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Sure Start (Finance)

Volume 533: debated on Monday 17 October 2011

10. What assessment he has made of reductions in the budgets for Sure Start children’s centres in the financial year (a) 2010-11 and (b) 2011-12. (74427)

There was no reduction in revenue funding for Sure Start children’s centres in 2010-11. From April 2011, funding for children’s centres is included within the early intervention grant. It is for local authorities to decide how to use that funding, taking account of their statutory duties and local needs.

I thank the Minister for her reply. The changes to the funding streams for Sure Start amount to a slashing of expenditure of around 22% nationally and 25% in my local authority of Sandwell, and the removal of the ring-fencing condition gives local authorities the opportunity to plug their gaps in other services with Sure Start funding. Will the Minister undertake to conduct a full assessment and monitor the impact of those cuts on Sure Start centres in future?

The Government continue to monitor what is happening on the ground. We have made sure that enough money is available in the early intervention grant for a network of children’s centres. Local authorities have a statutory duty to provide sufficient children’s centres and to consult before opening, closing or significantly changing those services. We want to ensure that those are not just empty buildings and that they are providing high-quality services that are focused on outcomes that really matter, which is why I have recently announced the start of payment-by-results trials, which will focus much better on outcomes, and why we are consulting on a new core purpose, which will also focus on outcomes. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that it is the outcomes that matter.

I support Sure Start centres, and I know that Her Majesty’s Government do and always have done. Will the Minister confirm that, despite the Opposition’s apocalyptic warnings, there are broadly the same number of Sure Start centres now as there were when the coalition came into power?

There is information available on directgov, and it links to what information we have about the children’s centres that are available in local authority areas. From speaking to local authorities, I certainly know, as I said in my answer just a few minutes ago, that on the whole good local authorities, which do have to make difficult decisions, are merging back-office functions and management functions to make sure that they can focus on outcomes—the point that I just made, and which I think every Member would want.

As the Minister does not have a clue about the actual impact on the ground of her decision to cut Sure Start funding—cutting it by more than a fifth and removing the ring fence—I decided to find out for myself, and I will let her know what I have found: 83% of councils are cutting their funding this year; 89% of councils are cutting it next year; they are being forced to lay off qualified teachers; and in some areas children’s centres are actually closing. Given those findings, is she prepared to rethink her decisions and act to ensure that families are given the support that they need in the foundation years?

I believe I read in the press that the hon. Lady said that 47 children’s centres would close, and it would be helpful if she sent me that information. I suspect that not all local authorities replied to her, in just the same way as not all local authorities replied to us. She could do much to chivvy her local authorities to reply, because we could then make absolutely sure that the information on directgov was completely accurate. I am not sure that I have an awful lot more to add to the point that I have already made clear: the money is available in the early intervention grant, and we are making it clear to local authorities that Sure Start children’s centres are a priority. Indeed, some of her colleagues complained that I had placed a moral ring fence—