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Children’s Centres (Dudley)

Volume 572: debated on Wednesday 11 December 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir, and to see my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) present for the debate. I suspect that he, like myself, is here because he was deeply concerned last month when proposals to cut by 40% the budget for children’s centres in Dudley were published by Dudley metropolitan borough council. I was outraged further because three of the seven children’s centres earmarked for closure were in my constituency. Virtually half of the centres earmarked for closure were to come from a quarter of the borough.

That there was no reasonable basis for the proposal ensured its early demise, and I am pleased and relieved that Dudley council withdrew the proposal two weeks ago. Undoubtedly, a major reason for the council’s change of heart is the excellent work of our children’s centres and their ability to galvanise hundreds of parents, together with the wider community that they serve, to communicate in no uncertain terms just how vital is their contribution to families and communities not only in my constituency, but across the metropolitan borough of Dudley.

Three weeks ago, I held a meeting with the principals and parents from Hob Green, Quarry Bank and Peters Hill, the three main children’s centres that were to be closed by the proposals. I was tremendously impressed by their commitment, excellence and the breadth of work undertaken on the behalf of families and communities.

The council’s proposal, albeit withdrawn, has unnerved everyone involved. A will therefore now exists to ensure that the role of children’s centres and the value that they provide are properly understood. It has also been recognised that, as with all public services, there is a need constantly to assess service delivery and value for money in ways that work ever more efficiently in future. For those reasons, I am pleased to be holding this debate today.

Children’s centres provide many new parents with a structure of support that is a lifeline to them and their children. To help new parents and babies get off to a good start, they offer antenatal classes, breastfeeding support, baby massage, maternal mental health support and other such classes. Maternal mental health support can be absolutely crucial to women suffering from post-natal depression and other mental health states that can impact so negatively on babies and small children.

As babies grow into toddlers, a social divide can start to open up, but children’s centres are doing outstanding work to counter it. Parenting classes, help with behaviour, healthy eating and educational play sessions form the bedrock of support for families with toddlers. Since Hob Green children’s centre opened in 2008, the percentage of children attaining the standard expected at the early years foundation stage has increased from 78% to 88%. That is an increase of 10% in only four years.

Dawn Swingler, the foundation stage manager at Hob Green primary school, in whose premises the children’s centre is sited, said:

“It is very apparent when children join the nursery if they have attended sessions in the Children’s Centre. If they have, they arrive ready to engage, happy to leave their carers and ready to learn. If they have not then we as a staff have to devote time to settling children in, building trust and relationships from scratch, all of this takes time and for these children learning cannot begin for many weeks, sometimes months. Whilst we are happy to do this, the knock on effect is that our range of activities for all children is diminished as staff are involved in this crucial work with individual children.”

Although it is right that children’s centres should help families that are deemed hard to reach, the needs of babies and families with young children do not always correlate with their socio-economic status. A single parent who uses our children’s centres told me of her struggle to get off benefits and into work, but she said that she felt strongly that her children are not deprived. That is true of many parents in similar positions. There are many families who struggle on low incomes and benefits, but whose children cannot be described as deprived or disadvantaged. Conversely, there are families on average or above average earnings whose children are seriously disadvantaged.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. She is making an important point about disadvantaged backgrounds. Does she agree that the Government’s provision of free nursery care for two-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds is extremely valuable? Does she also agree that central and local government should look at ways of using the new funding to offer a package of holistic support for two-year-olds and their families, and that children’s centres are often an ideal place to provide support, because they have the benefits and services that she described?

I strongly agree. I was not implying that we should disregard socio-economic status. I merely meant to point out that it is just one factor that we should consider. I support the Government’s decision to increase the support for disadvantaged two-year-olds by providing 16 hours a week of nursery care. Children’s centres are an ideal place for some of that learning to take place.

There are also families on above average earnings whose children are victims or witnesses of domestic violence or some other horror. Although those children do not fit neatly into a disadvantaged sector by socio-economic standards, they are seriously disadvantaged by any other measure. Domestic violence is not defined by socio-economic status, yet it is a substantial indicator of deprivation among the children of families who are affected by it. The same can be said for alcoholism and drug addiction.

The Government’s classification of wards by socio-economic data, which labels some areas as deprived, is a useful indicator of need but it is only one of many indicators. In isolation, socio-economic analysis is too limited to be the sole driver of policy at a local level. The original proposal to close our children’s centres in my constituency was determined almost entirely by that one measure of socio-economic advantage or disadvantage.

My hon. Friend is making a very important point. In my constituency, the centre that was proposed for closure at Tenterfields was deemed to be not serving a disadvantaged community. In reality, the people living in the Highfields estate in Halesowen who used that centre would have had to travel 2 or 3 miles down the road to other service providers, had the centre closed. The whole of the Dudley proposal was predicated on a nonsensical analysis.

I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent intervention. I completely agree. The Hob Green children’s centre, which I mentioned earlier, covers a huge area. When Hob Green was started in 2008, a similar proposal to start a children’s centre approximately 2 miles away was dropped. The Hob Green centre therefore covers a huge area, which takes in many different communities with different levels of socio-economic advantage. The strength of our children’s centres is that they serve a wide community and bring together people of different backgrounds, who get on together and learn from each other. That cannot be done if children’s centres are confined to narrow disadvantaged communities.

If any thought had been put into the proposals that we are discussing, the number of children under the age of five years might have been considered as an additional factor relevant to the decision-making process. If the constituencies of Dudley North and Stourbridge are compared, for example, we find that 5,508 children under the age of five live in Dudley North, while 8,020 children under the age of five live in Stourbridge. It is illogical to propose the closure of three children’s centres in the area with many more under-fives while proposing to close only one in the area with far fewer children under five.

Having made the case for the vital importance of children’s centres and the work they do, I will conclude by looking to the future. According to a survey undertaken this year by the charity Action for Children, which runs the excellent Stourbridge children and families centre, more than 1 million families are now using children’s centres nationwide. That is an increase.

I am pleased that the Government have increased the total funding for early intervention from £2.2 billion in 2011 to £2.5 billion in the current year. In addition, there is a national fund of £70 million held by the Department for Communities and Local Government to help local authorities reconfigure services. Does the Minister think that the children’s services department of my local authority should be encouraged to apply to access such funding to bring in more joint working between health and education?

Ideally, children’s centres should act as gateways, so that families can receive the support they need, whether for parenting, health services or child development and early learning. On the health side, I am delighted that many children’s centres are acting as hubs for the increased number of health visitors that the Government have deployed. If children’s centres act as gateways for such services, it is far better that they take a joined-up approach. More can be done locally as well as nationally through the greater integration of health and education. That not only means that families will get a better, more holistic service; it also means that those services will be delivered more cost-effectively.

In conclusion, local authorities now have responsibility for public health and additional funding for social care that has been assigned directly from the NHS budget. There is also now a separate funding stream for disadvantaged two-year-olds for 16 hours a week of nursery education. There is therefore a diverse array of funding sources that a fully integrated children’s centre service can now access. It seems quite wrong to be looking at cutting great swathes of our children’s centres just at the time when the focus nationally is on children’s centres doing more, not less, and accessing more funding streams to enable them so to do.

On behalf of all the parents and children in my constituency, I congratulate children’s centres in Stourbridge and across our borough on the excellent and incredibly valuable work they do on a very modest budget. Long may that work continue.

I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Stourbridge (Margot James) and for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) on their excellent work, first, in securing today’s debate on this important topic, and secondly, in stopping the closure of those children’s centres in Dudley. My hon. Friends’ work seems to have had the desired effect, so parents and children in Dudley will continue to benefit from the excellent services of local children’s centres.

Children’s centres provide a vital service to parents and families. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge pointed out, even though our financial position is not good due to our inheritance from the previous Government, we have increased funding for early intervention over the period of this Government. In Dudley we have been able to increase the level of investment in early intervention from £12.7 million to £13.1 million. We have done that because children’s centres and the associated early years services that local authorities provide are so important.

The early intervention grant comes from the budget of the Department for Communities and Local Government, and money for funding for two-year-olds comes from the direct schools grant. We want local authorities to use that money as flexibly as possible to make sure that the maximum amount of funding gets through to the front line to provide services in the way that parents and children want.

My hon. Friend made some interesting points about types of support given by children’s centres, and the idea of universal support versus targeted support. It is important that all parents feel that they can access a local children’s centre. That is the only way we are going to identify families that might have a particular need. She pointed out that although that could be because of socio-economic reasons, there are other reasons why such services might be useful.

Children’s centres are also a useful way of linking a whole community. As a young mother—well, perhaps not so young—I attended the post-natal group at my local children’s centre and found it a really useful way to meet other local parents. Many people have been through similar experiences and really value them.

The Department for Education has recently issued guidance to local authorities, making it absolutely clear that they should ensure that

“a network of children’s centres is accessible to all families with young children in their area”,

and that

“children’s centres and their services are within reasonable reach of all families with young children in urban and rural areas, taking into account distance and availability of transport”.

The guidance also states that

“together with local commissioners of health services and employment services”,

local authorities should

“consider how best to ensure that the families who need services can be supported to access them”.

On the subject of statutory guidance, local authorities are under a statutory duty to consult on matters such as these. In the case of Dudley there is a peculiar situation whereby the leadership of Dudley council has withdrawn the original proposal but is continuing to consult on it. One concern is that the council might use the results of that consultation to revise the proposals. Does the Minister agree that it is important that if Dudley council comes back with a revised proposal, it should have to consult again, and should not be able to use the contents of a consultation that is still going on, despite the fact that the council is saying it is withdrawing the proposal?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I will look into the specific position of Dudley council. We are clear in our guidance, however, that the starting point should therefore be a presumption against the closure of children’s centres. That is an important part of our guidance, because having a wide network is important, so that parents are able to access a children’s centre near their home. Other research by the Department for Education suggests that parents are not willing to travel great distances for early years services, as obviously, with young children it can be difficult to travel long distances. That is why we have a presumption against the closure of children’s centres. In fact, less than 1% have been closed since the start of this Parliament, and new centres have been opened.

I also commend the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge on joined-up services and how important it is that families and children have a joined-up service and experience. Too often, people have to go to different locations for antenatal classes, health checks or parenting classes. Would it not be better for all those services to be on a single site? I went to see some excellent children’s centres with my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) recently. We saw an on-site midwife who was able to give people advice pre-birth, and stay-and-play sessions and parenting classes were taking place on the same site. Other centres have also done birth registration on site, which is often far more convenient than going to the registry office and helps parents to access a children’s centre. That is something local authorities should be looking at. I am speaking to the Local Government Association about that at the moment.

Some children’s centres provide child care on site, although that amounts to less than 1% of total child care in the country. Centres also provide access to child care through other routes, such as local schools and school nurseries, which provide 30% of child care, as well as private and voluntary sector providers and local childminders. I am pleased that children’s centres are involved in our new trial of childminder agencies, and are providing some training to and support for childminders. We want to see more locally integrated networks of services, so that parents who go to children’s centres have a clear steer on what is available locally and where they can get support and help—a one-stop-shop vision.

The Department for Communities and Local Government is supportive of that vision. It has created a £75 million transformation fund, to which local authorities can submit bids. When I met my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government recently, he said that there had not been many applications for children’s services, but we want more integration between health and children’s centres. My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge said that in 2015 more of those responsibilities will be devolved locally, so that seems an ideal opportunity for local authorities to consider co-locating services and making them much more integrated and parent-friendly.

Does the Minister agree that the more that services are co-located and brought together, the more sustainable the whole children centre model is in the long term?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point and she is absolutely right. She mentioned the Hob Green primary school and its improvement in outcomes from having a children’s centre on site. Some 50% of children’s centres are located on school sites and we are encouraging schools and children’s centres to work more closely together. That, again, is an excellent model.

Children’s centres can be based in schools and health services. That will vary according to area, but we give local authorities freedom to decide exactly how the configuration might work. Services in rural areas where there may be more child minders, for example, may be different from those in densely populated urban areas. The overall idea is that children’s centres should be accessible for local families and provide a gateway to other services.

A record number of parents—more than 1 million, for the first time—use children’s centres. That shows their popularity and massive success, which we should celebrate. My hon. Friend referred to the early years foundation stage and said that she has seen improvement in outcomes as a result of children’s centres.

Another major focus for the Government is the quality of early years provision overall. This year, we have seen a record number of people going into the early years teacher programme—a 25% increase on last year—and that is good news. All those programmes are about improving the attainment gap and outcomes for children. We have a large outcomes gap in this country between children in lower and higher income families, and we know that much of that gap has developed by the age of five. These services are vital and combine to create the best outcomes for children.

We want local authorities to be creative in developing services and thinking about the parent and child being at the centre of services rather than in the configuration of different parts of the health and education system. Services must be parent-friendly. Children’s centres have shown that they are parent-friendly and the fact that more than 1 million families use them is fantastic news.

I am keen to discuss further with my hon. Friend and her colleagues how we can help councils such as Dudley put together applications for the transformation fund, how to look at best practice throughout the country—centres in York are registering births at children’s centres, for example—and how to spread those best practice models more widely.

The Government have funded the Early Intervention Foundation, which is looking at research into best practice so that that can be disseminated more widely across children’s centres and we can ensure that all children’s centres understand the best way of working with parents and improving outcomes for children.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her interest in the subject, and the clear progress she has already made in Dudley. It sounds from the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis that more can be done under the current proposals. Let us ensure that as much as possible of the Government’s funding is spent on high-quality, front-line professionals working with parents and children.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.