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Sure Start

Volume 731: debated on Monday 17 October 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many Sure Start centres have been closed since the coalition came into power.

My Lords, local authorities are facing challenging financial circumstances, but we believe that they understand the crucial importance of children’s centres for early intervention. Good authorities are restructuring with care, and many are keeping all their children’s centres open. The Government have retained statutory duties requiring local authorities to provide sufficient children’s centres, and my department is monitoring the situation with local authorities.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that Sure Start centres have been an effective way of tackling child poverty and improving social mobility? Will the Minister agree that the Government have made repeated promises that Sure Start centres will not be cut, and that it is not acceptable to give such undertakings and then blame local authorities when those projects could easily have been ring-fenced by the Government? Was it not an act of dishonesty by the Government to cut Sure Start centres?

First, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, about the important role that children’s centres can play in helping to tackle disadvantage and helping young children to get off to the best possible start. On his second point, we have put money into the early intervention grant to pay for a network of Sure Start children’s centres, but we have a difference of opinion with the party opposite about whether those services are best delivered by local authorities with flexibility about how to spend the money—which is what I think local authorities are keen to have—or whether it is delivered through a ring fence. We took the view that we put the money in and then give local authorities the discretion to make the decisions themselves.

With that in mind, what steps can the Government take to make sure that the benefits of the remaining Sure Start schemes are directed toward the children and families who are most in need of that kind of help?

My Lords, one of the initiatives that my honourable friend Sarah Teather is taking forward, which addresses the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, is a series of trials, with payments based more on results, that will look specifically at the kinds of points that the noble Lord raises, particularly at how services are delivered to help families suffering from the greatest disadvantage. We will, however, try to get the focus to shift to the outcomes and the results from those services rather than simply the buildings themselves.

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware that last week, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sure Start had a seminar on Sure Start at which we heard from four different local authorities? We found that Haringey made very severe cuts and closures, whereas Cambridgeshire, Nottinghamshire and Manchester did not make any. Why does he think different local authorities are taking such different approaches, when they are all affected by the same economic constraints?

My noble friend makes an extremely good point. Local authorities are taking different priorities in different parts of the country, and that reflects, in some local authority areas of the sort to which I know my noble friend refers, the weight and significance that they put on the provision of Sure Start children’s centres. All local authorities—and I accept that this applies to everyone—are having to face difficult financial decisions caused by the need for the Government to make savings, caused by the financial situation that we inherited.

Noble Lords opposite can groan, but I fear that it is a consequence. I have been asked questions about the funding of Sure Start children’s centres. We have put the money into the EIG, and we have managed to find more resources to extend the offer to disadvantaged two year-olds and to increase the offer we have made for three and four year-olds. There is also the pupil premium. Those are priorities that the Government are putting money into, but we cannot wish away the economic situation that we inherited.

I do not have that specific answer to hand. Perhaps the noble Baroness will be able to help me, because I know the party opposite has done some work on that. I think the number amounts to 1.5 per cent of all Sure Start children’s centres.

My Lords, dozens of Sure Start children’s centres have already closed and many more will do so. Equally importantly, services are really being cut back in the remaining centres. The noble Lord neglected to say that the early intervention grant has been reduced by 22 per cent in real terms. Yet, for a tiny fraction of the cost of the health reorganisation, the Government could have protected children’s centres. Does this not reflect the fact that the Government are out of touch, particularly with women’s concerns, and why so many women now think that the Government are going in the wrong direction?

I do not accept in any respect the point that the noble Baroness makes. From our debates during the passage of the Education Bill—I will not bore the House by repeating them—she will know about the money and funding that the Government have put into a whole range of priorities, including addressing the children in greatest disadvantage and seeking to help mothers and families who are struggling with those problems, as well as a whole series of initiatives and trials. We will continue with those. But to come back to the point made by my noble friend Lady Walmsley, there is a difference in the way certain local authorities have prioritised their spending, which we have to accept.

My Lords, in the light of the recent riots and mounting evidence that the first three years are crucial to personal development, do the Government have any concerns about any possible correlation between social unrest and the closures that we have been discussing?

I hope I have made clear in all my answers, particularly to the question asked by the right reverend Prelate, that the Government accept entirely the importance of the services delivered through Sure Start children’s centres. One whole focus of the Government’s work is to seek to increase funding into greater concentration on the early years. That is continuing despite the difficult financial situation that we face. I agree that the more one can do with young children to help them become ready for school and to achieve and to learn, the better they are likely to do later and the less chance there is of them going off the rails when they are older.

My Lords, there is a huge cost to society from failing to intervene early, particularly a huge public health cost, given that mental disorders mostly begin in childhood. For example, if smokers had had an intervention in childhood and their relationship with their parents had been strengthened, perhaps 40 per cent of them would not be smoking now. It would probably be the same for alcohol and drugs. Failing to intervene is hugely costly. Will the Minister ensure that the Department of Health carries a proper rate in support of this early intervention and will provide funding to Sure Start children’s centres? Further, will it provide adult mental health services to parents in Sure Start children’s centres and that there is full recognition of this? Will the Minister also discuss with his colleagues how children and families can be prioritised in the Health and Social Care Bill so that these often overlooked groups get the early support that they need?

My Lords, I agree very much with the noble Earl about the importance of early intervention, which is the theme of a whole range of measures that the Government are taking across departments. We work closely with the Department of Health. We worked with it on the statement on foundation years, which was published in July, and will continue to do that, bearing the noble Earl’s points in mind.