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Sure Start Children’s Centres

Volume 541: debated on Monday 27 February 2012

1. What steps he is taking to ensure that Sure Start children’s centres focus on the most disadvantaged families. (96382)

We published last year a new core purpose for children’s centres, which makes it clear that their core purpose is to improve outcomes for young children and their families, particularly for the most disadvantaged. Local authorities have statutory duties to provide sufficient children’s centres and to reduce inequalities. We are strengthening incentives to deliver the core purpose through revised statutory guidance, which we will publish shortly, through changes to Ofsted’s inspection framework and through payment by results. Children’s centres will also help families to access the new early education entitlement for disadvantaged two-year-olds.

Sure Start centres such as the Sunshine centre in Banbury do excellent work. What possibility is there of children’s centres’ budgets being ring-fenced within the early intervention grant to provide some security to the centres and to the communities for whom they work, or what possibility is there of children’s centres being given the same option as schools—to become the equivalent of an academy and to receive their funding directly from the Government?

We took a decision to ensure that the measure was carried out locally because of the importance in early intervention of joining services together. Children’s centres, health services and other aspects of local authority provision are best done locally, and it is right and proper that local authorities make the decision about organisation, strategic planning and commissioning.

The Minister knows that even good local authorities such as mine in Kirklees, because they are not being given the resource by central Government, are being forced to modify the offer of children’s Sure Start centres. Is she not aware that even the most benign Government Member, particularly the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) who just asked that question, wants to take us back to the old Poor Law days, when there was one centre for poor people and other centres for others? That is not the way to provide good child care.

I think that everybody throughout the House agrees on the importance of early intervention. I accept that there may be differences of opinion on how we deliver it, but Government Members believe that the best way to do so is to devolve decisions to the local level. I do not think that the most disadvantaged families in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency would be best served by me attempting to run everything from my office in Whitehall.

20. I welcome the Minister’s announcements and comments on the issue, just as I welcome the extension of 15 hours of free education a week to the most disadvantaged two-year-olds, but will she tell us what more we must do to help parents access affordable child care? Under the previous Government the cost of child care rose by 50% and the number of childminders dropped by one third. We have to do better. What does she think? (96402)

I absolutely recognise the points that the hon. Lady makes. Child care is a very difficult pressure on many families’ budgets, and that is precisely why we have invested so much extra money in the area. Despite the tight financial climate because of the mess that the previous Government left us, we have nevertheless invested significant extra money in enabling two-year-olds to access free early education—20% of two-year-olds by 2013 and 40% by 2014.

The Department’s Sure Start and early intervention funding for the local authority area of the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) was cut by £30 per child this year. Islington, Knowsley and Tower Hamlets, however, three of the country’s most deprived boroughs, had cuts of £100 or more per child. Does the Minister believe that that is a good example of targeting resources for Sure Start and for early intervention at the most disadvantaged?

Decisions about the early intervention grant were made on the same formula as that used by the previous Government, so it is not really acceptable for the hon. Lady to claim that there are specific changes in particular constituencies, and suggesting that there is a political motivation is a little beneath her, actually.