliver early intervention as best they can, we allow innovation and improvements in delivery instead of the attitude that the man in Whitehall knows best, which top-down provision and tight ring-fencing bring.

The theory sounds fine, but the practice is different. I am trying not to be party political, but let us say that a council decides it is going to cut the Sure Start budget by about half and close most of its centres. That cannot be dressed up as back-office services, and for many children, the essential services with which they are currently provided will not be there. Should that be a matter for the Government to take an interest in?

That is why it is important to have a specified national minimum level of provision, and then allow councils to ensure that they meet—and, one hopes, exceed—that level. The reason for allowing local innovation and flexibility with a national minimum level is to enable different approaches to be taken in different places, so that best practice can emerge. That lets local councils and people deliver in the way that is most helpful and appropriate to local people, but it is also about ensuring that instead of a centralised, bureaucratic system, we have a local system that responds to local need.

We heard earlier from the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) that we need better management, but we have had a centralised system for years. As a member of the Public Accounts Committee I am obviously well aware of National Audit Office reports, and, sad to say, the NAO found that the amount of formal child care among the most disadvantaged fell between 2004 and 2008. Instead of leading to more provision for those people, the centralised approach actually led to less, so let us try a different way.

Does my hon. Friend agree that if we had too centralised a system, we would lose the excellent work of many voluntary sector organisations in specific areas, such as the charity with which I have been involved in Oxfordshire, OXPIP? We would not have the opportunity to introduce local services to meet local needs.

I listened with great interest to my hon. Friend’s passionate argument earlier, which made exactly that case. Local innovation and a local ability to respond to local events, with a national set of standards that must be met, allow money to be spent better.

I come to the central reason why I support that approach—the fact that it is about outcomes, not inputs. Tight ring-fencing is all about ensuring that the inputs go to a certain area. I understand as well as anybody how easy it is to get a headline out of writing that x million pounds is going to such and such a project—but what matters to people on the ground is not the amount of money poured in at the top, but the outcomes delivered at the bottom. The ability to improve value for public money, get better outcomes and have innovative social groups, such as the one that my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) mentioned, is, given the extremely tight fiscal environment, vital. I therefore applaud the Government’s approach in loosening ring-fencing while retaining minimum standards to allow flourishing local innovation and improve the value that we get for the hard-earned taxpayers’ money that we spend on their behalf.

In the context of spending more money on early years, and thus getting better outcomes, I also applaud the free entitlement to 15 hours of early years education for the most disadvantaged two-year-olds. That is another example of managing to get money from the older part of the age range to the younger part. I also strongly applaud the desire for increased qualifications in the work force and better leadership, especially through the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services, to ensure that we get more highly talented people into the work.

Of course, I welcome the 4,200 extra health visitors, targeted at very young age groups. I think we can all agree that the reduction in the number of health visitors in the past few years was a mistake. Reversing that and ensuring that there is universal coverage, and more health visitors, is very valuable.

The hon. Gentleman made a good point. As soon as I realised that he was a member of the Public Accounts Committee I took great notice of his words. However, early years professionals and a qualified teacher will not be required even in the children’s centres that have full-day provision. Surely, if he believes in professionalism in the work force, he deplores that. On a visit on Friday, I found that people are giving up on the early years qualification, because they feel that it is no longer valued and will not be funded after 2012.

It is important to have highly qualified people, but again, I would not make that mandatory for a centre because many people are highly qualified to work in and deliver early years education, but do not have the specific qualification. If people in, for example, the charity with which my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire is closely involved do not have that qualification because they have come to it through a different route, I would not want to put a barrier in their way. That does not mean that we should not have more professionally qualified people.

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that it is okay for unqualified people to provide the professionalism in Sure Start centres? That seems to be happening in the schools sector—in free schools—recently. Do qualifications mean nothing in the profession any longer, according to the Government?

Of course qualifications are meaningful, but does the hon. Gentleman claim that no person without the formal paper qualification is up to the job? I do not think so. Of course, a qualification is part of someone’s resumé and experience, but we should not be so bureaucratic about the piece of paper. We should look at the person’s ability and qualifications through their history.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again. On qualifications, in the charity with which I am involved there are people with PhDs in psychotherapy, and paediatricians, who have decided to move to working with the very young. It is nonsense to say that having a specific piece of paper uniquely qualifies someone to support early years.

I agree wholeheartedly.

There is a consensus—I am glad that there is—about the need to focus resources on early years. There is much more difficulty with actually doing that, and several people will the ends without willing the means. I regret it when the subject becomes a political football, because almost all of us agree about the ends. Before the election, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) went to Ipswich and said that Sure Start centres would be closed there. However, they are all open. It was a mistake to make that prediction, and she should withdraw it. Similarly, it is a mistake for the Labour party to argue that the amount of cash for the early intervention grant is falling when it is being kept flat. We should work together to achieve the ends, about which we all agree, in the difficult circumstances that the Government did not bring about, to ensure that we serve our children best and improve their life chances, cognitive abilities, skills and happiness. We should not create a political football, saying that we agree about the ends while disagreeing on the means to achieve them.

To close a building in a community can rob it of a useful resource, but to close a children’s centre robs a community of something far more precious—its future. We have heard many contributions about the value of Sure Start and our children’s centres, and differing opinions about the extent to which they have been successful, but there has been general consensus that the Sure Start programme has been a success and ensured that children get the right start in life.

I have visited all the children’s centres in my constituency and been struck by the many stories of the parents and grandparents who take their young ones to them, and have benefited from them more than from many other services that our local authorities provide.

I will be party political in my speech: Conservatives are robbing families in my constituency of the chance of a better future. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) said, it is a matter of record that the city of Liverpool has the greatest need but is getting the biggest cuts. To those who need the most will come the least. My first question to Government Front Benchers who are present—and to Treasury Ministers who are not—is to ask what they have against the children of my constituency. [Interruption.] Yes, it is.

At least the House and the country can see what the Government’s priorities are. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby said, even if Liverpool had the average level of local authority cuts, my city would get £26 million more than it currently receives—enough to save the Sure Start centres at Childwall and Woolton, and Church and Mossley Hill, which are today threatened with closure.

No, I will not give way to the hon. Lady, who has only just joined the debate. I have been here for two hours.

If we take out the money allocated to Liverpool schools, Ministers have decided to cut the money for children and families by 35%. In the city with the greatest need, more than a third of the budget for children and families is being shed.

We all support efficiency and back-office cost savings, but I asked the Minister in a named day question on 15 February what the average back-office costs for a Sure Start centre are. I am still waiting for a response.

I am puzzled; I hope I will not be shocked. I know that Liverpool council’s total spending power is falling by 15% over two years in real terms. The hon. Lady has just claimed that spending on children’s services is falling by 35%. Is it true that Liverpool council—

Is it run by the Labour party? Is it true that that council is cutting children’s services by so much more than the total overall cut?

The grants to children, which are not allocated to schools, are being cut by 35% in Liverpool by the Government. [Interruption.]

Let me get back to my point about back-office costs. How much can be saved in back-office costs from a Sure Start centre that has a part-time co-ordinator and one receptionist? I asked that question because of the heartbreak and concern that this matter is causing parents and grandparents in my constituency, and I want to share the strength of their feelings with the House. I have received many letters and e-mails in recent days, as I am sure other right hon. and hon. Members have. These are the voices of the communities who do not feel that they are “all in this together”, and the voices of parents who feel that they have been singled out for attack.

Wendy told me:

“I was devastated to hear that my local children’s Sure Start centre at Woolton and Childwall is in the pipeline for closure. As a new mum I have found the centre to be extremely supportive and a vital service for the community. The staff have always been brilliant and extremely informative. It is also a great opportunity to meet other parents.”

Kate said:

“Sure Start have responded well to the local needs. They recognised the presence of a number of families with twins locally, and promptly provided specific twin baby classes and a multiple birth support group. It is hard to express how important these groups are. As a family with twins, you are excluded from some other activities (e.g. swimming) and simply struggle to take your babies to anything that is not well set up to cope with twins. And yet, as a mother at home with multiples, your need to get out and stimulate the kids is even greater. Our local Sure Start centre is a haven for us!”

Helen wrote:

“The children’s centres are important in our communities and help to give our children the best possible start in life”;

and Emma wrote:

“the staff at Church and Mossley Hill Sure Start are some of the most skilled and committed I have ever met (and I have more than 10 years’ experience working in education). Church and Mossley Hill Sure Start is an over-subscribed, thriving hub of support for parents and babies in south Liverpool…Church & Mossley Hill Sure Start has already built up strong and lasting links in the short time that it has been running.”

My inbox and letter bag have been swamped by many more messages like those.

I should like first to take this opportunity to apologise for the delay in the answer to the hon. Lady’s named day question; I will investigate that on her behalf.

The hon. Lady is making a powerful case, and I join her in praising the hard work and dedication of the staff whom she has rightly praised. However, as she will be aware, funding for Sure Start children’s centres is distributed through the early intervention grant, which is calculated on a formula basis to take account of rural sparseness, need and—particularly—deprivation, according to working tax credit data. Obviously, we want to ensure that that formula is improved if necessary. Does she have practical suggestions for how the early intervention grant should change to ensure that the communities most in need receive what they deserve?

I thank the Secretary of State for his intervention. The cabinet lead for education in Liverpool, Councillor Jane Corbett, about whom I shall say more, has spent many an hour with local education practitioners, members of the community and Sure Start staff to talk to them about what can be done. I would welcome the opportunity to join representatives from Liverpool to meet the Secretary of State to discuss that.

I am sorry to intervene again, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for allowing me to do so. I am looking forward to visiting Liverpool on 28 March, and I am sure that I can extend the itinerary that the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) is shaping for me so that I have time to talk to the people concerned.

I look forward to the Secretary of State’s forthcoming visit to Liverpool.

From many pieces of correspondence with families in my constituency, I have learned that they cannot understand why, when they play by the rules—many are in work and paying their taxes—their most prized and precious asset is the among the first to come under the axe. Councillor Jane Corbett, whom I mentioned—she is Liverpool council’s education and children’s services cabinet member—spoke for so many in our community when she said:

“The Government is showing complete contempt for the youngest children in Liverpool by putting forward these politically motivated cuts. I cannot believe the lack of concern for children and families in Liverpool.”

Liverpool people have a strong sense of fairness. They know that the Government are not treating them fairly, and they will not forget it. If the Government want a big society, they need not look much further than the Sure Start centres at Childwall and Woolton, and at Church and Mossley Hill.

The hon. Lady was just asked how she would like the deficit impacts to be dealt with on a local authority basis, and said that she would welcome a meeting. However, if there were a Labour Government, how would the money have been divided up? Undoubtedly, under a Labour Government, there would have been pain in children’s services, as in other areas, just as under a coalition.

I will come to what needs to happen in the final part of my speech.

To go back to my previous point, the Government seek a big society, but we already have that—in the two Sure Starts that are under threat of closure. We have committed staff, engaged parents and fantastic children. However, if we are looking for a big betrayal of children’s hopes and futures, we need look not much further than those on the Government Benches.

My hon. Friends have spoken previously about pledges that were made before the election, and I want to repeat those in this debate, because those important points have not been made today. The day before the election, the Prime Minister said:

“Yes, we back Sure Start. It’s a disgrace that Gordon Brown has been trying to frighten people about this. He’s the Prime Minister of this country but he’s been scaring people about something that really matters. Not only do we back Sure Start, but we will improve it.”

Also on the day before the election, the Deputy Prime Minister said:

“Sure Start is one of the best things the last government has done and I want all these centres to stay open.”

On behalf of all parents and children in the communities in my constituency who today depend on Sure Start in these challenging times, and those who will depend on it in future, I urge the Government, the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister to honour the pledges that they made the day before the election. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said earlier to the Prime Minister, it is not too late to ring-fence the money to save our Sure Starts.

I have raised the cuts in Sure Start provision in my constituency with the Minister on a number of occasions, but I make no apology for raising the matter again today. She will accept that this is serious and that I am very concerned. They are the most substantial cuts in public services so far in Hammersmith—from what I have heard today, there are some horrific stories from around the country—and the cuts in my constituency are the largest proportionately anywhere, in that nine of 15 centres will close.

When the Minister responds to the debate, I want her to answer this question, which I have put to the Chair of the Education Committee and others. What is the proper role of the Government in local authorities that do not do what the Government say they should do? Given all the talk of localism, and the fact that the Government are happy to intervene when they think that councils are not clearing snow quickly enough or emptying bins often enough—[Interruption.] I am directing my comments to the Minister, who I hoped would listen to them, but apparently she will not—[Interruption.] I will pause, if you do not mind, Madam Deputy Speaker, until the Minister pays attention, given that I am asking her a direct and specific question. She persists in talking to her colleagues and not listening, which is somewhat discourteous. I am talking about the majority of services for the under-fives in my constituency being cut by her Government, so she could at least have the courtesy to listen to my comments.

I sincerely apologise for not listening to the hon. Gentleman—I was trying to hear when this debate was going to wind up and when I would begin my speech—but he now has my full concentration.

I am grateful for that. The Minister has said in previous debates that she has concerns about what is happening in Hammersmith. Her view—she has expressed it both in answer to parliamentary questions and in debate—is that there is sufficient money in the early intervention grant to preserve the network of Sure Start centres. I am sure she will repeat that view today, in spite of a cut of about 13% coming from central Government—certainly my Conservative council has said that the cut in Sure Start funding through the early intervention grant is 12.9%.

Given that we are talking about what are already pretty lean organisations, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) said, we could argue about whether even a 13% cut can sustain the current professional network. However, the Minister has set out her stall on that, so I will address the issue locally, because even on the basis of the cut of about 45% that we are facing—a cut that has been revised slightly downwards—the preservation of Sure Start in Hammersmith is demonstrably unsustainable.

Without going into too much detail, there are one or two points from my local examples that bear analysis, because similar things may be happening elsewhere in the country.

Before my hon. Friend moves on, I would like to get some clarity on the assertion, which we keep hearing, that the early intervention grant is being protected in cash terms. When we look at the technical note, which I continually refer to—I even carry it round in my handbag, to have it handy at every opportunity—we see a £311 million in-year cut for 2010-11. It looks as though the grant is being protected in cash terms, but a £311 million in-year cut is being taken off the bottom, so it is not protected in cash terms at all. When we bear that in mind, we see that we are talking about a 20% cut over three years.

Indeed, and with a 13% cut in the first year for my area. However, if my hon. Friend does not mind, I want to leave her and the Minister to debate that point, which is a valid one. We heard a disingenuous speech by the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock), who implied that there was no need to make cuts of that order and that the Government were in some way protecting Sure Start. On the figures that my hon. Friend has given, that is not true around the country. However, if she does not mind, I will leave that point because, from my perspective, we would be grateful for a 13% cut—if I can put it that way—rather than what is actually happening.

Will the hon. Gentleman expand on this 45% cut? It has been said that the cut adds up to 15% over three years, so has he not got it the wrong way round? It is not 15 multiplied by three; it is 15 divided by three. Could he expand on how he has got to 45%?

If the hon. Gentleman bears with me, I am sure that he will get the point that I am coming to, but, in essence, because the money is not ring-fenced, my local authority has voluntarily chosen, in the face of what it says is a 13% cut from the Government, to make a 45% cut in the first year. That came about in the following way, which bears some analysis.

It seems that the temptation for Government Members is to say that councils are making decisions for political effect, but that is simply not true. My Lib Dem local authority settled its budget last Thursday, and the cut to Sure Start children’s centres was huge—something like more than 50%. That was certainly not done for political effect, because as a Lib Dem council it was already very concerned about the prospect of annihilation at the May elections.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but I shall now try to make some progress.

On or about 27 December—a time when we are all assiduously reading Government and council documents—my local authority published a report on family support, indicating what funding would be available over the next financial year. The report addressed Sure Start—not directly, but obliquely—first by rubbishing Sure Start provision, saying that although the centres were

“clearly popular with families, and seem likely to have some preventive impact, we have much less clear evidence about the degree of impact this has—including on the ultimate number of children falling into child protection”,

and that

“early studies showed no clear evidence of impact on early school results”.

That might come as a surprise to Members on both sides of the House, given that we heard my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree earlier quoting the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister—certainly before the election—expressing their strong support for Sure Start. However, those rather vague and grudging comments were used as the basis for reducing Sure Start funding by over 50%, with the council report saying:

“However, it is not likely under this scenario that LBHF could continue to directly fund more than 6 Children’s centre teams. In any case we would no longer seek to directly run centres”,

adding that it aimed

“to maintain some provision at most centres, through small amounts of pump-priming funding.”

In the financial section of the report, however, no money whatever was provided for such pump priming; money was provided simply to keep the remaining six centres open.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, by the time report came to committee and was due to be dealt with on 10 January, there was what might be called “a row on the town” in that a large number of people were concerned about it and turned up at the meeting. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) was one of them, so she might want to comment further in her own speech. At that meeting, the authority, faced with great popular disapproval, told people that they had misunderstood the position as no centres were going to be closed, and had misunderstood that the decision had already been taken as consultation was about to be launched. That is what we were told. That would have sounded quite good, save for the fact that the report was then passed in its entirety, including the 50% cut to the budget. We were in the peculiar position of being told one thing when a decision had been taken that was entirely contrary to it. The situation became even more complicated when, later in the same week and rushed out in response to public demand and other factors, a consultation paper was published, with an extra £19,000 slipped in, which turned out to be the pump-priming money—the £19,000 that was going to the Sure Start centres under threat of closure.

Leaving aside the fact that this was shambolic, chaotic and no way to run anything, let alone a local authority, we need to reflect on the reasons for this process of decision making. There were three. The first was connected to public relations. By putting £19,000 into centres that previously had no money at all, the authority could say to the general public and the media, who by this time were taking a strong interest in the issue, that it was not closing the Sure Start centres. Secondly, the consultation was done quite successfully, but it confused the parents and users of those centres, who were told that the centres were not closing but staying open as a result of this £19,000. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, somebody had bothered to look at the regulations, so a scrutiny report was published at the same time, making the observation:

“Local authorities have duties under the Childcare Act 2006 to consult before opening, closing or significantly changing children’s centres, and to secure sufficient provision to meet local need”.

The authority realised that it would be subject to judicial review if the consultation process did not happen. I suspect that it will still be subject to judicial review because consulting after the decision has been made is not the best option.

I read that same paragraph in a copy of a letter from the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), which was a response to a letter to the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), from the all-party Sure Start group. I was curious because I thought it sounded like closing the stable door after the horse had bolted. Once the budget cut has been made, the consultation does not matter, because if the consultation showed that people wanted to keep the centres, where would the money come—

The whole situation is clearly nonsense. The belated process of consultation closed on Monday 28 February, but the budget for the year was decided at the budget council meeting on 23 February. Nobody is fooled by this, and I suspect that the divisional court will also not be fooled by it when it comes to look at the decision-making process over Sure Start in Hammersmith and Fulham.

There is a fourth reason for the last-minute change of heart, whereby no money suddenly became £19,000. Another paragraph of the later report said:

“We understand that there is no expectation of claw back of capital spend on children’s centres”—

that is, by the Department for Education—

“unless the buildings are no longer used for the services for under fives and their families. We are confident that the proposal outlined above will satisfy DfE requirements.”

So one of the officers said that if the grant was withdrawn as intended and as decided, the Minister of State would come round, not to see what wonderful work had been done but to take back the buildings that had subsequently closed.

Two centres are closing in the ward where I live, in a substantial area of deprivation. About a minute’s walk from my home is Wendell Park children’s centre. A number of parents whose children attend the centre were at the seminar held this morning by the shadow Secretary of State for Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), and I met them afterwards. They are campaigning to keep their centre open, and they are under no illusion—

No, I will not give way to the Secretary of State, at least not at the moment. If he wishes to participate in debates such as this, perhaps he should be present from the beginning. Given that when I have tried to raise this and other education issues in my constituency with him over the past few weeks his replies have been flippant and have not addressed those issues, I am in no particular hurry to hear his views on this subject. I may give way to him if I have time at the end.

I think that I should sometimes say what I feel in these debates.

As I was saying, the Wendell Park parents whom I saw this morning were under no illusion that reducing a budget of £250,000 to £19,000 meant anything other than that the centre would be closed. Cathnor Park children’s centre, which is about half a mile from where I live and which currently has a budget of £473,000, is also to have a budget of £19,000 in the future. The 100 parents who turned up to a meeting at that centre two weeks ago—which none of the Conservative councillors could be bothered to attend—are similarly under no illusion about what is happening. Notwithstanding the weasel words that we have heard from certain Government Members, what is happening is that children’s centres are closing, their budgets are being withdrawn, the centre is being withdrawn and 45% of funding is being withdrawn. That is the future of Sure Start in my constituency.

Does the Minister of State take any responsibility for what is happening? I understand the rhetoric about localism, but I also understand that if we are to take seriously what the Government said before the election—that they support Sure Start and want the network to be maintained—and if local authorities, of any political complexion but in this instance my Conservative-run council, are cutting budgets by almost 50% and reducing the service by more than half in terms of the number of centres that remain open, the Government have a clear duty to intervene.

Although its budget has already been set, it is still possible for Hammersmith and Fulham to look for resources within the funds that have been allocated. This is a council that spends several million pounds on publicity. It would not be difficult for it to find enough resources to keep the Sure Start centres open, albeit at a reduced level for the time being. At present, all the centres that face closure are considering how they can save money, examining business plans and looking at ways of maintaining the service, but people should not insult our intelligence by claiming that although there is no budget and no service, centres are somehow being preserved because buildings are still standing—if they are not also withdrawn by the Government.

I ask the Minister of State to address directly an issue that she has already addressed obliquely. What is she going to do about local authorities which, despite what they have heard Ministers say about Government policy on Sure Start, persist in shutting down what ought to be a national service of which we should be proud—as I thought we all were—because they do not consider it to be a local priority?

I am delighted to follow my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) in speaking in this important debate. The fact that three Labour MPs representing Liverpool constituencies have contributed shows the depth of feeling in our city about the issue under discussion.

In a move designed to detoxify the Tory brand and cultivate cuddly, compassionate Conservatism—allegedly big on children and the family—the current Prime Minister told Tory acolytes back in 2009:

“Sure Start will stay, and we’ll improve it.”

Actions speak louder than words, however. Eighteen months and one election later, 250 children’s centres are due to close nationwide and some 2,000 will be forced to reduce their services. Sure Start as we know it looks set neither to “stay” nor “improve”. This is another example of Cleggism, if one was needed: saying one thing, but doing another.

No, not just yet.

It is glaringly obvious that the Government do not understand the holistic nature of the Sure Start children’s centres—their qualitative as well as their quantitative value. Yes, they are about providing a co-ordinated range of practical facilities and services, but, equally importantly, they are also about offering social and emotional encouragement and support, often to parents living in some of the most disaffected, marginalised and hard-to-reach communities in the land.

Sure Start children’s centres do not cater only for the most disadvantaged—whom our Cabinet of multi-millionaires clearly finds so tiresome. They also support hard-working low and middle-income families. Ministers would do well to remember that. Isolation, chaos and dysfunction are both causes and symptoms of family deprivation and marginalisation, and are not the preserve of the least well-off.

I fully acknowledge that the children’s centre programme, which is still in its infancy, is far from perfect. The quality of provision is sometimes patchy, there is room for standardisation and improvement, and although all the indications are good, it is much too early to evaluate the benefits fully.

First, may I apologise for joining the debate late? I was attending a Justice Committee meeting.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need for these centres, but Wiltshire has had a 25% cut in its revenue support grant yet not a single centre is closing—and no library is closing either, so why is Liverpool choosing to shut its centres? This is a matter for the local council, not central Government.

You just don’t get it, do you? I do not know what the settlement is in your area. [Interruption.] Well, let me tell you that the total settlement in Liverpool is—

I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker. To address the hon. Lady’s point, Liverpool is the most deprived area in the country—I have said that before in the Chamber—and it is facing the biggest cuts not just in the policy area under discussion, but in all areas. I invite both the hon. Lady and the Secretary of State for Education to come and see my constituency. It is not only in the most deprived area in the country; it is one of the most deprived constituencies in the most deprived area in the country.

As my hon. Friend has said, Liverpool is the authority with the greatest need. Does he agree that Liverpool city council is to be commended for focusing its cuts first and foremost on back-office functions, halving the number of senior managers, cutting the chief executive’s pay and reducing bureaucracy, yet even after that it has had to make service cuts?

I thank my hon. Friend and fellow Liverpool Member of Parliament for the points he makes. I should perhaps put on record the fact that until May I am still a Liverpool city councillor, so I understand the difficult decisions those councillors are having to make. This is an open book: anybody can come to Liverpool and have a look at the situation we face—councillors’ unenviable task of going through the budget and trying to decide which services to cut.

We are often told by Government Members that we are “deficit deniers”. That is the mantra that everybody uses when they come to the Dispatch Box—the Prime Minister did it again today. If they do not think we should be cutting children’s centres or any other service in Liverpool, they should tell us what they think we should be cutting. It is their Government who have slashed funding to our city right across the board. We have been hit the hardest, yet we are the most deprived. [Interruption.] What was that? I am sorry, Mr Deputy Speaker, I thought somebody on the Government Back Benches said something.

Order. We will have less noise from the Back Benches, unless it is an intervention. I have two people standing. Steve Rotheram, I do not know whether you are giving way. I call Luciana Berger.

Did my hon. Friend see the report on BBC news only the other evening in which an independent efficiency expert, Colm Reilly from PA Consulting, singled out Liverpool city council for the work it had done to make £70 million of efficiency savings so far, with £30 million to come in the next couple of months? He said that, despite all these efficiency savings, there was no way that Liverpool city council could protect the front line.

My hon. Friend is of course right, and Colm Reilly was not the only one to say that. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government praised Liverpool city council for its efforts to come up with a budget, given the circumstances it finds itself in.

As I said, the indications are good, but it is much too early fully to evaluate all the benefits of Sure Start. That is precisely why we should be giving it a fair chance to bed in, rather than hobbling it before it has barely taken off.

I add my own congratulations to Liverpool city council for the way in which it has tackled the almost impossible task of managing the budget and protecting Sure Start and other key preventive services. I use this opportunity to call on Sefton council, which has its budget meeting tomorrow night, to follow Liverpool’s lead in protecting Sure Start and other vital services.

As we have heard, the Government and certain Members just do not get any of this, but actually, Liverpool city council does get it. It is much maligned of late by the Con-Dems, of course, but, no thanks to the coalition, and despite an 18% cut to its early intervention grant, from which Sure Start funding must now be drawn, it has managed to secure the future of 22 of its centres and will work hard through its consultation process to find ways of avoiding the closure of the four that are threatened, which my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby referred to earlier.

However, this is no vindication of the Government’s approach, as unfortunately, service reductions are inevitable. City-wide, under-fives and their families will suffer as a consequence and, needless to say, Liverpool city council has been forced by the Government into the iniquitous position of having to take from Peter to give to Paul. Shuffling reduced resources has inevitably meant that protecting children’s centres has come at the price of other vital services.

I am particularly concerned about the broader, vaguer proposal tucked away in the coalition agreement to introduce payment by results into the Sure Start equation. Market forces bring with them risks, competition and inconsistency. People such as the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) may disagree, but in my book there is no place for any of those in the delivery of services to children and young families.

All this would of course be all well and good if the Government could present a reasoned, evidence-based case for change, but as usual they cannot. In fact, in their arrogance they appear to have gone out of their way stubbornly to ignore popular opinion and expert advice, proffered well in advance of their budget deliberations.

The evidence that we need to change the system of accountability is available, both from the National Audit Office and from Durham university, whose team analysed primary schools and the young people attending them over seven or eight years. It found that the readiness for school of young people from the poorest families was not improving, despite all the expenditure by the previous Government. Therefore, moving to payment by results, so that local authorities and children’s centre staff are absolutely focused on transforming the life chances of children, is precisely what we need to be doing, and I think the hon. Gentleman should think again.

What a bizarre argument. Saying that an area such as Liverpool, which is among the most deprived, is having its money reduced and that that will somehow result in improved services to the groups that the hon. Gentleman is talking about is bizarre. As we have heard, almost a year ago the Children, Schools and Families Committee, as the Select Committee was known then, published a progress report on Sure Start children’s centres, having conducted a lengthy inquiry involving dozens of expert witnesses and practitioners—apparently, Jamie Oliver was the only one to turn down this fantastic opportunity. The Committee’s analysis was rigorous and measured, and it was firmly rooted in common sense and fairness. Three of its recommendations are worth highlighting again today.

First, the Committee warned that any reduction of funding

“would undermine the programme to an unacceptable degree and jeopardise the long-term gains from early intervention… we would not wish authorities to be bequeathed an underfunded statutory duty.”

May I help my hon. Friend, because he has just taken an intervention from the Chairman of the current Select Committee? I have read the Government’s response to our original response and it states:

“We are aware that Durham University published a report recently which suggested that Government investment in Sure Start had not delivered improvements in early language and numeracy development. We do not share that view—the 2010 Foundation Stage Profile results showed that the proportion of young children achieving a good level of development had increased by 4 percentage points compared to 2009”.

We must therefore balance what the Government actually said against what some people think they said.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to make that point.

Secondly, the Committee urged the Government to give the programme time to bear fruit, given that even the oldest tranche of centres was only about six years old at that stage. The Committee said:

“It would be catastrophic if Children’s Centres were not afforded long-term policy stability and security of funding while evaluation is ongoing.”

Thirdly, the Committee categorically urged against the removal of ring-fencing, saying:

“We consider that it would be unwise to remove the ring-fence around Children’s Centres funding in the short or medium term; putting Centres at the mercy of local vicissitudes would risk radically different models and levels of service developing across the country, with differences out of proportion to the variation in community needs.”

Some Tory Members served on that Committee, so this was a cross-party report.

I received a letter from the chair of the governors at the St William of York Catholic primary school. They also manage the Thornton children’s centre in Crosby and they tell me that they have seen a marked improvement in the school readiness of the children who attend the centre and whose families use it compared with that of those who do not. That kind of evidence is as important as what is in the Select Committee report or elsewhere. It puts the record straight in respect of what the Chairman of the Select Committee said.

Of course evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, is always a useful tool.

The Government’s response to the Committee’s recommendations was to rush headlong into decisions, to cut funding and to remove the said ring-fencing. In short, the response was to dismiss entirely the logical, considered advice of those best placed to offer it, who included some of their own Members. I know that the Prime Minister is not a man for detail, but you know a policy is truly shambolic when even the Prime Minister fluffs his own case and defence. On 9 February, he arrogantly told the House: “On Sure Start, the budget is going up from £2,212 million to £2,297 million. The budget is going up. That is what is happening,” but that was downright wrong. Not only did he confuse the Sure Start budget with the broader early intervention grant in which it is being subsumed, but he used 2012-13 figures. The EIG is being cut this year by 11%—down from £2,482 million to £2,212 million. So the numbers were out, the dates were out and the argument was out. What hope for our children in the face of such cavalier amateurism?

The key to Sure Start programmes lies in the name, but thanks to the coalition’s cynically calculated decision to pass a poisoned chalice on to local authorities in the guise of localism, millions of babies and toddlers are now set to miss out on the sure start in life they might otherwise have enjoyed. I truly wonder how the Ministers responsible—fathers all—can sleep soundly at night.

I thank the Chair of the Education Committee for securing this timely debate. We served together on the Children, Schools and Families Committee in the previous Parliament and he is already making a name for himself. Although I am very grateful to him for securing the debate, I doubt that the Minister will be quite so grateful given the opportunity it has created for colleagues to air their experiences of the impact on the front line of the decisions that she and the Secretary of State have taken about funding and the removal of ring-fencing.

The debate is timely for several reasons, but primarily because many local authorities are taking decisions that they do not particularly want to take on the future of children’s centres. That is especially true of Liverpool. Contrary to some of the disgraceful comments that have been made in the past week and even in this debate, those decisions are not politically motivated. Liverpool is having to take them because of the terrible settlement it has received, which is one of the worst in the country even though it is the most deprived local authority in the country.

The debate is also timely because it fortuitously follows a seminar on Sure Start that was hosted in Parliament this morning by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), as well as the 4Children conference at which the Minister of State and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), who is not in his place, also spoke. I understand that she thanked them this morning for their constructive criticism, so I hope that she will take my remarks in the same spirit.

If the Minister had been able to come to the seminar, I am sure she would have found it very useful. We heard from a number of parents and others involved in children’s centres about what services mean to them and their communities and about the impact that budget cuts could have and are having. We heard from everyone, including some of the Minister’s colleagues, whom we were pleased came along. We heard, as we have heard in this debate, about the difference that good children’s centres can make to the lives of children and parents. We heard from Willie Wilson, whose children attend the Pen Green centre in Corby. He told us how being involved in its Sunday dads group had helped him to overcome his mental health issues and how much his children enjoyed using the centre. He said:

“Everything good in my life in the last five years has been down to Pen Green Children’s Centre”.

Those sentiments were echoed by a young mum who told us how her local centre had helped her and others to get over post-natal depression. Pen Green is facing big cuts to its funding and might have to cut services. I understand that the Minister’s colleague, the hon. Member for Corby (Ms Bagshawe), has said that that will happen over her dead body. I do not know whether the Minister just caught that but I think the Secretary of State did and I hope that they will talk to the hon. Lady about that, as such comments are not necessary.

The panel at the seminar agreed with something that the Minister will have heard at her engagement this morning: the ring fence to Sure Start funding is key to the stability of the service on the front line. It also agreed that it is no good keeping centres open if they are not providing a good quality service.

We learn, as we have today from Hammersmith and Fulham, the Prime Minister’s favourite council, that centres that are apparently being kept open will have to survive on a budget of £19,000 a year. No doubt the Minister will agree that that will not go far. It is hardly enough to pay for a caretaker, let alone the running costs and a work force. If we want good results from centres, they need the funding and the stability of funding to employ qualified staff and provide quality services. Cuts and the removal of ring-fencing will not help.

The Minister has been conspicuous by her absence from the past two meetings of the all-party Sure Start group, although we were pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) was present. The hon. Lady recently got round to replying to a letter sent from the group in December, to which I referred earlier. Given the Minister’s absence from the meeting as she was ill, I was surprised to receive, during the meeting, a Google alert informing me that she had published a local media release that very afternoon criticising her local Labour council in Brent for closing or downgrading

“10 out of 20 children’s centres”.

Apart from that not being strictly true—I have checked—I thought it was a bit rich that the hon. Lady should be criticising her local council, which is having to deal with a real-terms cut to its budget for early intervention of almost £10 million over three years, or 18%, according to figures that I have from the Library. That is a cut that she handed to the council, and a decision that she made. She even had the sense of humour in that press release to portray that as a rather good deal. I doubt whether many of her constituents will see it that way, even if Brent council manages to protect the majority of front-line services.

We keep hearing the refrain that there is enough money in the early intervention grant to maintain the children’s centre network. We heard it from the Prime Minister earlier, and a couple of weeks ago he even said that funding for that grant is going up. Both those statements are misleading to the public. The early intervention grant might be increasing by a small amount between 2011-12 and 2012-13, but from the baseline—the budget that councils originally had for services that will now be provided by that fund—there is a significant cut. The EIG covers more than 20 other funding streams, as well as children’s centres, and according to the Department’s publications it is being cut by a total of almost £1.4 billion over three years in cash terms. In real terms, Commons Library research shows that that will be more like 18%, with the worst-hit areas seeing cumulative cuts of more than 22%.

Funding for children’s centres is not ring-fenced within the early intervention grant, which itself is not ring-fenced from the rest of the local authority’s budget, so there is nothing to stop that money being used to fund things entirely separate from what it is supposed to be for. There is therefore no way in which the Minister can realistically tell us today that she is protecting Sure Start. She will call it localism, no doubt, but I call it naiveté in the extreme. Why be a Minister if all she can do is cross her fingers and hope for the best?

I am sure that very few local authorities want to cut budgets for children’s centres or other early intervention schemes, but given the scale of the cuts to their budgets across the board, many of them will have no choice. If not children’s centres, do they cut breaks for disabled children, programmes to combat teen pregnancy, family intervention or targeted mental health in schools, all of which save money in the long term, which is the purpose of early intervention projects? We all know the old adage about a stitch in time saving nine. In short, cutting early intervention funding is ill thought out and will create long-term problems for the sake of short-term savings.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, all the more so after her kind words. It is early days and, as I said in my remarks, I hope we do not see the dismantling of a service that is still embryonic. It is not about buildings or budgets, but about outcomes. How does she think we can best ensure that it delivers the outcomes we want? Would she support a movement to payment by results, for instance?

I would support a return to the ring fence, if not for the whole early intervention grant, then specifically for the Sure Start element within it. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman wanted my opinion and I have given it. The proposals are also contrary to the considered views of the Select Committee, which he now chairs, of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead and of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen).

The Minister of State seems to be continually distracted and keeps missing important points I am making. She has already had to ask the Secretary of State about my comment on the hon. Member for Corby, and I would not like her to miss anything else I say.

As I said, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead and my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North, whose opinions the Minister actively sought, have both championed the prioritisation of early intervention schemes such as children’s centres.

The hon. Lady says that she would ring-fence funding for Sure Start but has not made it clear that she would increase the early intervention grant. The right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) has recently proposed a tax cut by not going ahead with the VAT increase on fuel. If she would ring-fence Sure Start and cut taxes on fuel at the same time, where would the money come from to support the other important services that she was generous enough to list earlier?

As I am sure the Secretary of State is aware, I am not shadow Chancellor; my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) is. I will not be tempted to go outside my remit—[Interruption.] All I have said is that I would ring-fence the Sure Start element within the early intervention budget, as the leader of the Opposition said today. We have heard the Secretary of State say so many times that he has given councils enough money to maintain their current network of children’s centres—that comes from a direct quote—so if they have enough money within the early intervention grant, why should we be afraid to ring-fence the Sure Start element in it? It is not a spending commitment.

The hon. Lady was kind enough to mention earlier that by her own calculation ring-fencing Sure Start within the current early intervention grant envelope would mean that other services would have to go. How will she protect those other services? Will she raise taxes, cut spending elsewhere or, as she said earlier, simply cross her fingers and hope for the best?

It is Ministers who are crossing their fingers and hoping for the best, not me. By making that comment, the Secretary of State has admitted that the early intervention grant is not big enough for the sum of its parts and that all 22 funding streams that feed into it cannot all be met. He has made that admission on the Floor of the House, and I am sure that Opposition colleagues are grateful for it.

Surely the point is more about what the Government should be advising local councils to do. Will the Government now come clean and give guidance to local councils on which services they should protect in the early intervention grant and the other restricted Government grants that go to local government, or will they continue to say that it is nothing to do with them and down to local councils?

That is a key point, and I am sure that the Minister will refer to it in her closing remarks.

The Minister has said on several occasions that she wants children’s centres to be paid by results. That does not necessarily seem a bad thing, until it is considered that, nine times out of 10, improving results will need up-front funds, or at least guaranteed budgets. I completely accept that we need to ensure the best value for taxpayers’ money and that outcomes are what matter, but if payment by results means holding significant chunks of money back from budgets, centres will have to concentrate more on managing their funding, which detracts from the quality of service they can provide with reduced funds.

I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us something about payment by results. In the letter to the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), which I referred to earlier, the Minister said that she would do so in early 2011. Now, when I look at a calendar, I see that it is definitely early 2011. It is actually March 2011, so I look forward to hearing about payment by results.

The Minister will no doubt tell us that that funding is targeted at those who need it most, but Library research shows the opposite. The brunt of the cuts to the early intervention grants seem to be borne by local authorities with the greatest number of children living in poverty, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) just said with regard to Liverpool city council. Local authorities such as Knowsley, Sefton, Wirral and Sunderland, which covers my constituency, are all in the top 10 for cumulative cuts, while authorities such as Cambridgeshire, Richmond upon Thames and Hampshire—all sounding leafy and suburban—are among those that come off best. Can the Minister explain the difference between her words and actions?

There is so much more that I would like to say, but I want to hear from the Minister. To echo the former chief executive of the Daycare Trust, in speaking to the Select Committee, Sure Start

“has been not just a step in the right direction but thousands of steps”.

Every closure, every child whose provision deteriorates, every parent who misses out on the help to improve their parenting, and every early years professional forced to abandon the sector because the jobs have disappeared represents another step backwards from the creation of a society in which every child has the best possible start in life.

I should like to believe that the Minister and her colleagues think the same, but in so many other areas the warm words that we heard before the election, from the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and others, and since have not matched the actions of this Tory-led Government. Promises to protect Sure Start have been broken—plain and simple broken promises. Cash-starved councils are being forced to make unpalatable decisions that look set to deprive many thousands of families of the services that they value highly and, in many cases, rely upon, because of a decision that the Minister and her colleagues have made.

I did give way a number of times to Government Front Benchers.

Not only that, but many areas with the greatest need are seeing the biggest cuts. The rhetoric does not match the reality, so the Minister needs to make a decision: she should either be honest about her failure to protect children’s centres or take action to make good her words.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), the whole Select Committee and, indeed, the previous Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), for the important report that we are debating today, and for giving the House the opportunity to discuss the future of Sure Start children’s centres.

The report has been timely and helpful as the Government develop their approach to early years. The debate has on the whole been very good and constructive, with focused speeches about the future direction of policy, but the report demonstrates the extent of the all-party support for children’s centres as vital hubs of excellence in delivering integrated services to families, particularly those who most need support and advice. I have listened with interest to Members, and I shall try to address as many issues and concerns as I possibly can, as well as picking up on the key areas of our response to the Select Committee report. I am mindful, however, that I now have very little time left in which to speak.

The start of the debate was particularly important, because the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) reminded us why we are debating the matter. Early years are the foundation for life. High-quality early intervention has the potential to turn around life chances, and poor experiences in early years, such as those to which the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) referred, can actually change the physical nature of the brain. The failure to develop relationships of attachment can affect a child for ever, not just in the first few years of life. That is precisely why the Government have prioritised spending in this area, as the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) discussed.

I was struck by the comments of the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) about the importance of Sure Start in providing other support for families, not just for children. Let me be clear about this from the start. The coalition Government see Sure Start as vital to their work on social mobility: it is a key priority. Sure Start has proved itself to be a programme that has the capacity to be life-changing, and we want to build on its success. The Chair of the Select Committee said that he hoped we were not going to rip everything up. That is exactly what we are not doing. We are building on the good aspects of Sure Start, but, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead said, trying to develop it to ensure that we focus, particularly with more evidence-based programmes, on the families and children who need our support most. We believe that the best way to do this is through greater local decision making and accountability, more involvement of organisations that have proven expertise in service delivery, and, specifically, more use of evidence-based programmes.

Our response to the Committee’s report clearly states that, in our view, the main purpose of children’s centres is to ensure that families get help when they need it and to tackle issues early to prevent costly problems from emerging later. We want children’s centres to provide the foundation for stronger early joined-up working offering universal services for all families and targeted services focused on the neediest of those families.

Several hon. Members spoke about the need for evaluations, so let me pick up on a few of those points. The Government have commissioned an evaluation of Sure Start children’s centres in England that runs until 2016 alongside the national evaluation of Sure Start, which is evaluating a wide range of children’s centres. A report on the cost-effectiveness of the earlier Sure Start local programmes will be published later this year. I hope that that will be very useful information, for which the Chair of the Select Committee, in particular, asked.

The introduction of payment by results will incentivise better local evaluation of the impact of centres on children’s outcomes. In response to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) and the Opposition spokesperson, I point out that when we begin trialling payment by results, some additional money will be going in to help us to do that. We will then learn from those trials to find the most effective way to roll out payment by results in future to ensure that we can incentivise children’s outcomes.

I am afraid that I cannot answer the hon. Lady’s question at the moment.

Children’s centres are a priority for us, so we have ensured that there is enough money in the system to maintain the network of Sure Start children’s centres through the early intervention grant, or EIG. The spending review announced that funding for Sure Start children’s centres would be maintained in cash terms, including new investment from the Department of Health for 4,200 health visitors to work alongside outreach and family support workers. I understand that many in the sector are concerned about the removal of ring-fencing. However, this is not about a lack of priority for the sector; on the contrary, it is a recognition of its growing strength and maturity.

The removal of the ring fence is not taking place in a vacuum. Across the piece, this Government are removing ring fences in many areas because we believe that the right way to make decisions is to trust people on the ground to decide how best to prioritise funding. In that way, we get much better decision making.

The Minister said that the budget will be protected in cash terms, including the funding from the Department of Health for 4,200 health visitors. Will she spell out precisely what sums are coming from where and when they will be appearing in the budget?

I do not want to spell out exactly which bits of the EIG go to what, because I want local authorities to make decisions on the ground about the best ways to do that. As the hon. Gentleman says, the money for health visitors comes from the Department of Health. I will write to him to provide some information about that, because I do not have it here with me. However, I do not want to—

I will give way in a moment; let me answer one point at a time. The hon. Gentleman should not get too excited.

I do not want to spell out the details, particularly because when finances are tight there is an even bigger onus on us to ensure that we provide flexibility for local decision making. I do not think that we will get better decisions if I try to drive all this from Whitehall. We will get better decisions if local authorities can look at their provision and work out how they can best rationalise it based on local need.

I say to the Minister that I do get excited about protecting services on which families in my constituency depend. She made the point about local decision making, but there is a difference between making decisions on how to deliver the detail of services and deciding whether to deliver those services. That is the crucial issue in relation to ring-fencing. I call on her again to reconsider the decision on ring-fencing so that councils have to deliver services, even if they can decide how to deliver them.

I will not reconsider the decision on ring-fencing because I believe that it is the correct decision. As I was trying to say before I took the interventions, this is not taking place in a vacuum. Payment by results will ensure that we focus much more on outcomes. As the hon. Member for West Suffolk powerfully put it, the problem with ring-fencing is that it focuses on inputs. I do not think that it is inputs that generate outcomes. We have to try to drive behaviour to focus on the outcomes.

Does the Minister accept that in my area of Suffolk the removal of the ring fence has allowed the council to work up much more innovative solutions and to integrate different services? It can provide better solutions by bringing the delivery of services closer together, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) said, and get better value for money. I therefore strongly applaud the Minister’s decision not to put the ring fence back in place.

I absolutely agree. The point is that local authorities ought to have the freedom to decide whether they want to integrate these services with their youth provision. I want them to make better use of what are often fantastic assets, which are not always fully utilised. If we provide flexibility for local authorities, they will have the opportunity to do that.

On a related point, a thread that runs through all the reports of the previous Select Committee is the importance of the professional qualification for early years professionals, and of paying and training those professionals well. There is some unhappiness at the moment because it seems that the early years qualification will be brushed aside. Will the Minister reassure us that that is not the case?

I am not sure that I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. We are in the process of co-producing a policy statement with the Department of Health and the sector on the vision for early years and on how we will drive forward a number of changes. In particular, it will deal with quality, which I spoke about this morning at the 4Children conference. The questions include whether the existing qualifications are fit for purpose, whether we should change them and whether we should ensure that there is a greater focus on child development. We are considering those matters at the moment and we will publish the policy statement later this year. Quality is key, which is why we have asked the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services to focus on the quality of leadership in children’s centres. Children’s centres have the potential to drive forward quality, not just in their centre, but in much of the early years provision in their area. They have a great deal of potential.

I only have about four minutes left, which will make it difficult to respond to all the questions that have come up. I want to deal with one point that was raised by Labour Members, and in particular by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger). She made a number of allegations about cuts being made in proportion to need. I simply dispute her point. In fact, we used the previous Government’s funding formula to allocate most of the money in the EIG. As she will be aware, the formula

“is based on the under 5 population, weighted to reflect deprivation (based on Working Tax Credits data), rurality and the Education area cost adjustment.


“Some of the EIG has been allocated according to a youth formula. This is based on population numbers, educational attainment at Key Stage 2 and 3 and GCSE, numbers of young people not in education, employment or training…and the Education area cost adjustment.”

It simply is not fair to say that we have chosen to target cuts at areas with the greatest need—that is quite offensive. I appreciate that some hon. Members have made speeches today in order to defend councils of their own political colour, which I can understand. I also acknowledge that things are extremely difficult for many councils at the moment. I am not saying that it is easy to run a council, any more than it is easy to run the country at the moment, given the parlous state of our finances.

Many local authorities are making sensible decisions—to cluster Sure Start children’s centres and to merge back-office functions, for example. They are looking innovatively at how they can bring services together to make the best use of the assets available. We have heard from a number of hon. Members whose local authorities are managing to prioritise not only children’s centre buildings but the services that are being provided in them, to ensure that they always focus on children’s outcomes, which is absolutely vital.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) asked some specific questions about what the Government are doing. I have made it clear to local authorities that this issue is a priority—so much so that they have been complaining that I have placed a moral ring fence around children’s centres. We have made it clear in the guidance that local authorities have a duty to consult properly, and we have drawn their attention to the fact that, if they are using an asset for a purpose for which it is not funded, the Department is obliged to consider whether to claw back some of the money involved. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is using all those arguments in his discussions with his local council.

I was hoping to say a little about the vision for Sure Start children’s centres but, unfortunately, everyone else has spoken for so long that I have only about a minute left. Flexibility is key, and targeting the neediest families is an absolute priority for the Government, as is focusing on evidence-based programmes and making use of the reports produced for us by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead and the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen). We also want services to be brought together much more effectively, which is why we are working so closely with the Department of Health on our vision for children’s centres. I am pleased that we shall have so many more health visitors on track. Many of them will be placed in Sure Start children’s centres, and all of them will have strong links with their local centres. That is vital. Evidence shows that if health services are closely involved, the neediest families can be reached.

I was hoping to go on to speak about mutuals and the voluntary sector, but it is now 4.32, and I have to sit down. If hon. Members would like to hear more from me in future, they might want to restrain their speeches just a little. This has been an extremely useful debate, however, and I want to thank all hon. Members for their contributions.

Question deferred (Standing Order No. 54(4).