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House of Lords Hansard
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14 February 2011
Volume 725

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government how the report Early Intervention: The Next Steps will affect their policies on children.

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My Lords, the Government welcome Graham Allen’s report, which is a helpful contribution to their thinking on social mobility. We also welcome its acknowledgement of the importance of the early years and good parenting. We are considering the report carefully and will also take account of the recommendations of other reviews looking at related issues: by Frank Field on child poverty, Dame Clare Tickell on the Early Years Foundation Stage and Professor Eileen Munro on child protection.

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I thank the noble Lord for that encouraging Answer. Does he agree that many families bringing up young children need support—sometimes quite a lot of support? Will levels of funding for programmes such as Sure Start, and for family intervention programmes, be maintained?

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I agree with the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, that parents need support. As far as concerns Sure Start, the Government believe that they have put enough funding into the early intervention grant to make sure that there is a national network of Sure Start children's centres. The Government have not ring-fenced that funding. Our approach is that local authorities should be able to decide on local priorities. However, they have statutory responsibilities to ensure sufficient provision, and they have to consult before opening Sure Start children's centres or making any significant change to their provision.

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My Lords, the Minister will be aware of the wide range of responsibilities that local authorities have for children. What will the Government do to ensure that the quality of services is maintained as the authorities set various priorities around their cuts? Will the Government look at the various means of inspection such as Ofsted to ensure that standards are as high in welfare as they are in education?

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A number of good points are wrapped up in that question. Across the piece, the Government will need to ensure the spread of good practice and concentrate approaches for the families most in need of help. I will take back with me the point about the importance of inspection. As I said in my first Answer, a number of reviews are currently going on that are looking at a range of different but connected issues. The Government will set out later in the spring—I think in May—a strategy to bring these strands together.

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My Lords, how satisfied is the Minister with the rigour of the methodology proposed in the Allen review for assessing the effectiveness of early intervention initiatives? He may well be aware that a number of experts have considerable reservations about that methodology. Will he look into it?

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I am aware of the recommendations in Graham Allen’s report and the approach that he advocates of concentrating on the 19, as he would judge it, most approved standards. However, his recommendation is based on an American methodology which is different from the one commonly used in this country, and that is one issue that the Government will need to reflect on in framing their response to the Allen review.

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My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is a travesty that only 1.4 per cent of health service spending goes on primary prevention? Can he impress on his noble friend the Minister the importance of assessing the effectiveness of early intervention, even if it takes a little while to understand it?

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I agree with my noble friend. So far as concerns the Department of Health, the number of health visitors is to be increased by 4,200 and there will be a doubling in the size of family nurse partnerships. However, I shall certainly relay the thrust of my noble friend’s remarks.

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My Lords, is the Minister aware of the report from 4Children and the Daycare Trust which suggests that 250 Sure Start centres are to close and that a further 2,000 will cut back their services? If the Minister finds that local authorities are not able to fund them, who will deliver these early intervention services?

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I have already replied concerning the Government’s policy towards Sure Start’s children’s centres. I hope that we will be able to find more efficient ways of delivering services across the piece. One idea that the Prime Minister talked about was bringing together budgets in various areas with early intervention places instead of having silos of different funding. I take the noble Baroness’s point: there are concerns about Sure Start children’s centres and funding, and my honourable friend Sarah Teather is monitoring the situation. We all have a shared interest in making sure that those services are delivered as effectively as possible and, as I said, local authorities have a statutory responsibility to make sure that they are.

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Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, can the Minister assure me that the most important next step with regard to early learning will be to prioritise the finance which is essential for the two neediest groups of children—that is, those with special educational and disability needs and those from deprived and chaotic families? He has given a hint of that already but can he please confirm that the finances will be available?

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Those kinds of priority targets relate very much to the groups of people that the Government will want to ensure get the support they need. So far as concerns children with special educational needs, the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, will know that my honourable friend Sarah Teather will shortly be bringing forward a Green Paper on special educational needs and disability, and that will be an opportunity to make sure that those services are provided.

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My Lords, does the Minister agree that good parenting skills are crucial to giving young people the best start in life? Does this not underline the need for schools to teach these skills as part of the core curriculum?

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I agree very much with the noble Baroness about the importance of parenting and early years. School has an extremely important part to play. As she will know, the department is carrying out a review of PSHE, and that will provide us with an opportunity to look at the whole range of educational services delivered as part of PSHE.